On July 5, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling, a 37-year old African American man, was shot and killed by police. Police had received an anonymous tip that a man, wearing a red shirt and selling CDs outside of a convenience store, had brandished a gun. Sterling, matching those two descriptive elements, was confronted by police officers, who tackled and pinned him to the ground. Amid the tussle, an officer yelled, “He’s got a gun!” At least one officer fired his revolver at pointblank range into Sterling’s chest. All this, captured on a bystander’s video.
On July 6, 2016, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, Philando Castile, a 32-year old African American man, was shot and killed by police. Pulled over for a broken taillight, Castile, according to the eyewitness testimony of his girlfriend, Lavisha Reynolds, riding in the front passenger seat, informed the officer that he had a gun, which he was licensed to carry. Reaching for his identification, the officer commanded Castile to keep his hands in view. Castile complied and, nevertheless, was shot 3-4 times, within moments, dying. Reynolds then livestreamed the aftermath of the shooting via Facebook.
I have a variety of responses…
I cry. Foremost, I grieve for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, their families and friends, and (as I’ve learned to think and to feel over time in reacting to these all too many shocks to the soul) for all of us for whom death, especially needless, unavoidable death, enshrouds our hearts with sadness.
I call for the advance nationwide, continuing in some jurisdictions, only beginning in others, of the reformation of police policy and procedure, particularly in regard to the black community and elements of criminal-profiling related to race. How much of the latter was involved in these instant cases? It’s difficult to know. However, historic mistrust between police departments and black communities and the intensified scrutiny of fatal encounters with police tracing back in near time to the August 9, 2014, killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, provoke suspicion. DWB, WWB, SWB, BB (driving while black, walking while black, sitting [or standing] while black, being black) remain cautionary classifications for many African American parents in counseling their particularly male children about public life in America.
I confess my wariness, my lack of sanguinity about the wholesale benefits of police reform. Policies and procedures and with them instruction and training of police officers can, must change, but none of it has any necessary causal relation to the transformation of hearts and souls, for there, racism abides.
I confess, too, my anger; ever a companion of my sorrow. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are but the latest killings (murders?) that stir in my bowels my racial animus. A few years ago, I crafted a shorthand self-statement: “I am a 60+ year old African American man born and raised in America”; my Cliff Notes autobiographical testament to my ever-present lens of race through which I look at life and the world. Sadly, angrily, I see no reason to dispense with it.