Content Warning: violence

On May 25, 2020, seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier filmed a video showing Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, suffocating him for nearly ten minutes. The video sparked thousands of protests and focused attention on racism and police brutality. 

The most common way that teenagers use their smartphones these days is idly: to pass the time and to avoid interacting with others in real life. So when seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier followed the instinct to use her iPhone 11 to record George Floyd’s deadly encounter with police, she was acting against the impulse many kids her age have to simply do nothing.

Darnella had more reasons to look away than to pay attention. After all, history has not been kind to those who have documented police brutality with smartphones. Ramsey Orta recorded New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo killing his friend Eric Garner with a chokehold in July 2014; police responded by punishing Orta with arrest and imprisonment on unrelated charges. In 2016, Diamond Reynolds captured the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile—witnessed both by Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter—in a Facebook livestream. Both she and her daughter were taken into police custody at the scene. (Reynolds later settled out of court due to the false arrest.)

Black teenagers are also aware that police all too often see them as threats, regardless of their innocence. And Darnella had another priority at the time: She was walking with her nine-year-old cousin, Judeah Reynolds, to the store.

But as they passed a police SUV, she heard a man crying, sobbing weakly as a small crowd lingered nearby: “Please, I can’t breathe!  Please man . . .” That was when she decided to start filming, so that the world could see what she was seeing.

Of all the videos that would surface in the following days and weeks, Darnella’s was the only one that clearly captured the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. In her video, as Darnella moves closer for a better vantage point, the officer responds to the crowd, quickly unholstering something from his belt. “He’s got mace,” Darnella is heard saying, backing away quickly. For all she knew, it could have been his gun.

About three minutes into the video, the man moaned his last words, “I can’t breathe. . .” Before she stopped recording, Darnella zoomed in on the badge of one of the officers and on the number of the police SUV.

Later that night, Darnella posted on Facebook Live about witnessing Floyd’s death in the streets of Minneapolis. Early the next morning, just after midnight, Darnella posted the video to her Facebook page. In the 24 hours that followed, the video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The video documented one man’s death—and also held up a mirror reflecting entrenched racism and injustice in American policing.

Filming the incident was not without dangers to Darnella—not just from the armed police officers at the scene of Floyd’s death, who insulted and berated the bystanders, but from the trauma that arose for her in the aftermath of witnessing a death in the street. Research has shown that people—and especially Black women—can experience PTSD-like symptoms from witnessing police brutality online; seeing it up close would certainly have a similar impact. But Darnella was also targeted by a wave of backlash online by some who felt she should have done more to save Floyd.

The backlash greatly obscures and underestimates the power of her video, which crystallized an important moment in the history of social change, while drawing attention to unequal policing practices for a much larger segment of the country.  Perhaps the lack of overt violence or the cold, casual cruelty on display in her video were part of what galvanized so many. Darnella’s video moved thousands to gather at the site of Floyd’s death, which the night after he died, was filled with people, flowers and signs.

Darnella responded to a question from a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter about why she took the video with a simple answer: “It was like a natural instinct, honestly. The world needed to see what I was seeing. Stuff like this happens in silence too many times.”

Thanks to her, there would be no silence around George Floyd’s death. With her action, she joined the lineage of the dozens of people who have captured anti-Black police brutality on film—from George Holliday’s 1991 recording of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles to Ramsey Orta’s 2014 video of Eric Garner’s asphyxiation. In response to these videos finding larger audiences, local protests ensued, some reforms were discussed or enacted, but the status quo always appeared to remain unchanged.

However, Darnella’s video had a farther reaching impact in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact around the globe, requiring most people to stay home and keep up with world developments on their phones. .

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation after watching Darnella’s video, and within twenty-four hours, he fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s death.

Protests in Minneapolis continued to grow, night after night, with chants of  “Say his name—George Floyd” ringing out across the city.  The police began using tear gas to try to control the crowds. Mike Griffin, a community organizer in Minneapolis, put words to the overwhelming response: “George Floyd’s death represents every fight, every battle for Black progress . . .We want justice for George Floyd, but this is also about Black dignity. We have had to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic standards of living.”

A week after Floyd’s death, people were demonstrating in almost every state in the country.

What made these protests distinct from their predecessors is that they extended far beyond the Black community—people from all neighborhoods, cultures, and backgrounds were leaving the safety and comfort of their homes to take to the streets and speak out against injustice.

By July, the New York Times was reporting that “Across the United States, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on May 26 . . . Turnout has ranged from dozens to tens of thousands in about 2,500 small towns and large cities.”

Some polls indicate that more than 23 million people are estimated to have participated in protests in the four months after George Floyd’s death. If true, these protests would constitute the largest and most extensive in modern history.

Within two weeks of Floyd’s death, legislation was being introduced across the country: two different police reform bills were introduced into Congress, and within a month, State Legislatures across the country passed over 150 bills and resolutions related to policing.

Darnella’s courageous action helped change a nation.