Feidin Santana avoided watching the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin at all costs, fearing that the emotional triggers would be unbearable. But there was one witness whose testimony Santana deliberately sought out: 18-year-old Darnella Frazier.
Frazier, who filmed Floyd’s death as bystanders pleaded with Chauvin to get off his neck, told the court last month that she agonizes about “not doing more” to save him.
Santana, 29, is one of the few who can directly relate to Frazier’s struggles.
Tuesday’s guilty verdict brought Santana back to 2015, when he used his cellphone to film a White South Carolina police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, in the back after a traffic stop. That video also led to a criminal case and eventually a conviction.
Like Frazier, there are nights where Santana also wishes he could have done more.
“I had nightmares over the same thing,” Santana told The Washington Post, speaking in Spanish. “The impotence of not being able to do anything. You carry that on your conscience.”
In the wake of the verdict this week, Santana celebrated the rare occasion in which a police officer was convicted of murder. But he noted that the case also shines a new light on the toll such cases take on bystanders who record the fatal police incidents.
For Santana, his actions led to months of depression and a swarm of death threats, which forced him to leave his job and move back to his native Dominican Republic while he awaited his turn to testify at the officer’s trial.
In April 2015, Santana, then 23, was on his way to work while chatting on his phone when he saw North Charleston police officer Michael Slager struggling with Scott. Santana ended the phone call and began recording when he heard the clicking of a Taser followed by Scott yelling. Then, he followed the pair while still recording and captured the moment Slager fired five shots at Scott as he fled.
Santana, the only witness, didn’t share the video with police out of fear of retaliation. But he decided against deleting it and shared the recording with Scott’s family, who turned it over to police. Days later, police charged Slager with murder.
As Santana’s video spread internationally, he began receiving daily death threats on Facebook; social media posts reading “Death to Feidin Santana” popped up on his account constantly.
“When the cameras are gone, you are by yourself and left dealing with all of it on your own,” Santana said. “People don’t know what a witness in a high profile case like this one has to deal with.”
Santana began to seclude himself in his home. He didn’t trust the police or prosecutors to protect him, he said. He stopped playing baseball and writing songs, two of his passions, and fell into a months-long depression.
Eventually, fearing the worst and refusing offers of security from authorities, Santana moved into the barbershop where he worked and slept in a tiny room in the back when his shift was over. Finally, he decided to go back to the Dominican Republic.
For the next two years, Santana flew to Charleston, S.C., multiple times to testify in front of authorities in both state and federal court, where Slager was indicted on federal civil right charges.
By then, Santana said, he had decided that sharing the video was the right choice, even if it cost him dearly. He found support in South Carolina’s Latino and Black communities, and eventually returned to open his own barbershop in Charleston.
It was in that same barbershop where he first watched the video of Floyd pleading for his mother as Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes last May. When he learned Frazier, who was then 17, had recorded it, a wave of mixed emotions hit him.
“When I found out it was a young lady who was dealing with that I felt joy for her courage to show what had happened, but I also felt sadness for what she had to witness because I knew it was going to affect her life one way or another,” Santana said.
He added, “One does not choose to be a witness of these incidents. She did not know the final result, just like me. I never thought that [Slager] was going to fire his weapon. Frazier also didn’t think that officer [Chauvin] was going to murder George Floyd.”
On Tuesday, news of the verdict also felt bittersweet for Santana. He was elated that the jury convicted Chauvin, but disappointed that it took a cellphone video to prosecute and find an officer guilty of murder. “It’s only when there’s video, then almost the large majority of cases that don’t have a video are left unpunished,” Santana said.
Hours after the verdict was read, Santana, who has never spoken to Frazier, took to his Facebook page to thank her for recording Floyd’s murder.
“Thank you Darnella Frazier,” Santana wrote. “Once again, it has been proven that the MOST effective way to make justice in America when it involves a police officer . . . is a cellphone video. We still got a lot [of] work to do.”
Santana said if he ever had a chance to meet Frazier, he would tell her that “at her young age she did something very big and to never regret it.”