Despite the fact that it was being played in a seemingly endless loop on the news, my mom wouldn’t let us watch the video of the Rodney King beating. She’d dive for the remote to quickly change channel or, in her most extreme moments, she’d send us kids out of the room altogether
I was already an anxious kid, well on my way to becoming an even more anxious adult. Mom must have known that video would stay with me long after the trial. Even for how frequently the news showed King’s savage beating, it wasn’t impossible to avoid. This was the ’90s. There was no autoplay Twitter video and no refreshing Facebook feed flooded with violence. As much as I wish she could, these days my mom can’t shield me from them all.
When I first started working in news in August 2014, I knew I’d probably have to come face to face with horrible material. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of violence and bloodshed that unfolded during my first year on the job.
South Carolina. Cleveland. Staten Island. Day in and day out, I waded through horrific videos and details of men and women who looked like my father or my cousin being killed. I had prepared myself for working long hours and keeping ahead of an ever-dizzying news cycle, but I hadn’t realized I needed a game plan for constantly dealing with violence, pain and anguish.
My first coping tactic was trying to desensitize myself. I tried to picture myself working in a slaughterhouse or funeral parlor or some other job where you deal in death. “It’s just a job. I can forget about it as soon as I clock out,” I’d think. But ultimately, this didn’t work because I didn’t want to become desensitized to videos of people who look like me being killed. Those videos are and should be upsetting.
This was the year videos of unarmed black folks getting shot and killed seemed to surface every week. From California to Cleveland, consuming black death on a loop became commonplace. In many cases, these videos helped create national fervor around police injustice. But to me, it didn’t make having to watch them any easier.
Having to package and talk about this content in an “objective” way also started to take its toll. It was always “unarmed man,” never “victim.” Or “police shot and killed…,” never “murdered.” When you’re a black person working in news, you’re trained to create distance and coldness around material that is often very personal.
The South Carolina AME church shooting is what broke me. Growing up religious in the south, I’d been to the AME church a handful of times. Where I come from, everyone knew someone who belonged to an AME church. The victims looked like my mother. They looked like me. It was just too much.
At work, I pulled extra shifts to stay on top of extended coverage of the shooting. Anyone sitting near me might have thought I looked steely and together, but inside I was falling apart. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. Instead I’d spent nights tossing and turning, alternating between hot tears and hot rage. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the mother of one of the victims, her agonizing cries echoing in my mind like a bell. My fingers trembled as I pushed the buttons on the elevator to my office every day. Could I make it through the day without crying? How about just to lunch? I was a mess.
It’s easy to talk about “self-care” and “unplugging,” but what do you do when it’s your job to be plugged in? What do you do when the violence you package for a living hits too close to home? What do you do when you feel yourself start to unravel?
I can’t say I have all the answers, but I do know my friends saved me.
After sending up a bat-signal, friends poured in to pull me from what felt like the brink. They surrounded me with love and helped me carry the weight of my worried mind. They were there offering to listen to me talk about work or just keep me company while I binge-watched mindless TV. They helped me realize that I didn’t necessarily have to have the perfect solution to all my complicated feelings; I just had to find a way to make it through each day.
Since quitting, I no longer watch videos of people being killed. I’ve disabled autoplay videos on my social media accounts and make sure others know they have the option to do the same. It’s a small thing, but it makes me feel more in control of how I consume these stories that feel so personal. Sometimes video provides a powerful illustration of wrongdoing or injustice, but I don’t always need to see video evidence to know something is wrong.