Alton B. Sterling
July 6, 2016
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.”
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.