I’m in film school, using the last bit of my G.I. Bill, and have been shooting a short film about five black artists surviving Covid-19. We wrapped shooting on the morning of Memorial Day, and that afternoon George Floyd was killed. A few days later, one of the artists I’m profiling headed to the streets in Brooklyn to protest, and it just felt like the responsible thing to show up with my camera and capture the stories.
We were trying to cross the Manhattan Bridge, and at that point the demonstrations had been nothing but peaceful. Hundreds of police officers were in a line and trying to break up the crowd. These officers were treating the Manhattan Bridge like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, you know? The black organizers were begging protesters to be nonviolent, but a water bottle flew out of nowhere. The cops rushed the crowd. About 10 or 12 protesters were tackled, and I was able to get it on video. The police were saying someone threw tear gas at them. It was very clear from the video that it was just a water bottle.
I could see in the faces of officers — especially in the faces of the black officers — the internal conflict. I recognized that from Afghanistan. The tension they were navigating themselves: having to look other black people in the eye and let them know that they couldn’t cross the bridge, that they couldn’t scream, that they couldn’t express the deep trauma of the fact that we’ve been living through this kind of racial terrorism for the better part of 400 years. But here they were with their paychecks, with their stability and their ability to feed their family and their kids. They’re making that same kind of compromise I did when I was carrying a rifle in Afghanistan. I felt morally and ethically compromised when I was deployed there, being a tool of the state in a way, but that was the sacrifice I had to make in order to get an education. It’s a compromise I had to make to get stability and a sense of economic security.
Both my mother, who immigrated from Haiti, and my father, who is white, had been in the Army. My mom is a nurse, and she convinced me that medical training was important. I decided that if I was going to war, I wanted to be someone who helps people. Those things led me to becoming a combat medic. I went off to Army basic training in April 2009. I thought I was going to be stationed stateside and continue my education, but I was sent to the 170th Infantry Brigade in Germany instead and soon after went to Afghanistan.
Not only was I closeted because the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was still in effect, but I was one of just a few black people in my platoon of 40 soldiers. I think my company of a couple of hundred had maybe 10 black soldiers — most of the others were Midwestern white guys. There were so many microaggressions and so much racism and homophobia. A gay soldier had been discovered in the unit before I got there, and he was beaten with a bat in the shower. And there was the lieutenant colonel who erupted when he saw the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on TV, telling me to turn it off, because “I don’t want to see that troublemaker.” You just let it roll off your back, because you’re getting ready to go to war with these people, and short of fighting people every day, you just become numb to it. It begins to chip away at your sense of self. I was under constant pressure to hide in plain sight as a black queer person in a mostly all-white infantry unit getting ready to go to Afghanistan. I managed to build a somewhat close relationship with my fellow soldiers anyway.
I started reading a lot while I was over there. Specifically, I read “The New Jim Crow,” and it helped me see more directly the connection between slavery and modern-day racial inequity. Two months after I got back from Afghanistan, Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla. — the same town in which I interned for Barack Obama in back in 2008. That was the arc for me: joining the military on the heels of the first black president, going off to war, dealing with all the overt aggressions, trying to hold onto a sense of who I was, being completely disconnected from everyone I knew and loved.
I came back and took advantage of what I’d worked for, which was school — and within a year of graduation, I finally had a chance to breathe and think of all that had happened over the past eight years. I fell into a deep depression that led to a suicide attempt — because I no longer fully understood the America that existed, and I no longer recognized the America I lived in. And that created an existential crisis for me. It was my mother and other black folk who cared for me, who listened and helped me find who I was again.
In 2016, I started to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and joined the local chapter in New York. It was composed of mostly young black queer people who were doing a lot of work with families who were victims of police violence.
I remember one day I saw an article about a black man who had been stabbed with a sword by a crazed white nationalist who drove to New York with the explicit intent of killing a black person. And then I read that the killer had served in the same brigade as me in Afghanistan, that we deployed together. And I was like, “Wow, these were the kinds of men I was serving alongside.” It made me recognize that I wasn’t fabricating the racism I bore witness to while I was in the Army. There was a deep fascination with Nazism that was so pervasive in the unit I served in, deep fascination with Hitler and with the swastika. There were young men who were reading “Mein Kampf.” I was 23. I didn’t necessarily have the kind of awareness I do now about where that kind of indoctrination can lead people.
The summer I got out of the military, there was an onslaught of black men killed on video, like Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Delrawn Small, all within three days of each other. Then last November, it almost happened to my sister. She was thrown to the ground by white police officers in West Memphis, Ark., handcuffed and put into a squad car just for standing outside the hotel we were staying in. She had even shown the cops her room key and explained that her daughter had died the day before in a car crash. My sister called me and screamed as these two cops surrounded her. By the time I got downstairs, I was running. I’d never run so fast in my life — not even in war. I saw this officer with his knee in my sister’s back, close to her neck. And I just remember screaming. Finally they let her go. But imagine what that does to a person, especially when they’re grieving. The cops said she had a hoodie on; she looked suspicious.
These stories aren’t going to disappear in a year; injustices are going to be ever-present in some ways. As a filmmaker, I need to be as useful as I can to the movement. I also want to capture black joy and the black creative imagination that continues to defy the pitfalls of the American project.
I plan to be on the streets again for Juneteenth — a day that should be America’s most important holiday — for a show of solidarity with my community. Violence and poverty are an ever-present reality for black America, and some believe they’ll never have access to the American dream. That’s an awakening that white America needs to contend with. When people talk about looting and property damage, it’s a distraction from the real issues. People who choose to turn a blind eye to the grievances propelling the protests are part of the problem. Because they don’t recognize the way human beings, and black people specifically, who were once considered property, are in many ways still denied full access to their humanity in America.
Richard Brookshire is a former U.S. Army sergeant and combat medic, a documentary filmmaker and a founder of the Black Veterans Project. John Ismay covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine from the Washington bureau.
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