When Vester Lee Flanagan II AKA Bryce Williams carried out a premeditated execution of former colleagues on live television I was distraught by both the wrongful murder and his presence of mind required to film and distribute their deaths on social media. It was cold-blooded. I felt sick. I felt disheartened. I felt captivated.
Then, I felt frustrated because I also felt other things. I remember one day during a high school history class where we were discussing slavery that a fellow White student asked why Black people allowed themselves to be victims rather than fight for their freedom. I was largely incredulous at the ignorance of the question, but mostly perplexed at the nature of the inquiry. Did this person understand what it would actually mean for Black people to forcibly vindicate their victimhood in a country of systemic racism? Did they comprehend the scale of death and rape and dehumanization suffered by Blacks that inform epithets like “monkey” or “nigger?” Did they not realize that Black people have been fighting for generations, that every slave uprising was violently suppressed and that Black appeals to justice were met with a noose?
This came to bear on how I digested the fatal Bryce Williams altercation. The obvious criminality acknowledged, there is another dimension to this tragedy: the interpretations of justice.
Bryce Williams actions weren’t careless or spontaneous, but a carefully calculated response accompanied by a manifesto and outlined by his emotional state. Bryce was angry. Righteously angry. His actions were bigger than himself. This one was for the team. It was for the Black churchgoers murdered by Dylan Roof. It was for the marginalized. It was a nod to other dejected mass murderers that wouldn’t fade quietly into the night in the face of their oppressors. In his own words the bullets Bryce Williams fired carried the initials of victims. It was retribution.
His righteousness is up for debate but what is not debatable is that there is a certain allure to “justice” that can make it a comfortable bedfellow of both revenge and schadenfreude. Bryce Williams was Black. He was also gay. His marginalization is not hard to imagine, even if his personality had been pitch perfect. He likely had good reason to be angry. He stands, by association, against the backdrop of the Black legacy and it is a legacy hardly vindicated.
By his own deduction, however accurate or inaccurate, Bryce Williams was someone who had suffered ongoing wrong, aired his racial grievances, appealed to higher authority, had been mocked for his sensitivity and as a last resort took justice into his own hands.
In many ways it is the pitiable underdog script fit for the big screen if not for the devastating permanence of reality. As a cinema action hero Bryce appeals to a certain bravado we glamorize in our favorite vigilantes who find the scales of justice warped by those tasked with protecting them. The “good guys” aren’t really good at all, but compromised caretakers of the people who know how to hide their treachery and keep face for the camera. Their comeuppance requires a violently courageous messiah. Enter Bryce Williams.
In reality two reporters are dead and Williams’ equalizing vendetta for Black justice has been sidelined as a case study of mental illness and gun possession. Dutifully, this is where it belongs. Black heritage has cultivated a tendency to celebrate Black uprise against discrimination but as we continue to fight as a people it is important to maintain clarity of what justice really entails.
Image Credits: Twitter/WDBJ7-TV