The Pulitzer Prize board awarded a special citation on Friday to Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose cellphone footage of George Floyd’s murder last summer led to massive protests and sparked a racial reckoning in the country.
Frazier was 17 at the time she filmed Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, and she testified at Chauvin’s trial where he would eventually be convicted. Her video contradicted the initial police account of Floyd’s death.
In Friday’s announcement, the board said Frazier received the citation for “courageously reporting the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
In advance of the announcement, some media observers had been calling for the Pulitzer Board to give Frazier an award, including four-time former Pulitzer juror Roy Peter Clark, who acknowledged “the material and the creator fall outside the traditional boundaries” of the prizes but that her video has a “social and ethical purpose, one that aligns with journalistic values.”
Frazier never intended to produce “one of the most important civil rights documents in a generation,” as Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski described it.
She had just been walking her younger cousin to the store on May 25, 2020, when she saw a struggle between a Black man and a White police officer. She then hit record on her phone — and didn’t stop for about 10 minutes.
Frazier stayed on the sidewalk near Cup Foods convenience store to film the video that captured Floyd under Chauvin’s knee, showing Floyd’s dying moments as he pleaded for his mother. Frazier later testified in Chauvin’s trial. Her video dramatically contradicted the initial police account, which asserted that officers “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress” after they handcuffed him and that he was taken to a hospital via ambulance where he died.
Legal analyst Sunny Hostin has called her video “the strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer.”
The video sparked outrage in Minneapolis and around the world. And Frazier’s determination to capture the footage has been praised by luminaries including Spike Lee, Meryl Streep, Anita Hill and Rita Dove. But despite all of the unexpected attention, Frazier has consistently declined interview requests, issuing rare public remarks when she accepted an award from PEN America last year and posting a lengthy statement to Facebook on the anniversary of Floyd’s death.
She described how she still holds “the weight and trauma of what I witnessed a year ago,” enduring panic attacks and repeated moves with her family. For her as well as her 9-year-old cousin, the experience was like losing their childhood, she said.
“A lot of people call me a hero even though I don’t see myself as one. I was just in the right place at the right time,” she wrote. “Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day. Everyone talks about the girl who recorded George Floyd’s death, but to actually be her is a different story.”
But “even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself,” she wrote. “If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that.”