ST. PAUL, Minnesota: Two police cruisers had just pulled up to the apartment building, their second visit of the day, but this time Diamond Reynolds barely bothered to look up. "Always something," said Diamond, 27, as she shoved the contents of her closet into a cardboard box. She had six hours left to move out or risk eviction. Her short-term lease expired at 5 p.m., and the last several weeks had convinced her that East St. Paul was no longer a safe place to stay.
Maybe the police had been called to break up another dice game at the loading dock or to investigate the latest tenant complaints of black mold. Maybe they had come because of the neighborhood fight that culminated with someone trying to set the apartment building on fire that morning, forcing Diamond and her 4-year-old daughter, Dae'Anna, to evacuate their home at 4 a.m.
"Why are the police out there?" a neighbor asked, stopping by the open doorway of Diamond's apartment.
"Who knows?" she said. "They're here enough to pay rent. It's trauma or drama every day."
She had been feeling the impact of policing on every moment of her life since July 6, the day an officer pulled over her boyfriend, Philando Castile, in the suburb of Falcon Heights for at least his 48th minor traffic stop in the last 13 years. "Again?" Diamond remembered saying to Castile that day, as the officer asked to see his license and registration. Castile reached down toward his waistband, where he kept not only his wallet but also a gun that he was licensed to carry. The officer shot him four times, and then Diamond took out her phone to record, just as she had done during a few of Castile's other traffic stops. "Stay with me," she told him, as blood spread across his white T-shirt and she started to live-stream on Facebook.
For those next 10 minutes of video, she had become both the emotional catalyst and the clear-eyed narrator in the debate over American policing: somehow composed, somehow cordial, continuing to live-stream even as the officer aimed his gun in her direction and screamed profanities, telling him "yes, sir," and "I will, sir," and "no worries" while she spoke into the camera and contradicted his version of the shooting in real time.
The governor of Minnesota had called her actions "heroic" and blamed the shooting on racism. President Barack Obama had posted his own Facebook message in response to say the country had a "serious problem" with "racial bias, year after year." There were retaliatory shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and peaceful demonstrations in 37 cities, during which protesters marched and demanded consequences.
Diamond had gone to New York a few days later to appear on "Good Morning America," leaving behind an apartment that was ransacked and robbed while she was away, and so far the main consequence she noticed in her own life was how one crisis spiraled immediately into the next. No more boyfriend to watch her daughter while she worked nights at the dollar store. No more paycheck to help cover her rent. No more roommate with a pistol to make her feel secure in St. Paul's most dangerous neighborhood. No more car to go searching for a new apartment, because the car was Castile's and had been seized as part of the investigation. No one left to help her move except for a social worker who said the only place available for a single mother with limited income and a previous eviction on her record was a dingy two-bedroom across town in a neighborhood that was almost as bad.
Every day took her further from those 10 minutes that had come to define her. She was the one who millions of viewers remembered as dignified, as unafraid, as somehow calm at the center of an American crisis. But now her life was becoming ever more frantic, and her composure was giving way to insomnia and panic attacks. The one thing she hoped might bring some relief was to move.
"I seriously need to get out of here," said Diamond, now on the phone with the social worker. "Can I please get some help? His stuff is everywhere, and it's way too much."
The social worker told her not to worry. She said she would be helping coordinate the move by phone.
"So it's just me?" Diamond said. "Are you serious?"
She hung up and started to fold Castile's clothes into a large cardboard box labeled "Rest in Peace!" A few days earlier, she had taken some of his outfits to a laundromat for the first time since the shooting, hauling six loads onto the city bus. But some of the shirts still smelled like his cologne, so she had brought a few outfits back home unwashed to store away for herself.
Almost everything in the apartment belonged to him. They had been dating on and off for four years as Diamond's life went up and down, and recently they started to talk about marriage and decided to move in together. She and Dae'Anna had come to the apartment directly from a homeless shelter in Red Wing, Minn., their ninth move in less than a year, and by then their possessions fit into one suitcase each. Diamond was a high school dropout with no savings and two jobs at a motel and a dollar store; Castile was a supervisor in a school cafeteria, with a steady salary and a 401(k). He had bought their big-screen TV and their new bed. Diamond had always fallen for extroverts more like her, but Castile preferred to play Xbox and go to bed by midnight. "Isn't it boring dating a mute button?" some of Diamond's friends had teased her, but in Castile's case she was ready for boring. He bought her gifts. He remembered what time to pick Dae'Anna up from day care.
Her phone rang again. "Bad news," the social worker said and then explained that she had just spoken to the property manager at Diamond's new apartment, and the unit was not ready as promised. The walls still needed painting. The carpets hadn't been cleaned. The property manager wanted Diamond to delay her move by at least a few days.
"Oh, hell no," Diamond said. "We got fights happening over here. We're being evacuated, and now it's the weekend and these people are fitting to go crazy. I'm out. I'm not staying here no more nights."
The social worker asked her to try to calm down, but Diamond interrupted.
"That's all I've been hearing: 'Stay calm. Be patient. It's going to get better. Just visualize, visualize, visualize' - but all I'm seeing is the same exact ghetto."
- - -
In the first week after the shooting, more than 6,000 people had called, emailed or left her Facebook messages, and most of them had offered not only their condolences but also their own version of a solution. The governor suggested an independent investigation conducted by the Justice Department. A U.S. senator suggested a town hall to discuss race. Local mayors suggested new police training protocols. The top civil rights lawyer she hired from Chicago said she should file a lawsuit.
The Black Lives Matters protesters said she should lead a march. The Rev. Al Sharpton said do more interviews, more TV, bring in the national spotlight. Her cousin said start an online fundraiser. Her bosses at the dollar store said take two months off to grieve and clear her head. Her family said move out of state, maybe to be with her mother in Indianapolis. A counselor said try a therapy dog, so now she had Cheddar, just 8 weeks old and not yet housebroken, peeing everywhere and always yapping at her feet.
The shared assumption behind all of their advice was that her trauma would lead to something more. Here came healing, here came justice, and as nice as all of that sounded, Diamond soon began ignoring messages and staying off her Facebook page. It had never been her experience that suffering or inequity led to anything.
"Nobody was worrying about me before all this, and nobody's going to be fixing it all up now," she said, and so instead of waiting for her caseworker to call back about the condition of the apartment, she decided go see it for herself. She painted her toenails blue and wore eyelash extensions and a pink bow in her hair. She grabbed a small motivational sticker that she always moved with her from one apartment to the next: "Nothing beats a failure but a try," it read.
The only employee she could find at the new building was a woman from the rental agency, who looked at Diamond for a long minute and then clapped her hands. "Mrs. Reynolds, from the video?" she said, and Diamond nodded, because she was used to being recognized a few times each day. "Wow," the agent said. "I mean, I'm sorry. Oh, God. That was horrible. It felt like I was sitting there right beside you."
"Thank you," Diamond said, and she followed the agent up the stairs toward the second floor.
"You were so calm," the agent said. "All those bullets? It must have been horrifying. I can't imagine."
"Thank you," Diamond said again, and now they were at her apartment door.
"So dignified," the agent said, and now they were finally inside the apartment, which smelled of mildew and sweat and smoke.
Two window screens were torn. The walls were covered in greasy handprints. The toilet was missing its seat. "Sorry. We'll get this all fixed up before you move in," the agent said, shielding her nose with her sleeve as they walked from the living room toward the back bedroom. The agent handed Diamond a checklist of things to inspect in the apartment and asked her to mark whatever items needed to be fixed. Diamond walked off by herself with the clipboard.
"Floor: Mop dog crap," she wrote.
"Ceiling: Clean spider webs."
"Refrigerator: Broken." "Windows: Need all new." "Lights: missing." "Painting: Bad." "Woodwork: Horrible."
She took out her phone, clicked on the camera and began streaming a video. Her lawyer had recommended that she avoid posting on social media after the shooting to protect her privacy, so she had closed her Instagram account and dismantled her Facebook page when the original video surpassed 3 million views. But she had always found it cathartic to broadcast her life, so she had taken over a friend's Snapchat account for a few weeks while he was in jail, since he wouldn't be using it.
"Hey everybody," she said, live-streaming the dark crust on the bathroom sink to an audience of a few dozen strangers. "Anybody got bleach?"
"They said this place would be ready," she said, turning the camera back on herself. "Don't think I'm sleeping here tonight."
She turned off the camera and sat down on the floor to consider her options. For the first time in her life, she had access to some money: $60,000 from an online fundraiser that a friend had started for her and Dae'Anna, but she was reticent to even touch it. The money had caused a misunderstanding between her and Castile's mother, who was directing donors to a separate family account. Diamond thought the best way to avoid tension and honor Castile was to stash her money away and save it all for Dae'Anna. She had been using food stamps and trying to spend as little as possible until Dae'Anna would start school and she could go back to work.
Now she picked up the phone to call a friend who lived a few blocks away. Diamond had been forced to move a few times each year since dropping out of high school at 17, and by now she knew all the protocols of being homeless in St. Paul. The shelters were typically full at the last minute. The cheap motels wanted a week's deposit upfront. She could think of only one other option as she waited for maintenance to repair her apartment.
"Looks like I'm going to be couch surfing for a minute," she said when her friend picked up. "Can I stay?"
- - -
As chaotic as her days were becoming, her nights were always the same: She lay awake and fought against her brain, willing herself to think about anything other than that day, until insomnia gave way to fatigue, and fatigue turned into despair and suddenly she was back inside the same recurring flashback.
They were driving in Castile's white Oldsmobile. They were being pulled over again into the right lane on Larpenteur Avenue, except this time it was different. In the flashbacks, Diamond was rarely looking at the man bleeding next to her in the front seat. She was looking behind her, into the back seat, where her daughter had the window rolled halfway down and a small bottle of juice in her hand. She had ribbons in her hair, and she was buckled into a pink car seat to witness it all.
"We need to seriously blow out this birthday party," Diamond was saying to Dae'Anna now, back at the new apartment, as they continued to wait for maintenance to begin repairs. "Five is a big birthday," she said. "Five is huge."
"I want a whole table of different kinds of candy," Dae'Anna said. "No limits. I get as much as I want."
"A candy table," Diamond agreed. "Maybe with some party favor bags, so our friends can take candy home, too."
This had been their main topic of conversation since the shooting: a late August birthday party for Dae'Anna that seemed to grow in size every day. It had started as a get-together for a small group of friends at a neighborhood park, but in the weeks since the shooting it had built into a massive carnival staffed by a dozen volunteers. Diamond thought maybe she could rent out a couple of bouncy castles.
Maybe she could get a photo booth, a live band, pinatas and a cotton-candy maker to crowd out the other images she feared were taking root inside her daughter's head.
"I was thinking about a clown cake," Dae'Anna said.
"Can't have a clown cake without a clown cake topper," Diamond said, adding that to their long-running shopping list.
They had barely discussed the shooting since that day - not with each other and not with a professional - and Diamond thought maybe that was for the best. But she had gone back over her Facebook video in an attempt to understand exactly what Dae'Anna had witnessed from the back seat, expecting to be unnerved by her daughter's screams. Instead, for the first four minutes of video, Dae'Anna had said nothing, and so Diamond began to wonder: How was that possible? How could anyone, much less a 4-year-old, keep quiet during those four minutes? The force of four bullets fired from point-blank range shook the car, and Dae'Anna was quiet. Castile rolled his head back between the seats and gasped, "I can't breathe," and Dae'Anna was quiet. The officer screamed, "Keep your hands where they are!" and she was quiet. The gun, still aimed inside the car, began to shake in the officer's hand, and she was quiet.
Diamond said, "Please don't tell me he's dead," and she was quiet. Castile gripped his bleeding stomach, moaned, slid back between the seats and dropped his head right toward Dae'Anna's lap, and she was quiet.
Diamond had taught her daughter to react that way. They had been practicing what Diamond called "survival skills" since before her daughter turned 2. Duck at the sound of gunfire. Make yourself small whenever you feel threatened. Never touch guns or needles. The more scared you are, the less noise you should make. These were some of the lessons Diamond had passed along from one generation to the next, and her daughter had learned them well. "It's okay, Mommy. I'm right here with you," Dae'Anna had said that day, as they sat together in the back of the police car and the video continued, and Diamond was still trying to understand why that was the one sentence in 10 minutes of archived terror that always made her catch her breath.
"Candles, glitter sticks, lipstick, carnival games, temporary tattoos, face paint," Diamond said, reading her way down the list.
Dae'Anna had brought up Castile's name only a few times since the shooting - to ask what had happened to his car or to say that she missed him. Diamond thought Dae'Anna understood he was dead. But mostly she looked happy playing with the toys strangers kept sending her in the mail: princess outfits, angel statues, Legos and action figures. Once, a few weeks after Castile's death, Diamond had overheard Dae'Anna playing with the action figures and saying something to them about how policemen shoot to kill. She had thought about going in to explain what it meant to be poor and black in Minnesota, but how could she tell a 4-year-old a story with no moral and no solution - a story with no apparent end? Maybe Dae'Anna was too young to understand, or maybe she already understood well enough. Either way, Diamond had left her alone to play.
"The one rule at the party is everyone brings you a present," Diamond said. "Have you thought about what you want?"
"Yes. I've got a lot of ideas," Dae'Anna said.
"Then tell me," Diamond said, and for the next few minutes she sat next to her daughter and listened.
- - -
Again she took out her phone. Again she clicked on the camera. "Okay, everybody. It's finally happening," she said, zooming in on a truck as it pulled up to her new apartment. "We're moving in. Fresh start. This is it."
She live-streamed as two professional movers hauled boxes up to her entryway. She filmed as her sister and daughter helped unpack. One of the movers recognized her from the video and asked how she had managed to stay so calm. "I just try to be strong," Diamond said, and then she turned on music and began placing furniture in the living room. She arranged the couch so it would hide stains on the wall and taped a motivational quote from Gandhi over a hole in the woodwork.
She bleached the sink, scrubbed the bathtub and lit candles in the kitchen, and after a few hours the place smelled of cleaning supplies and lemon. Cheddar was quiet and happy in his crate.
Dae'Anna came rushing down the hall and did somersaults in the living room.
"This place is huge!" she said. She had never lived in a two-bedroom before.
"It's almost starting to look like a place where you'd want to live," Diamond agreed. "We can work with this."
The movers finished their work, and then her sister went home on the bus. Diamond continued to unpack until her back started to ache and the only boxes left to open were the ones labeled "Rest in Peace!" and then she sat down on the couch. She tried to turn on Castile's TV, but she didn't know how to set it up. She wanted to go lie down, but she didn't know how to rebuild his bed. The apartment was quiet except for the sounds out the window of a car backfiring, distant sirens, and now a dog just beginning to bark in its crate. "Can you help me get Cheddar?"
Diamond asked Dae'Anna. Diamond got the leash and opened the crate, but before they could make it to the door Cheddar was peeing on the floor. "Damn it!" Diamond said. She dragged Cheddar back into the kitchen. The floor felt sticky. The sink was covered with grime. The windows were missing their screens.
Outside the sirens sounded as if they were coming closer.
"How long do they expect me to live like this?" Diamond said.
She went downstairs to find maintenance, and one of the workers was standing outside the main entrance with a cigarette.
"Windows, mirrors, walls - come on now. Let's go," Diamond told him. "You promised me you'd get this done."
"Sorry. We've been extra busy today," the maintenance worker said.
"I'm trying to give y'all a chance," Diamond said. "I was expecting more."
"It's not usually like this," he told her, and when she continued to press, he began to explain the reason for the delay.
Residents had been complaining about a tenant who lived down the hall from Diamond, he said. There had been reports of people coming and going with $20 bills and vacant stares, and the St. Paul police had sent an undercover officer to investigate possible drug activity. Now two maintenance workers were busy helping the officer gain access to the suspect's apartment.
"The police are up there right now," he said.
Diamond shook her head in disbelief. "This is what I was trying to get away from," she said.
She stood there while he finished his cigarette, waiting for him to offer some kind of a solution. He stared back at her and shrugged.
"Sounds like I've found the right place," she said, and then, trying to remain calm, she went back to the boxes upstairs.
© 2016 The Washington Post