“Holy shit” is the first thing you hear from Michael Kevin Bautista in the Facebook Live stream he began early Friday morning. The holy shits keep coming, as Bautista witnesses the firefight between Dallas police and an active shooter: he’s close enough to the exchange of gunfire that he has to reassure someone off-camera, “Don’t worry I’m behind a tree,” and then later, “I’m safe. Don’t worry about it.”
Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, grabbed her cellphone after a St. Anthony police officer shot her companion (and ultimately killed him), turning the lens immediately on herself to explain the situation to an invisible Facebook audience—as Castile lay bleeding to death in his car seat, just inches away. In the now-infamous video, Reynold’s voice is preternaturally calm in a moment of unthinkable crisis.
As narrators, Bautista and Castile register different levels of emotion, of incredulity. But as citizens, their initial impulse was the same: grab something to record this, and show people.
What leads a person to pick up a phone to record a moment of death—possibly their own, more likely someone else’s? To turn outwards, rather than inwards? The prevalence of videos like the one showing the death of Philando Castile (and those of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Antonio Zambrano Montes, just to name a few) has raised distressing questions about America’s criminal-justice system: its inequalities and bigotries, its possible crimes in the name of justice. But what does this impulse say about American society: Does choosing to publicly broadcast calamity mean that Americans are braver? More terrified? Both?