What I still have trouble accepting is the picture painted of my older brother by the officers who shot him: Darrell barefoot with a cooking pot on his head, attacking them unprovoked with a plastic baseball, a pipe and a chain. And then him dying alone.
Nothing about that description makes sense. Not my peace-sign-
wearing brother attacking anyone — let alone a pair of armed, white cops — unprovoked. Not him gathering that odd collection of weapons with which to besiege them. And certainly not the cooking-pot-as-headgear, considering the autopsy that revealed Darrell, 26, had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Faced with so many unrecognizable images of my brother, I always think about something, anything, else. Like thousands of relatives of men and women whose suspicious deaths go unnoticed, I push away memories of the police department’s and the larger community’s collective shrug. Explanations for the images — that Darrell went briefly insane; that he was set up by his killers; that his slaying, corroborated by the public record, was somehow deserved — are excruciating. So I flee the ditch. Until the next time.
This past week, I joined millions in pondering images conjured by another official report, one that Trayvon Martin’s parents now wrestle with: their unarmed son, 17, followed by a stranger, turning to confront his stalker and attacking him fiercely enough to injure his nose and head before being shot to death.
What in that picture makes sense to them?
Official reports can bring welcome clarity to family members struggling with a loved one’s violent passing. Or they can create more questions, foster new doubts. As a survivor of a questionable killing — and as one of countless black family members burying a beloved body and grieving the life cut short — I suspect I’ll never bury the questions raised by my brother’s shooting. How can I accept that bizarre depiction of Darrell’s final moments when the only person who could refute it was killed by its authors?
Any slaying tears at a family, opening wounds that can take decades to heal. In cases like mine, an intimately known soul — whose stories, gifts and foibles are the stuff of family lore — is thrown into question. Suddenly, a different story is being told; a stranger is being described. Survivors realize that not only has a loved one’s future been truncated, but his past could be destroyed, too. They see it being rewritten by outsiders, media and police reports, and court rulings that assign blame or pronounce the killing “justifiable.” And they have to live with it.
Recently, I confessed to a friend that I was afraid for Trayvon Martin’s parents. The alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, had been too silent; the Sanford, Fla., police too much in retreat. Surely a less-flattering picture of their slain son would emerge. And boy, did it. A series of leaks has portrayed Trayvon as a kid punished for spraying graffiti, caught with women’s jewelry in his backpack, suspended from school for carrying a plastic bag containing marijuana remnants. Suddenly, the sweet-faced child of God, the schoolboy who’d “majored in cheerfulness,” fit the snarling stereotype that surely contributed to Zimmerman finding him “suspicious” and “up to no good.”