For people who don’t favor the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly have a problem with African-Americans existing in some form or another, there are explanations for why blacks in any given situation are wrong. It’s not Black Lives Matter—it’s All Lives Matter. They don’t care about reforming a broken criminal system or ending disproportionate violence towards minorities—they only advocate killing cops. That girl in the classroom slammed to the ground for refusing to leave class? She should have listened to the cop! Eric Garner? He shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes! Trayvon Martin? He shouldn’t have been wearing that suspicious hoodie! All those black characters dying in The Walking Dead? They should have known what happens to black people in horror movies and TV shows! OK, that last one was meant to be kind of silly. Kind of.
Time and again, in cases in which black suspects are injured or killed at the hands of the police, two major criticisms will be lobbied at the person who is, by many accounts, the victim, but only ostensibly so, as far as others are concerned. As I see it, they are:
1. “They shouldn’t have been resisting.”
OK, let’s deconstruct this idea as viewed through the lens of a recent shooting, of which I’m sure you’ve heard by now. From what we know or have read, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5. Reportedly, he was approached by a homeless man asking for money in a persistent manner, whereupon Sterling showed him his gun and said something to the effect of “I told you to leave me alone.” Sure, we might have preferred if Alton would have treated his solicitor in a, shall we say, more Christian manner, but who among us hasn’t been abrupt or less than charitable with someone begging for even pocket change? Or called them “bums?” As John Oliver puts it, referencing a quote from Ivanka Trump with respect to her father, Donald Trump, pointing to a homeless person and saying “that bum” had $8 billion more than him, owing to his debt at the time: “That really shows you the indomitable spirit of Donald Trump. To fall to his lowest point, and in that very moment, still find a way to be kind of a dick to a homeless guy.” We may shake our heads—and in Trump’s case, start researching the logistics of moving to Canada should he win the presidency—but this is no crime, and certainly not an offense warranting death.
Whether he felt legitimately threatened or not, the fateful events leading to Alton Sterling’s demise, according to a CNN report by Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, were precipitated by that homeless man calling 911 on his cell phone (let’s table any sidebars about a homeless person having a cell phone for the moment, shall we?) and reporting a man “brandishing a gun.” This necessitated the intervention of police, though apparently, Sterling was not immediately aware of why he was being confronted by officers. In a video included within the CNN report, a “pop” is heard, and Alton is told to get on the ground, but given little more than a moment to react, he is pulled over the hood of a car by one officer and slammed to the ground, whereupon he is helped by a second officer to keep him down. Seconds later, someone yells that Sterling has a gun, whereupon the two officers frantically pull their weapons. Not soon after, the fatal shots are delivered, with horrified onlookers reacting viscerally to what they witnessed.
Could Alton Sterling have been more physically still in this scenario? Sure, although when you’ve just been body-slammed by a large police officer, and you’re not completely sure why you’re being accosted in the first place, you’re probably not thinking all that rationally. Either way, I don’t know that I would be considering his actions or motions resisting, and moreover, outgunned and outnumbered, even if he were resisting, was he genuinely in a position to react in a way that made the officers’ use of deadly force appropriate? Put another way, is this the only way that scenario could have played out? Could Sterling have been subdued by a Taser or other means of incapacitation rather than bullets being spent?
These questions are, to varying extents, rhetorical ones, but let’s not demean the notion that tough decisions based on judgment have to be made by police in these situations, and that their own personal safety is at risk. Nonetheless, as trained, uniformed defenders of the public’s safety, there is some level of assumption of risk in the line of duty, and I submit, an onus on the officer or officers to act responsibly. That Alton Sterling’s detractors would be so quick to deflect responsibility onto him seems patently unfair, if not understating the capabilities and discretion of the officers. We spend so much time building up the men and women who serve and protect the public interest, and often justifiably so, but let’s put accountability where it belongs all the way around.
2. “Well, he was no saint.”
OK, so this hypothetical argument is at the heart of my post here, and while my concerns are very real with respect to the role of the police in the course of interactions with potential criminal suspects, from an outsider’s perspective, arguments about the background and possible criminal history of someone who dies at the hands of officers, in my view, utilize a fundamentally flawed logic. Not soon after the events leading to Alton Sterling’s death, Jessica McBride of Heavy authored a post advertising his “arrest record, criminal history, and rap sheet,” which may have been phrased in this way for dramatic effect, but is notably redundant; a “criminal record” and “rap sheet” are the same thing, and this appears to serve only to either generate more hits for this article or lead the reader into believing he was some sort of degenerate.
The post, which includes an exhaustive display of the physical documentation of his relationship with the law prior to, as some see it, his “lynching” at the hands of uniformed police, ticks off the evidence which apparently lends itself to portraying Sterling’s troubled history with the boys and girls in blue. As McBride outlines, per an affidavit of probable cause from 2009, Alton Sterling was involved in a “wrestling match” with a police officer after resisting arrest, an event in which he (Sterling) was in the possession of a semi-automatic weapon. Sterling was also a registered sex offender after being convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”—Louisiana’s seemingly antiquated way of saying “statutory rape”—in 2000 and serving four years in jail. Lest this seem especially egregious, Alton was only 20 at the time of his conviction, so while this is not meant to exonerate him, it does give context to the notion he may not have been all that mature and well-developed with respect to his regard for obeying the law. There are other offenses highlighted in the Heavy piece, too, including Alton Sterling’s conviction in 2011 for “knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance,” in this case, marijuana, a drug many contend should be legal, and domestic battery in 2008.
These violations of the law are all well and good, but any insinuation that Sterling “deserved” his fate suffers from one or more serious errors in logic. Firstly, the bulk of the offenses referenced in Jessica McBride’s piece on happened over five years ago. This is not to excuse Sterling’s behavior, mind you, but it does provide context to his criminal history. Since that time, perhaps Alton Sterling had changed. Perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll never know now, and it’s a little disingenuous to assume he hadn’t. Secondly, as the CNN report above makes explicit, there’s no evidence that the officers who responded to the 911 call knew of Sterling’s criminal history. So, while this may help frame some people’s understanding of the situation better according to the narrative of crime perpetrated by blacks that they would like to believe, this doesn’t necessarily mean Alton Sterling’s past was a factor in this incident. Thirdly, and most importantly, it shouldn’t matter what Sterling did or did not do prior to the events at the convenience store. Whether the suspect is black or white, sex offender or not, protocol should be followed. To stress, I respect that police offenders should be on high alert in the case of a weapon, as their personal safety and life may hang in the balance. All this aside, firing shots should be a last resort, and yet you get the sense in this shooting that the officers at the scene were all too ready to pull the trigger. If a supposed “Ferguson effect” exists, it didn’t appear to manifest itself here.
It seemingly gets worse in consideration of Philando Castile’s track record prior to his being gunned down at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Hmm, who could we trust to provide us with this historical documentation and information? Why, no other than Ms. Jessie-on-the-Spot herself—Jessica McBride! Castile, stopped for a busted taillight and fatally shot after attempting to make it clear to the officer that he had a gun on him (legally) and was trying to get his wallet to produce his identification, had numerous traffic offenses on his record. Aside from these relatively minor infractions, though? Two drug incidents, in which the charges were ultimately dismissed, and no felony or violent criminal record. I don’t care if Philando Castile were green and had tentacles for arms—it’s a hard sell to insist the lethal force used on him was appropriate.
I started planning out and writing this piece after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and before the killing of five officers in Dallas and the injury to more. Suffice it to say, this event in it of itself is a tragedy, and their assassin is not only clearly wrong to bring more death to this world, but a coward on top of it for sniping unsuspecting victims. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the prevalence of guns in America as a factor in all these cases, though I don’t feel the gun control issue should predominate the conversation. I also don’t wish for what happened in Dallas to overshadow what I believe were the wrongs done in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The officers in Texas were killed in cold blood by a madman, recluse or whatever term you feel you want to use; while we’re delving into people’s criminal records, it’s worth noting the shooter had no criminal record and served his country as an Army reservist. This is undeniable. But Castile and Sterling were murdered in their own right, and in their case, it was those with badges who perpetrated it. Because it must apparently continue to be a refrain, this is not a blanket condemnation of all police. Most officers, I believe, do the right thing. Some do not, however, and when the criminal justice system and law enforcement officials conspire to deflect blame and shield those who did wrong from criticism and due consequences, those officials and systems are not above their own criticism and scrutiny. For those who would supplant Black Lives Matter with the insistence “Blue Lives Matter,” I agree those who serve the public interest should be lauded, but not deified. Again, if anything, we should be holding them to higher standards.
I wouldn’t wish what happened to the slain officers and their families on my worst enemy. Theirs is a loss I couldn’t even begin to try to comprehend. That said, if this collective violence of the past few days provides them with a broader perspective on the pain so many Americans feel right now—especially within the larger black community—these killings won’t be for nothing. In 2015, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that black Americans are four times as likely to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, and that, while more than 80% of blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force, two-thirds of white respondents label police use of force as necessary, and six out of ten white respondents believe race is not a factor in the use of force. These are huge disparities, and suggest we have a long way to go before we can say we are having an authentic conversation about race in the United States today. If “all lives matter” as much as we might insist, we need to realize the issue of violence related to encounters between civilians and police is a shared human burden. Seven citizens died in much-publicized ways this past week, and that is the essential notion here.