The officer fired four bullets. Diamond Reynolds fired five sirs. In live-streaming the fatal shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by police in a St. Paul suburb last week, Reynolds didn’t just provide dramatic video testimony of police violence: She also transformed a simple term of deference and submission—sir—into a powerful tool for dignity and subversion.
In the opening minutes of Reynolds’ Facebook video, we witness Castile slumped over in the driver’s seat, his white shirt soaked in blood. We glimpse his eyes roll back and hear a low, agonizing groan. The officer, his gun trained on a fading Castile, screams his commands—and his own shock, it seems, at his actions. But Reynolds is narrating with clarity and composure, repeatedly addressing the officer as sir. “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” Her unassuming, polite sir counterbalances the horror of the gun, the blood, the officer’s “Fuck!”
But Reynolds’ sir is more than a straightforward act of obedience: It is literally disarming. It defuses the crisis, demonstrating to the officers she is present and attentive: “I will, sir, no worries, I will,” she responds to an order. Her sir levels out the volatility, following a script all the actors know by heart: “Yes I will, sir.” Her sir even helps soothe the initial trauma, as if creating in its extra syllable a breath-catching pause, a pulse-calming rest—for her, for her daughter in the back seat, for the viewer, for the officer. In expressing deference with sir, Reynold stays in control.
While Reynolds’ mannerly sir eases the scene, it also focuses our attention. “You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license,” Reynolds says. “You told him to get it, sir.” Each sir refers us back to the officer. In a 10-minute video, Reynolds uses sir five times, four of them within that intimate minute before she exits the car. As she provides this first-person narration, she also pivots to third-person documentation, panning from the all-too-familiar outcome—another dead black male—to the problem: the use of lethal force against black Americans. Wielding the megaphone of Facebook Live, she addresses one sir to address the broader sir of authority and state.
Even as she keeps our attention on the officer, Reynolds’ sir doesn’t sound contemptuous or condemnatory. And her lack of irony, when we consider it in a wider context, points to a much broader irony. Commenting on last week’s shootings in Falcon Heights as well as Baton Rouge and Dallas, former New York City major Rudy Giuliani urged black Americans to teach their kids to respect the police. Yet Reynolds called the officer sir, as Americans are generally taught to address male elders and men in positions of power. Giuliani’s comments, and arguments like them, are profoundly deaf to the double standards of white privilege.
Given racial disparities in the U.S., many black Americans receive an additional education, “the talk,” about how to handle police interactions. Parents teach their children practical tips for survival, including commanding a language of politeness. While Reynolds’ sir is natural and unforced, we must also hear in it the harsher reality, that black Americans have long had to counteract ugly stereotypes of anger, aggression, even animality. We must hear in it, too, the master-servant dyad of a not-too-distant American past.
Finally, Reynolds’ sir compels us, her co-witnesses, to confront ourselves: How would we have reacted in the crucible of this shooting? What would we have called an officer who, whatever he reacted to, just shot our loved one? Would we ever possess the equanimity and grace to refer to such a person as sir? Many of us are far too practiced in survivalistic sirs, but many more can’t imagine Castile’s situation. Reynolds’ sir addresses us, as if pleading: And what will you do about this, sir? For those of us, it defies our complacencies, our entitlements.
This challenge, in the end, is the power of Reynolds’ sir: She transforms a title of respect into a refusal to accept brutality, a performance of transcendent dignity, and a disruption of the status quo. She transforms politeness into political protest, civility into subversion of a social system so often stacked against its citizens of color. She transforms Yes, sir into No, sir.