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Like the George Floyd witnesses, he saw police kill a man. Now, he’s part of the system, demanding change

Watching eyewitnesses in Derek Chauvin’s trial express their grief, anger, fear and helplessness at seeing George Floyd beg for his life, Feidin Santana had been there before.

The 29-year-old, who recorded the fatal police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, six years ago, had to testify himself amid threats, bigotry and bogus allegations — all for the seemingly noble act of documenting police violence. Once on the witness stand, his character and recollections came under fire.

Most familiar to Santana was last week’s testimony from Donald Williams II, a mixed martial artist who implored Chauvin to take his knee off Floyd’s neck, Santana told CNN. Defense attorneys tried to discredit Williams, pegging him as part of an angry mob that distracted Chauvin.

They focused on Williams calling the ex-Minneapolis officer names, casting Williams’ pejoratives as something more nefarious than pleas to spare Floyd’s life. Williams didn’t bite — he said he couldn’t be painted as angry; he’d remained professional — just as Santana didn’t falter more than four years ago when he took the stand in Scott’s killing.

“It’s bringing up a lot of memories,” said the Dominican immigrant who came to the States at 13 and counts English as his second language. “That bad experience will forever mark your life, then coming on the stand to testify, it’s hard. It’s hard, especially when you have attorneys in a defense position, that they’re trying to make it seem you actually are the criminal.”

Long before Floyd’s death spurred a racial reckoning in the United States, Santana was a quiet barber. He was running late to work one spring morning in 2015 when he saw Scott, an African American man, run past, followed by officer Michael Slager, who is White. As he caught up to the men, he heard a Taser and saw the pair tussling. He began recording the altercation from about 60 yards away.

Santana watched as Scott escaped Slager and bolted. The lawman drew his .45-caliber Glock and unleashed eight rounds into the fleeing 50-year-old, hitting him five times. Slager then retrieved a Taser from where he and Scott had wrestled, walked over to Scott and tossed it on the ground.

Santana’s phone captured it all. He held on to the video for three days. He saw a counselor, then reached out to a local Black Lives Matter leader. He played it for Scott’s brother and sister-in-law, who wept. When he learned Slager was claiming he killed Scott in self-defense, Santana knew what he had to do.

“I’m not going to delete the video. I’m going to fix this problem and come forward,” he remembers thinking.

He became a key witness in Slager’s state murder proceedings, which ended in a December 2016 mistrial when a predominantly White jury couldn’t agree on a verdict. A retrial was scheduled, then abandoned as part of a deal in which Slager pleaded guilty to a federal charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law.

Santana testified again during Slager’s federal sentencing. The threats and racism made him feel unsafe, and on three occasions in the two years after the shooting he went home to the Dominican Republic “for my own peace because it was too much,” he said.

“There’s always risk when you as a witness come forward and try to challenge an institution,” he said. “When you interfere of just one officer, it’s like going against an institution. For my own safety, I just decided it was a better decision to go.”

Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison and currently resides at Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in Colorado.

‘I’d be safer anywhere but Charleston’

Santana could’ve left North Charleston. Instead, he harnessed his frustration and sadness into politics and entrepreneurship. He’s majority owner of a barbershop set to open in late April, and last month he was elected to serve as second vice chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party.

“I’d be safer anywhere but Charleston, but to challenge my own fear and to live with it, I decide to work inside the city where I faced that oppression,” the married father of two said.

Santana feels a strong sense of empathy for witnesses in Chauvin’s trial. He says he understands what they’re going through — rewatching a horrific scene over and over and recalling what they saw from a few feet away as the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes.

In an oft-tense exchange with attorney Eric Nelson, Williams likened Chauvin’s kneeling to a “blood choke” employed in MMA bouts. Williams called the police on the police, he said, because “I believed I witnessed a murder.”

A high schooler testified she was “scared of Chauvin” watching the incident unfold. Upon seeing bodycam footage, wherein Floyd cries for his mother, Charles McMillan reached for a clutch of tissues to wipe away tears, shaking his head to compose himself.

A 9-year-old’s voice fell to a whisper recalling her sadness and anger as she “felt like (Chauvin) was stopping his breathing.” Her cousin, Darnella Frazier, 17 at the time, was taking her for snacks that day and directed her into the nearby Cup Foods so the third grader wouldn’t see “a man terrified and scared, begging for his life.”

Encountering the scene, Darnella had the same instinct as Santana in April 2015: “I pulled out my phone,” she testified.

Like Santana, she faced harassment. Two days after Floyd’s killing, she took to Facebook to fend off online attackers claiming she came forward for clout, attention or a paycheck. Trolls suggested she should’ve intervened, to which the teen replied, “of course I’m not about to fight off a cop I’m SCARED wtf.”

She’s stayed up at night apologizing to Floyd “for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life, but it’s not what I should have done. It’s what he should have done,” she testified, referring to Chauvin.

‘It’s a very traumatizing experience, clearly’

Santana recalls the questions he faced on the stand, which made the death threats and bigotry outside the courtroom sting more. He found himself sad, struggling to concentrate. The memories have rushed back during the Floyd trial — how people alleged he was shady for not immediately calling police or for waiting to release the video, how defense attorneys raised song lyrics he had written expressing distrust in police, or how attorneys alleged prosecutors compensated him for his testimony.

“You being a witness is a very traumatic experience. Your life will never be the same,” he said.

With Williams’ testimony, “many questions they ask, why he cursed or he said bad words to the officers — the attacks that he was receiving in the trial … it brings back a lot of memories.”

Dennis Flores, founder of El Grito, a Brooklyn-based community organization that counts police watchdog among its missions, and cofounder of a subsidiary, Copwatch Media, has been filming police since 1995. He’s familiar with the blowback witnesses can face when they challenge law enforcement.

Witnessing and documenting over the years took him to an unhealthy “place of cynicism,” he said. He didn’t have the support he needed. He was angry and frustrated, and lashed out at relatives and friends, he said.

“Initially, I internalized it. When you get no justice and you’re being persecuted, I became dysfunctional,” he said. “That’s why I organized Copwatch. It helped me channel that rage — to fight for justice but not return that same anger with hate … to seek healing.”

Many aren’t “in a stable place or position to handle that kind of attention. That kind of attention can break you down,” he said.

“It’s a very traumatizing experience, clearly. After you take this image and you document what happened, the repercussion of what happens — the everyday citizen is not aware,” the Puerto Rican activist told CNN. “Every step you take will be highly scrutinized. … From now to then, the pressure’s on to discredit you as a witness.”

There’s almost no infrastructure in place to help folks who bear witness to police violence, Flores said, and they need support. El Grito, which translates to “the scream” or “the outcry” in Spanish, receives countless calls and emails alleging police violence and harassment, he said.

The group steers them toward resources, including lawyers with a “record of putting in great fights” rather than chasing ambulances, spotlights or big-dollar settlements, said Flores, who took tutelage from Parents Against Policy Brutality in the 1990s.

The group also teaches witnesses how to organize “so they can do for themselves. Someone is targeted, we are going to coach them and support them to build the skills up to deal with the challenge. … Our concern is mostly, first and foremost, to protect the rights of those individuals who observed and witnessed something.”

As part of its mission, El Grito has flooded Flores’ Sunset Park neighborhood with “know your rights” information and hosted town halls, while teaming with Witness, another nonprofit, and Berkeley Copwatch to create a database of incidents to “help the public connect the dots,” he said

His message: “You took a moment to do something heroic. but you shouldn’t be held to a pedestal. You’re only a human. … Your life is going to completely change, and one has to be very careful navigating those waters.”

‘My story is not over in 2021’

Now that Santana has navigated those waters, he sees his experience as a catalyst, which is why he joined the local Democratic Party and dived into business, but don’t expect him tow party lines or rail wholesale against police. There are many good officers serving and protecting, he said.

“For me, it’s about morals,” he said. “People don’t say the things that are really going on in our community. I don’t have a position whatsoever. I’m here for the people as much as respect for the Democratic Party. This is bigger than politics.”

County party Chairman Greg Perry is excited to work with him: “Feidin is an incredible individual, who is super eager to assist the party in engaging people for more than votes. He desires to help us in our mission to meet needs in the communities that we serve.”

Ultimately, Santana wants his newborn daughter and 7-year-old son to grow up in a place where police and community members don’t view them differently because they’re people of color, he said.

This is where the barbershop comes in. Yes, being involved in politics will provide him the influence and access necessary to champion his community’s needs, he said, but he hopes to exact real change in Charleston by employing 20 stylists from all backgrounds in hopes of repairing divisions in the community and empowering young people, he said.

The ever-appropriate moniker for his North Charleston business? Change Up Cuts. Its motto? “Love & Unity,” with a pair of scissors instead of an ampersand.

“Barbershops have always been places where the community gathered and talked about social issues. I want to bring that back again with this project, get the community to connect more,” he said. “There are many similar struggles, and we don’t see it because we are focused on our own individual aspect when we can work collectively against injustice, against inequality.

“I think that we can definitely be one step closer to a real democracy in this country, and that’s what I want to do.”

Santana can’t say where life may have led him had he not been late for work April 4, 2015, but he knows where he’s headed now. He wants his barbershop to become a movement, and he’s excited to see the youth unite and use their voices.

“It’s not just about complaining and how sad we feel. What are you doing about it?” he said. “My story is not over in 2021. Actually, it’s the beginning of it. I’m more convinced of my ideas.”

Article Topic Follows: National-World

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