July 24, 2006 in Features

Home Planet: Watching tragedy unfold proves haunting

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When I was a child, a relative – a distant cousin, or great uncle or someone like that – was killed. He was electrocuted at work. There was some question about the negligence of co-workers, but it couldn’t be proven. His death, in his early 20s, was unexpected and traumatic.

I was too young to go, but I remember hearing the grown-ups talk about the funeral. The young man’s parents had gone through a nasty, bitter divorce. There had been a lot of animosity and rather than bring everyone together, united by grief, the funeral exposed and deepened the rift in my family. After it was all over, an aunt broke down completely. She wept and wept and wept.

Finally, waving away those who tried to comfort her, people who assumed she was overcome by the awful, unfair, tragedy of the young man’s death, she set everyone straight. She wasn’t just mourning for a life that had been cut short.

“Oh, leave me alone!” she cried, shocking everyone. “I’m crying about the whole damned mess.”

It wasn’t like my prim, soft-spoken, Southern aunt to talk like that.

Recently, I thought about her words.

I told myself I wouldn’t watch the video that recorded Otto Zehm’s death. I didn’t want to be a witness. I didn’t want to carry the images with me.

But then I changed my mind. Like a lot of people, I pushed a button and moved in close to my computer screen.

I watched as the young man came into view. I saw the officer pursue him. I watched in silence as the terrible drama played out in front of me.

Now I’m haunted by it.

The video gave me the power of time. I could see what happened after the fact. I knew how it would all end.

The figures moving in the grainy film didn’t have that luxury. I watched – with a god’s eye view – as they reacted to the adrenalin, uncertainty and chaos of the moment. It would be too cruel to know the future; to know when we or the ones we love will die, when tragedy will strike or events will occur that will change us forever. But I tell my children over and over again that we have to be careful what we do, where we go and how we treat people because life can change, or we can change a life, in a heartbeat.

Bad things can happen when we least expect it, I tell them. We won’t always see it coming. That much we know.

Otto Zehm never saw it coming. He fought hard. He fought for his life.

The whole drama was fraught with tragedy and misunderstanding. Two young women report a man who they think intends them harm. A young man, unaware that he is being watched, puts himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. An officer sees a threat and puts in motion a chain of events that takes a life.

No one involved in the scene imagined the way the day would end. Not the poor, terrified man who died. Not the officers who responded to a dispatcher’s call. Not the customers who continued to stream in and out of the convenience store as the videotape rolled on.

As paramedics worked over Zehm’s body, a man pumping furiously trying to restart his heart, the officers who had responded to a call for help by a fellow officer stood by. What they had assumed was just another drugged-out crazy being taken down before he could hurt someone, or another petty thief caught with someone else’s purse or wallet, or any of the bizarre scenarios police respond to each day, was something else entirely. And it went horribly awry.

Slowly, subtly, their demeanor changed. They shifted from one foot to another, their shoulders hunched, their faces were troubled. The protective crust that forms over anyone who spends days, weeks, months and years dealing with the underbelly of society was cracked. The officers looked stunned and vulnerable. They wilted in front of me. I could see their uncertainty.

They hadn’t seen it coming.

Finally, Otto Zehm’s body was placed on a gurney and wheeled away.

I’d been reminded of what I tell my children: In a heartbeat, or the silent space where a heartbeat should be, the world can change forever.

My throat was tight when I pushed away from my computer. I thought about Zehm. I thought about the police.

I thought about the little girl, trapped at the counter of the convenience store when Zehm was knocked to the ground, who put her hands over her ears to block the ugly sounds of the struggle.

I thought about the witnesses and bystanders in the convenience store, some seemingly oblivious to, or unconcerned by, what was going on.

I thought about the political wrangling, the war of words and tactical maneuvering that followed Zehm’s death. We all fight dirty when we’re cornered, or we think we’re cornered.

I wondered how it all will end.

I watched the video and I walked away from my computer blinking back tears.

I wanted to cry about the whole damned mess.

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