Coping With A Loved One's 'Justifiable Killing'

Read Donna Britt's Washington Post piece "In Trayvon Martin's death, echoes of my brother's shooting."

Writer Donna Britt's 26-year-old brother was killed by Indiana police officers decades ago. Amidst the news of Trayvon Martin's death, she is reminded of the unanswerable questions surrounding her brother's death. She talks about the challenges of coming to terms the violent death of a loved one.

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And now the Opinion Page. The death of Trayvon Martin resonated with Donna Britt. She heard echoes of the shooting of her brother, Darrell, by two police officers in Gary, Indiana, and questions that she's never been able to answer. Three decades later, Donna Britt still wonders what actually happened that day, how her beloved brother wound up dead in a ditch and how to reconcile her memory of Darrell with the police report of a man who attacked them with a pipe and a chain, wearing an aluminum pot on his head. Questions there, like questions in Florida, will always linger.

If you had to come to terms with a questionable death of a family member or a friend, call and tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Donna Britt just published a book - "Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving." Her op-ed ran yesterday in The Washington Post. She joins us from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

DONNA BRITT: It's good to be here.

CONAN: And you write that one of the hardest things after your brother's killing was reconciling the brother you knew with the picture painted in the police report.

BRITT: There was no connection between them. It, you know, it - I don't know if it will ever make sense to me. My brother was my favorite growing up. He was my hero. He was smart and funny and popular and athletic. And he adored me, which, you know, what could be more wonderful for a young girl than to have such a wonderful guy think that she was great? So, suggested to me that I might be OK and maybe one day some other wonderful guy could love me. And so for someone so special and so irreplaceable to be described behaving like a crazy person, it was beyond the scope of my imagination.

CONAN: And an easy answer to come up with was that the report was fabricated and what the police officer saw that day was not a pipe and a chain and an aluminum pot but your brother's skin.

BRITT: I don't know - I wish it had been easy to come to any conclusion. I didn't know what to make of it. I had been raised to believe that police were people who cared about us and people who protected my community. And so I wasn't one of those people who grew with that kind of automatic suspicion. I didn't know very much then about fabricated evidence and about things that could happen. And so my struggle was to try to reconcile what they described with the man that I loved, and then to go to that place where what if this was made up and never to know what it meant, you know, and for some - and so it became so painful that I just sort of stepped away from it and tucked it into a corner of my mind where I didn't think about it much at all.

CONAN: Didn't think about much of it at all, yet it also provided a singular motivation to your life, your career.

BRITT: Yeah. It had everything to do, I believe, with me becoming someone who wrote about the worth of all lives, not just black lives, but everybody's life and who wanted to sort of go beneath the surface of things because the surface, as I thought of it, had betrayed me. And so I wasn't that interested in living in that place or writing about that place. I was more interested in going below to the deeper stuff.

CONAN: The deeper stuff, the whispers, as you described them, from that ditch in Gary, Indiana.

BRITT: It was always there. And it - to the point where when Trayvon Marshall - Martin, I always want to call him - when he was shot. And I heard that this - that a young black man had been killed and it looked unfairly. At first, I turned away. And I - that was the first piece I wrote about this. And I'm ashamed to say that, but I didn't want to find out more. And so I tried to think of things to separate me from that case because I have sons, and I have a husband, and I have people who could be similarly threatened for looking a certain way that has nothing to do with who they are as human beings and as essential people to my life and to my community's life, and to the larger community's life.

And so I didn't want to be attached to this kid. And finally, when I realized what I was doing, and I read more about him and looked at his picture, and I just burst into tears. I felt bad that I had, in my own way, stepped away from his humanity because it was too painfully reminding of my brother's.

CONAN: You also wrote that you feared for his parents because, yes, we heard the story of the kid who majored in cheerfulness, but you knew another story was going to come out eventually.

BRITT: Oh, it had to because the picture that was painted was so perfect, and he was so beautiful and a complete victim. And I knew that whatever story was going to be told to counter that, however accurate it was or wasn't, that it was going to have to shoot that perfection down. And sure enough, the picture emerged, you know, other photos of him looking more menacing, the leaks about him having been suspended from school, things that would make - that would take him off the pedestal upon which he had been put. But the fact was - and this is what the piece in the Post was about and essentially this is what my book "Brothers and Me" is about is black people like white people and brown people and all people should be allowed their complexity.

Racism suggests - you know, and for years, I tried to be perfect just so that I wouldn't fall into any stereotype, so I was the friendliest, kindest, most embracing. I remember when I came to work for the Post, one of the editors said, wow, you know, her brother was killed and she's just so nice and so loving, and I was a little taken aback by that, about how I had put myself out there to be perfect to sort of tamp down and slap away any possibility of me being human, which is so sad and so - and shouldn't be necessary. It's insane. It's an insane reaction to the insanity that is racism.

CONAN: There is also some of the questions that you say will never be answered and that you can't possibly answer. It was interesting in a review of your book, "Brothers and Me," that happened to be in the same Outlook section of The Washington Post as your...

BRITT: That was interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah. But anyway, Danielle Evans writes: Darrell's death and its implications became so central to Britt's adult identity that when her son suggested she might go - wish to go back in time and save him, Britt hesitated, noting that the incident contributed so hugely to who I am that the thought of obliterating it is literally paralyzing.

BRITT: It was - myself was playing a game with me. It was - if I had - he said if he could grab me super powers, what would I have? And this is the beginning of my book. He said you would want to eat all you could and not gain weight? And I think, well, you don't have to go any further than that, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRITT: And then - so then he says, no, no, no, wait. You can move through time and do everything super, super fast. And I'm thinking about all the stuff I could do as a woman and as a mom and as writer, and I said, well, maybe that would be cool. And then he said, no, wait a minute, and you could tell he had - this is the big wind up.

CONAN: Setting you up, yeah.

BRITT: Yeah. And he said, or you could go back in time and save your brother. And I was so astounded that I paused to think about that because I was not - I mean, if there were a button I could push or a, you know, some mantra I could say and have that be undone, there's no question that I would do it instantaneously, but he was - we were playing a game, and so that allowed me to think, who would I be if that hadn't happened because it had shaped me and my family and the people who were close to Darrell in ways that it was hard to calculate who we would be. And, you know, I would love to know who that person would be, who - the person who had not lived through the agony of that, and, you know, my mother having to bury her beloved son, and my brothers having to, you know, saying goodbye for no good reason to their companion and their best friend. And I don't know who any of us would be, and so that's what made me stop.

CONAN: And as you, obviously, think about it, if you could push that button, you would do it in a heartbeat...

BRITT: In a heartbeat.

CONAN: ...but the alternative universe is interesting to contemplate.

BRITT: You know, I think about who he would be if that hadn't happened. And, you know, he's frozen in time as a, you know, a slim, you know, strong, 26-year-old, great, youthful, powerful guy, and I don't know who he would be at 60. You know what I mean? I don't know who any of us would be. I would love to know. But I - my hope, you know, when I became a writer was that I could become somebody who could make sure that the people who read my work would understand everybody's value and, certainly, the complexity of a black life, that we are just as interesting and just as valuable and just as smart and just as beautiful and just as worthy as anybody.

And my - I couldn't - I never got past the sense that somehow the fact - the thought that my brother was not worth saving, that he, you know, didn't deserve the benefit of the doubt that a white kid in the same situation might not have had, which is the sense I'm sure that Trayvon Martin's parents have, that if there had been that hesitation or that thought of inherent worthiness, a sacredness that we all have, that my brother would still be here, and I would know who he would - who he was and that Trayvon would still be here too.

CONAN: And so a central fact in your identity, a pivot for your whole family, no question about that, yet you also say you put it aside for much of those intervening 30 years in part, you realized in writing this book, because there was a question you didn't want to confront, that maybe there had been something that went on that day outside of Gary, Indiana, that meant there was a reason your brother died.

BRITT: Not knowing is the worst thing. And, you know, I've lived long enough to know that anything is possible, and that it's possible that the bizarre and surreal description that was provided by police of the circumstances of my brother's death actually occurred that way. Anyone who knows him would say that that's highly unlikely, but, you know, I live - because I'm journalist, I had to consider every possibility, so it was never as pure for me as it was for people who were just his friends and who felt of course that was made up, of course that wasn't real. And so I struggled for years with what if there was some truth to that? What if, in some way, he behaved in a way that made them respond that way?

But I still do come back to where I believe Trayvon's parents come and the people who are demanding justice for him, that, you know, that every person deserved that benefit of a doubt and deserves to have their life be treasured enough that it's acknowledged as valuable by everyone and especially by police who have that sacred compact to protect us.

CONAN: We're talking with Donna Britt, former Washington Post columnist, the author of an op-ed that appeared in yesterday's Washington Post "In Trayvon Martin's Death, Echo of My Brother's Shooting." You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org/talk. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Lydia(ph) on the line. Lydia with us from Minneapolis.

LYDIA: Hi. My story is the opposite one of your wonderful guest. My father was a George Zimmerman in a similar dynamic 40 years ago. When I was 14, my father, who I did not - had not grown up with - my parents divorced when I was little, but I ended up living with him when my mother was going through some trouble. My father decided the best response he could have to me as a 14-year-old trying to began a process of examining racism by reading essays by Dr. King, that his response would be to tell me about criminal black men and how as a security officer he had killed a man. This information shocked me. I didn't know what to make of it 40 years ago. But what I did with it was six years later, as an 18-year-old, when - as a 20-year-old, when I was first confronted with police brutality in an obvious death, I ended up getting involved as a long-time activist around police brutality.

I reunited with my father as an adult - I'm making this very short - and we did have two or three talks about it. He always wanted to convince he'd done the right thing, but the story would change. Was the man climbing into a window of a home or out of a window? The Dallas Police Department would never - which is where I grew up - would never accept my dad as an officer, though the applied for 10 years. A few months after this shooting, he chased somebody in an apartment complex, fired his weapon and hit a resident and so was fired and never did security work again.

Long story short, it wasn't until 10 years ago when my father died that I began to get a few more pieces of the puzzle, and I, sad to say, concluded that my father was a trigger-happy vigilante. He wanted to be a big shot, that he called his best friend who was a police officer instead of 911 after the shooting. I think they concocted a cover story. It did go to a grand jury, which in 1969 in Dallas no (unintelligible).

And the last piece of evidence I have is that as my brothers were deciding who would get my father's gun collection, the debate was, but who gets the special gun? And I said, special gun? And somebody said, yeah, the one pop killed that N-word with. He always kept it in the glove box of his truck. At that point, I thought I can't believe I'm related to this people. I've had no contact with most of my brothers since, but that all I can say is that this has really marked my life with the sense of intensified responsibility to do as much as humanly possible to undo my own racism inside my own self and to deliberately work particularly on the issues around the criminal justice system and police accountability.

The Trayvon Martin case has just totally messed with me, like I'm having this big delayed reaction in an emotional way. I think I sort of stuffed it and acted on this knowledge. But I want just to thank public radio for having the discussion because I think it's really important.

CONAN: Lydia, thanks very much. I know that's not an easy thing to talk about, but the Trayvon Martin thing, you said, raised it for you. Donna Britt, obviously, it - those echoes took you a little while to resolve too.

BRITT: I think that this case is touching a lot of people in unexpected and interesting and worth-examining ways. I was so happy to hear the caller talk about dealing with her own racism as someone who obviously does not naturally feel intolerant of people and who has embraced a line of work, you know, through working in - with police brutality. But the fact is that I think of racism like sexism and some other intolerance as being in the air, the water that we breathe, and to pretend that we're affected by it, which is one of the temptations of a situation like this, that we're not George Zimmerman. We're not somebody who would stalk a kid and mow him down and do the things that this man appears to have done.

But I think it's really important to acknowledge that, you know, when it comes to this, very few of us have clean hands, and that I think that black people as well as white have absorbed some of this, some of our behavior, some of the way that we talk about ourselves and sometimes the way we treat each other. Some - I think there's an element of this in black-on-black crime. I don't think that racism is a simple thing, and so the idea that having a black president made it go away like poof was absurd.

CONAN: Yeah. Nor can we leap to conclusions about George Zimmerman because we don't know what happened there that day, not yet anyway. Lydia, thank you.

BRITT: Not yet.

CONAN: Donna Britt, thank you. This is NPR News.

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