I’ve written about black people dying at the hands of police officers so often that I no longer feel like a journalist; I’m more like a medical examiner penning death certificates.
One day, I fear won’t be around to write the next one because some other reporter will be writing mine. The more I write about black men and women dying at the hands of cops, the more I feel like my day to trend is forthcoming. My life—photos of me in my cap and gown, tweets from close friends reflecting on the last conversation they had with me—will be memorialized under a hashtag that bears my name: #TerrellStarr.
And why wouldn’t I have this fear? I’m a 36-year-old black man in New York City who can easily be stopped and frisked, deemed a “threat.” Some days, I can’t help but wake up fearing I’ll become a hashtag because some cop, filled with racial bias and disregard for my black skin, will feel my existence is a threat to his and kill me—all because, as they customarily write in their police reports, “I felt the suspect …”
That’s all it takes for a cop to kill a black person in America. I felt.
These are the very thin reeds police—and the politicians that support them—hang their “justifiable shootings” on. We hear so often that cops opened fire because they feared for their lives—even if that fear is unjustifiable—that it might as well be the official cause of death. I can’t help but wonder if one day my death certificate will be issued by a cop who says the same thing.
These questions have become part of my daily routine. Part of my daily prayer, before I take my first sip of morning tea, is, “Please, God, give me the strength to make it through one more day of white supremacy so that I can one day live to see the racism that’s preying on black people buck at its wicked knees.” Then, I take my daily 10mm pill of Escitalopram, hoping the small dosage will fend off any anxiety that creeps up on me.
Some days, like the moment I saw #TyreeKing’s name trend on Twitter last week, I wanted to swallow several more pills, anxious that one of my editors would email me, asking that I write about his shooting.
Many reporters seem to be able to emotionally detach themselves from writing about cop killings. I’ve never been good at that. People killed by cops are not just stories to me. They are men and women who could have easily been me or someone I love.
#EricGarner reminds me of my late uncle, Randy. They both share dark complexions and large bodies that made me feel like I was watching my own family member being choked to death.
#MichaelBrown reminds me of a close high school friend I lost contact with for few years, but have since reunited with on Facebook. They both stand at 6 foot 4 inches tall and weigh over 300 pounds. When I saw that image of Mike laying on the street, blood streaming from his head, I saw my friend.
#TanishaAnderson’s family called 911 for mental health assistance because she was having one of her “bad days.” Two cops showed up and slammed her to the ground and she stopped breathing. She died at the hospital. If I have a bad day with my anxiety and go into a panic attack and 911 is called, I can’t help but wonder wonder if I could share her fate.
#SandraBland’s defiance mirrors how I would have reacted, had I felt I was illegally stopped. That I could be found dead in a jail cell because a cop could not handle a verbal tongue-lashing while writing a police report frightens me.
Writing about who they were before they died makes me feel like I am penning obituaries. It takes just one bad interaction with a cop gone wrong for a reporter to write mine. That frightens me—even to the point that I avoid social media, so that I do not have to endure the trauma of black death. It’s becoming too personal for me.
The journalist in me requires that I cover these stories, with the hope that I can find some form of justice for the families of the people these cops kill. But the black person, the human being in me, feels broken and emotionally battered that my life can end with the fatal reaction of an officer’s misplaced fear. That is not a way to work. It certainly is not a way to live. I haven’t attended regular therapy sessions in a while, but I’m going to resume them again very soon. I need help dealing with this death I’m required to write about.
I need help believing that my life is not another hashtag waiting to trend.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.