Essays SWO | Work

I Don’t Want My Friends To Die

I don’t want my friends to die.

I don’t want to wake up and see a name I know memorialized with a hashtag. I don’t want to see a video of my friend getting executed. I don’t want to see that video on every social media platform and every news channel replayed over and over on an endless loop. I don’t want to hear people across the country blame my friend for their own murder. I really, really don’t want my friends to die.

When I watched two police officers pin Alton Sterling to the ground and murder him at point blank range, I froze. I had originally planned to wait until I got home to watch it—but once it started auto-playing on my phone screen, I froze on the sidewalk and couldn’t look away. I watched his body jerk from the gunshots. I watched his arm extend as if he was reaching for the very life that was escaping his body. I watched the officers who murdered Alton stand there and watch him die, extending no effort to save him from the fatal wounds that they inflicted upon him.

I’ve seen scores of videos at this point. I watch them because I feel I need to. Every video hurts to watch, and, with every video, there are waves of emotions. At first, there’s the horror of watching someone die, let alone die for no justifiable reason. Then, there’s the wave that hits me a little later. At some point in this endless video loop in my mind, I realize it could have been any one of my friends of color. This isn’t an “it could’ve been anyone” or “it could’ve happened to someone I know.” This is an “it could very literally have been any one of my black friends,” and it is statistically overwhelming how much less likely it would ever happen to me.

That’s terrifying on a number of levels, not the least of which is because it isn’t really a hypothetical. There have been numerous occasions when my friends have interacted with law enforcement where I’m confident things could’ve escalated lethally. There have been times when I’ve been there, but the worst times are when I hear about an instance when I wasn’t there.

Just recently, my friend told me about a run in he had with police. He was jogging through a park right around sunset when he was surrounded by five officers. They asked him for ID, which means he had to reach into his shorts. We already know that’s enough to get you killed as a black person. He was able to get his ID from his wallet in his back pocket and hand it to one of the officers. While that officer checked his ID in the squad car computer, the other four officers kept my friend surrounded and stared at him, as if ready for a confrontation.

Apparently, a white woman had called the police to report a suspicious black man “with ankle monitors” running through the park. First of all, that’s absurd. More importantly though, there are so many ways in which that encounter could’ve ended. He could’ve been killed. He could’ve reached for his ID a little too quickly for the officer’s comfort or leaned forward in a “threatening fashion.”

Whether it’s that situation or another friend getting pulled over for a speeding violation or any other circumstance in which my friends of color have to interact with armed law enforcement, I realize it’s all fine until it’s not. The stories will be shared with annoyance and a chuckle in our group chat until one of my friends looks a little too threatening to a cop or is just a little too black. It could be anything. So the stories will just be stories until one day I don’t hear the story from them, but I hear it on the news. That’s when another wave of emotion always hits me after watching one of the videos.

There’s nothing I can do to protect my friends.

No matter what I say or do, I can’t be with my friends 24 hours a day. I can’t “use” my white privilege to undo lifetimes of stereotypes and racist cultural norms.  I’ve “used” my white privilege more than a few times to de-escalate situations that had the potential to go south. For example, I’ve made a habit talking to the cops if we get pulled over, being the one to go outside when police show up at a house party, and even literally standing between officers and my friends when we were being harassed over a parking space. It doesn’t happen all that infrequently, and it unfortunately feels like second nature at this point. I just do anything to lower the chances that the situation gets out of hand. I can’t say for sure whether or not me being there or my actions made a difference. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I didn’t do anything, but I know what could’ve happened, and that rocks me to my core.

I’m 24 years old and, like many of my peers, very much still figuring out what to do with my life. I find myself navigating a large social media platform that materialized as a result of my whiteness being unusual to many. To a lot of people, all I am is “the white Kappa.” I didn’t seek out viral videos nor am I under any delusions about why they went viral. But this platform is an unbelievable opportunity to do good. More than that, I now have an even greater responsibility to do good than I had when I was just Sam, a guy who was welcomed into Kappa and trying to make a difference at Villanova.

Much of my time is spent talking with friends and colleagues trying to figure out how best to utilize my platform and privilege positively. Granted, I haven’t been very open about what negotiating that platform and my life really looks like. I’ve tried to keep the focus on the work and on how I can help. Regardless, my mind never strays very far from how easily I could lose those I love.

No one person is going to make all of these injustices go away, but that isn’t an excuse to stay on the sidelines. It never has been. It is particularly important for those without as much skin in the game to speak up because bystanders are not free from responsibility in the pursuit of social justice. Silence is violence.

Silence is violence.

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