Bearing Witness

This week I’m following two unfolding stories, one hyperlocal and one national.

A block away, my favorite tree is budding. It’s a big magnolia on the small front lawn of one of the houses on Hilltop Place, which is not at the top of a hill, but is directly facing a cemetery. The tree seems to have formed buds overnight, at least I hadn’t noticed it on my regular walks past it with Ruby (it’s not on the route I take with V). I’m thrilled every time I see it – my heart flutters a bit like hearts do when faced with something loved, and without realizing it my face breaks out in a big grin and I inwardly say Wow. I’m aware that it soon will be full of pink flowers and within a matter of weeks there will be petals on the sidewalk and within a month the tree will have lost every trace of its springtime bloom.

Its impermanence is all the more pronounced by the graveyard across the street, the permanent home to hundreds of people who once lived nearby, and being an old cemetery, they often lived short lives, as etched on their tombstones. I know some people who don’t like walking by the cemetery or wouldn’t want to live adjacent to it but I find it lovely: quiet neighbors, graceful, well tended grounds; I sometimes spot deer with their front hooves perched against the headstones as they reach up to nibble leaves off the trees’ low hanging branches. It’s a constant reminder of how fleeting life is, and makes the month of magnolias seem all the more precious, a blissful blip in the long passage of time. Ruby waits patiently as I stop and take photos on my phone, snapping away at every angle to show a range of buds and just forming flowers billowing in a light breeze.

On the national stage, I’m closely following the trial of Derek Chavin, the Minneapolis policeman accused of killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for roughly 9 and a half minutes (originally it was recorded as 8 minutes and 46 seconds but in fact was longer).

The trial is unusual for several reasons: It is being livestreamed, attendance is severely limited because of the coronavirus and the public’s interest in the case make it one of the highest-profile trials in recent memory.

The first few days we’ve been hearing testimony of the bystanders, many of them young, and all of them in a way victims of crime as well as witnesses. As an off-duty firefighter at the scene responded when asked if the onlookers were upset, “You’d be upset if you were watching someone die.“ A teenage girl, 17 at the time, took the video that has been viewed millions of times. Just a teen with her young cousin out for a walk to the convenience store to get some snacks. It was an inconsequential outing when they started and became inextricably linked to a horrendous example of police brutality which catalyzed one of the greatest protest movements in the country.

The witnesses were all distraught at what they saw, at their inability to intervene and stop this senseless death — if only the police would have listened to their cries of protest and stopped what they were doing, if only the EMT/firefighter could have used her skills to check his pulse, if only someone could have done more than stop and watch and film what they saw. These witnesses struggled with guilt and remorse and sleepless nights; the cashier at the store who accepted the fake bill Floyd gave him – the violent death of this man all came about because of something so petty, a misdemeanor at best – left his job soon after. Witnesses broke down in tears, a juror felt sick to her stomach and had to stop the proceedings while she took a break; the trauma of that day over a year ago still reverberated in their lives and in the courtroom where graphic videos were shown to the jury and the few journalists allowed inside and to those of us who watched in horror.

I have photos on my phone from last April, of the tree petals after they had fallen – thousands of them all over the yard and sidewalk, a sign of things to come. I also have photos of a local protest B and I participated in last June, part of a wave of protests that occurred throughout the country in response to George Floyd’s death and the many thousands of others who have died unnecessarily at the hands of police over the years. It was a beautiful late spring day and the mood was somber but neighborly, people held banners and offered water to passersby on the peaceful march from our local park to the municipal building where the police are headquartered.

I try to walk by my tree every day, to bask in its short lived bounty, to feel the sun if it is out or the breeze if there is one, to take in all those things that remind me what it is to be alive. We go slowly, Ruby stopping to sniff every few feet. It can take a long time to walk down the one block of Hilltop Place, turn around and head back home, where I check in on the trial. I can only take it in small doses. I’m lucky to have the freedom to bear witness at my own pace, to intertwine beauty and trauma, life and death, grace and ugliness. One outcome I know for sure, the other remains a mystery. I breathe in the Springtime air and hope for justice.

3 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Remarkable writing… Relish the contrast. Can’t wait to see what happens with the cicadas.


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