Alton Sterling and When Black Lives Stop Mattering

OVER the past several years, we have borne witness to grainy videos of what “protect and serve” looks like for black lives — Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, to name a few. I don’t think any of us could have imagined how tiny cameras would allow us to see, time and again, injustices perpetrated, mostly against black people, by police officers. I don’t think we could have imagined that video of police brutality would not translate into justice, and I don’t think we could have imagined how easy it is to see too much, to become numb. And now, here we are.

There is a new name to add to this list — Alton B. Sterling, 37, killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, La. It is a bitter reality that there will always be a new name to that list. Black lives matter, and then in an instant, they don’t.

Mr. Sterling was selling CDs in front of a convenience store early Tuesday morning. He was tasered and pinned down by two police officers, who the police say were responding to a call. He was shot, multiple times, in the chest and back. He died, and his death looks and feels as though he were executed.

Mr. Sterling leaves behind family and children who will forever know that their father was executed, that the image of their father’s execution is now a permanent part of the American memory, that the image of their father’s execution may not bring them justice. Justice, in fact, already feels tenuous. The body cameras the police officers were wearing “dangled,” according to the police department’s spokesman, L’Jean McKneely, so we don’t know how much of the events leading to Mr. Sterling’s death were captured. The Baton Rouge police department also has the convenience store surveillance video, which it is not, as of yet, releasing. Mr. McKneely said the officers were not questioned last night because “we give officers normally a day or so to go home and think about it.”


Protesters outside the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was killed. Credit Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate, via Associated Press

It has been nearly two years since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been nearly two years of activists putting themselves on the front lines as police officers continue to act against black lives with impunity. At the same time, according to The Guardian, there have been 560 people killed by police in the United States in 2016.

Tuesday night I heard about Mr. Sterling’s death, and I felt so very tired. I had no words because I don’t know what more can be said about this kind of senseless death.

I watched the cellphone video, shot by a bystander and widely available online, of the final moments of a black man’s life. I watched Alton Sterling’s killing, despite my better judgment. I watched even though it was voyeuristic, and in doing so I made myself complicit in the spectacle of black death. The video is a mere 48 seconds long, and it is interminable. To watch another human being shot to death is grotesque. It is horrifying, and even though I feel so resigned, so hopeless, so out of words in the face of such brutal injustice, I take some small comfort in still being able to be horrified and brought to tears.

We know what happens now because this brand of tragedy has become routine. The video of Mr. Sterling’s death allows us to bear witness, but it will not necessarily bring justice. There will be protest as his family and community try to find something productive to do with sorrow and rage. Mr. Sterling’s past will be laid bare, every misdeed brought to light and used as justification for police officers choosing to act as judge, jury and executioner — due process in a parking lot.

In the video, a police officer can be heard shouting that Mr. Sterling had a gun (Louisiana is an open-carry state). The National Rifle Association is likely to stay silent because the Second Amendment is rarely celebrated in these cases. The Department of Justice will investigate this case. Perhaps things are changing because the investigation was announced immediately. Charges might be brought against the two officers involved, but, as history both recent and not shows us, it is rare for police officers to be convicted in such shootings.

I don’t know where we go from here because those of us who recognize the injustice are not the problem. Law enforcement, militarized and indifferent to black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem. That this happens so often that resignation or apathy are reasonable responses is the problem.

It’s overwhelming to see what we are up against, to live in a world where too many people have their fingers on the triggers of guns aimed directly at black people. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don’t know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary. I don’t know how to feel that my life matters when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

The video that truly haunts me is from a news conference with Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling’s oldest child, a 15-year-old boy, who sobbed and cried out for his father as his mother read her statement. The grief and the magnitude of loss I heard in that boy’s crying reminds me that we cannot indulge in the luxuries of apathy and resignation.

If the video of his father’s death feels too familiar, the video of this child’s raw and enormous grief must not. We have to bear witness and resist numbness and help the children of the black people who lose their lives to police brutality shoulder their unnatural burden.

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