Bear Witness: Alton Sterling & Why We #SayTheirNames
UPDATE: In Alton Sterling's untimely passing it's easy to feel helpless. But you can play a small part in one of two ways (or both if you want). A GoFundMe page was created by Issa Rae with the goal of raising $200,000 for Sterling's five children. In nine hours the donations are almost at $300,000 and you can still contribute. If you have no money to offer then you can sign this petition demanding that the Department of Justice bring charges against the officers involved in Sterling's shooting.
"I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe." Eric Garner uttered these three words — which would ultimately be his last —eleven times as police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold that led to Garner's death.
The incident was recorded and circulated on social media, accompanied by #EricGarner and #BlackLivesMatter. Protests across the country occurred as people came together in remembrance and solidarity for this man who was wrongfully killed. Ultimately, however, Pantaleo was not indicted.
Now, yet another black man has suffered a similar fate. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling was shot outside a convenience store this past Tuesday. The video surfaced on social media late last night: the 37-year-old is confronted by two cops — Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni — that proceed to push him up against the hood of a car and pin him to the ground. Seconds later, someone shouts "Gun! He's got a gun." An officer can be seen drawing something from his waist and pointing it at Sterling. More yelling is heard until two bangs cut through, followed by three more bangs. Screaming and crying from a woman is heard before the video finally cuts off.
A second video surfaced today, showing the incident from another angle, clearly showing one of the officers removing the gun from Sterling's pocket while his hands are well away from his body — an strong indication that the firearm was not in his hand when he was shot dead at point blank range. If you are going to watch the video please know that it is extremely graphic.
From the evidence available so far, it appears Alton Sterling lost his life not because he had a gun, but because a police officer yelled the word "gun." As many commentators have pointed out, Louisiana is an "Open-Carry" state, meaning Sterling did not need a permit to carry a firearm — though no-one is holding their breath waiting for the NRA or other gun rights activists to speak up for his rights.
Tensions are understandably high in Baton Rouge right now. Sterling has become the 558th person killed by police in 2016 (and the 114th black man slain).
For black people, none of this is a surprise. At a young age we're taught to bite our tongues and smile in the face of police hostility, because one wrong word or action could literally lead to our death.
It's a reality that we wish we didn't have to fucking worry about, and yet there are people that believe we make all of this up. That we shouldn't have "been resisting" and that we shouldn't have "been wearing a hoodie." All of these justifications generalize the real issue at hand: police brutality is a problem that's occurring throughout our country and black people are suffering the most.
Even in an age where these incidents are captured by brave bystanders who risk their lives to tell the truth, it doesn't necessarily mean justice will be served. Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray — witnesses took their own videos of these moments, and still none of the officers involved were convicted. There have been exceptions to the rule: Oscar Grant and Walter Scott, the latter of whom's bystander video was so obvious in the officer's mishandling of the situation, that if he hadn't been convicted South Carolina would've likely erupted in a riot. Still, most of these situations end with the officer going uncharged, and a family that has lost a father, mother, daughter, or son.
The problem is deep-rooted, with police mistreatment of black people tied to America's troubled, racist past. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people, by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.
"The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults," the study's co-author Matthew Jackson, said. "With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old."
With police officers having an implicit bias towards black people, how are we supposed to feel safe?
When will cops employ people better suited for this job, and teach them the techniques necessary to properly handle certain situations? If the police fail, in what ways can the justice system be changed to hold these officers accountable?
W.E.B. DuBois once said "A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect," and we're reminded of that every single day of our lives. But a change needs to occur because there's only so much people are willing to endure, before they take matters into their own hands.
And regardless of whichever comes first we'll continue to say the names of those we've lost because they could've been us; because they were taken from communities and families that loved them; and because, even though officers of the law might believe otherwise, they will always fucking matter.