Black and Blue

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Montrell Jackson, after the shooting of Alton Sterling and prior to his own death, emphasized the need for cooperation between police officers and the communities they serve as a symbol of unity between the two. (Image Source: Facebook)

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feel like Old Ned, wish I was dead
All my life through, I’ve been so black and blue

Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m white—inside—but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face

How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

— “Black and Blue,” composed by Fats Waller, with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf

In the prologue to the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the nameless narrator listens to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the above-quoted jazz standard at full volume. On a phonograph, just to give you a sense of the time period. He secretly lives underground, stealing electricity from Monopolated Light & Power, and explains to the reader that he is invisible—not because of some feat of magic or science, but rather of intentional blindness on the part of the observer, refusing to see him because he is black.

Obviously, this facet of the narrator’s reality is a metaphor for the kind of “invisibility” faced by black Americans of all walks of life, but one that is starkly potent, and one still very much relevant even today. Especially today, more than 50 years after Ellison’s book was first published, and more than 80 years after “Black and Blue” came into being. In 2016, with cameras on every cellphone and a Vine or YouTube video seemingly for every situation that manifests in waking life, the struggle for authentic visibility for African-Americans is, well, perhaps more visible than ever before, and social media has only magnified the profile of responses within the African-American community to the injustices of society as a whole, notably that of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet for all the attention racism and other social issues surrounding black life in America have gotten in this day and age, it’s what remains invisible to so many of us that looms large. In “Black and Blue,” the allusion is, of course, to physical bruising caused by a rupture or tear of blood vessels under the skin—a black-and-blue. To be sure, in the violence against African-Americans which persists in the United States, those markings of bodily abuse have been plentiful in their own right. I speak, however, more pointedly about a bruising of the spirit and soul that has accompanied blacks in this country, one that, by its nature, can’t be seen unless the observer actively tries to find it. It’s a wound which exists in plain sight for those who feel its pain, but goes unnoticed, or worse, ignored by those who might stand to benefit most from acknowledging this hurt which spans generations. Even in describing this figurative subdermal bleeding thusly, I only hint at what experiencing it first-hand must be like. I couldn’t know the pain which comes along with it, nor would I want to.

In the past few weeks, another intersection of black and blue imagery has come to the forefront of the national consciousness, and unfortunately, in the worst ways possible. In the wake of the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, protests have sparked across the country decrying the injustice of treatment of black suspects at the hands of officers of the law. These protests, when peaceful, are not only acceptable, but welcomed, from my point of view. The disenfranchised among us deserve a voice, a chance to be heard in their frustration and grief. Sadly, not all actions in response to acts of violence by police against African-Americans have been characterized by such restraint. America, still trying to process and recover from the tragic murder of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest, as well as the senseless killing of at least 84 people in Nice, France in a terrorist attack on Bastille Day, was dealt another shocking blow on July 17 when three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As with the Dallas incident, the brutal slaughter of these officers and injury to others appears to have been carried out in the style of an ambush, with little discrimination evidenced by the shooter. To injure and kill police, it would seem, was enough for the perpetrator.

We may not know all that much about the officers who lost their lives on July 18, but for the vast majority of us following this story, there is no need to be familiar with their character or their deeds to understand they didn’t deserve to be gunned down like they were. As much as critics of Black Lives Matter insist the group advocates violence against those who protect and serve the public, few within this organization would condone the actions of either the Baton Rouge or Dallas gunman. Even when law enforcement and the criminal justice system hasn’t been above reproach, the lot of us still believe in law and order.

Yet any number of opinionated detractors will outline a yet more sinister motive to these shootings, or otherwise will resort to hyperbole in explaining their driving force. Jeanine Pirro, a former prosecutor and judge who now works for Fox News as a host of her own show on the network, minced no words in expressing her belief in an interview with Harris Faulkner, another of the channel’s on-air personalities, that the murder of the three police officers in Baton Rouge was an “attempt at anarchy,” and furthermore, that “the killing of cops is becoming normalized, it’s becoming legitimized.” She also derided President Obama’s calls for a “conversation” between blacks and police officers, and professed her lack of regard for people’s fears about the growing militarization of police forces, saying whatever is needed for officers’ protection is justified. As Judge Jeanine would have it, then, we are a country at war.

Bear in mind I am usually not wont to side with Fox News anchors and talking heads, but I take issue with a number of Ms. Pirro’s arguments as well as the very tenor of her speech. Firstly, regarding the shooting of these officers as tantamount to anarchy, their killer, from the reports I have read, believed what he was doing was serving justice for offenses against blacks by police. Not merely to be cliché, two wrongs do not make a right—and this warped vigilantism is definitely wrong, as I see it—but the Baton Rouge shooter wasn’t acting on behalf of advocacy for the dissolution of government and absolute freedom of the individual as a political ideal, as my Google search on “anarchy” defines the term. If anything, he believed—however misguidedly—that he was bringing more order to the system, not less. Secondly, who truly thinks that killing cops is a legitimate solution to the plight of black America? I don’t think very much of black America itself does, even in the face of police brutality and other hallmarks of institutional racism, but suggesting the murder of uniformed police is becoming some sort of “new normal” is a stretch, to say the least. Thirdly, ensuring police safety and militarization of police units are related issues, but there are nuances to be weighed, most notably in the attitudes that come part and parcel with the use of extreme force for situations like drug searches. The ACLU comments on this trend on its website:

Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.

The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe.

When the police view the patrol of our streets in terms of an “us vs. them” paradigm, is it any wonder that many African-Americans, especially younger individuals who have grown up with these regiment-like law enforcement units (and who by virtue of their youth may not possess the most well-developed sense of judgment), react with hostility toward the men and women in blue? Again, while the murder of officers as in Dallas or Baton Rouge is not to be excused, for this and other more defensible expressions of resistance within the black community, there is a least a context which helps explain why emotions run hot with regards to this issue on both sides of the badge.

Both the families, friends and those who knew of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, alongside the litany of other black Americans who have been treated unjustly at the hands of the law, as well as their counterparts mourning those officers who were tragically cut down in the line of duty in Louisiana and Texas, are in a state of grief and shock right now. To an extent, much of the nation feels these same emotions right now. Where anger and resentment put us on a path to hate, however, is where we lose a portion of our humanity, and in the process, plant the seeds for disunity, inequality, racism and violence to spring forth anew. Jeanine Pirro’s rhetoric is part of the problem, but hers is just one example of the kind of divisive language which characterizes the lesser outcomes of incidents like the shooting in Baton Rouge (and yet, Barack Obama is the one who’s the divider, according to her!). Surely, there is blame to be had on both halves of the equation.

Moreover, when misfortune strikes those who can speak for these two camps, effectively bridging the divide, our sense of loss is all the more poignant. Montrell Jackson, one of the three officers who lost his life on July 17 and a new father, wrote this on his Facebook account in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling:

I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.

What a sad and ironic end to the life of a man who recognized that, through his actions, he could make his community and those in it better for them, and furthermore, that hate doesn’t achieve anything but giving way to more hate. This is not to diminish, by the way, the lives and service of the two other men lost that day. Matthew Gerald was a husband, father and serviceman for both the Army and the Marine Corps. Brad Garafola was a husband and father as well, and had been with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for over two decades. Both of these men, by all accounts, were good officers and even better people. Montrell Jackson just happened to be in an unique position to embody the duality recent events have served to highlight—black and blue.

Though it may be trite to say, though Garafola, Gerald and Jackson are gone in one sense, their memory will live on. What is critical, however, for us as a nation moving forward, however, is not that we remember their sacrifice, but how we remember them, and how we approach the intersection of the fundamental rights of all people, notably African-Americans, and the ability of police officers to do their jobs effectively without compromising those rights. There has been a tendency in the numerous high-profile confrontations between blacks and law enforcement for those on the outside looking in to take sides in individual cases. Seemingly, for every activist championing the cause of Black Lives Matter, there is someone whose reverence for the men and women that serve the greater good compels them to co-opt the very namesake of their movement, calling for recognition that Blue Lives Matter and louder than those of Black Lives Matter, whether blinded by their admiration, wishing to drown out the inconvenient truths of prejudice, systemic bias against minorities, and white privilege, or some other reason.

Before automatically deciding that Barack Obama is automatically wrong for wanting to promote a dialog between blacks and police within communities, or subscribing to the viewpoint that all cops are crooked, we should consider that the major aims of Black Lives Matter and like organizations, and the wish to respect officers of the law and prevent them from undue danger, are not mutually exclusive. This is realistically difficult to argue when emotions are so raw immediately after the fact, not to mention when stereotypes of the nondescript black male as perpetrator are perpetuated on the nightly news, or when cable news shows and conservative talk radio hosts dismiss Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization, when in actuality, these anchors and pundits are merely projecting their own fears and insecurities. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we all want people to stop getting shot and killed. Black or white, police or civilian, heck—with the more-or-less constant conversation about gun control that exists in America today, any death, regardless of the specifics of the situation, seems like one too many when at the barrel of a gun. In this regard, there’s a lot more that these two sides—black and blue—have in common than some might have you believe.

At first blush, it may seem as if we are not making progress on the issues of racism and violence in our society, but as long as we keep talking about these matters, as uncomfortable as confronting them may be, we will be better off for it. Going back to the imagery of black-and-blues as bruises, though we as human beings may look different on the outside, underneath the skin, we all bleed the same color blood. Only when we begin to understand this concept can we as a nation start to live up to the greatness synonymous with the United States of America.

Black Lives Matter, but Personal Histories Don’t

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Say what you want about Alton Sterling’s past, but in the incident that led to his passing, those details don’t matter. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

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 minoritiesthey 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 headsand 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.


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Philando Castile was murdered at the hands of police. Yes, murdered. You’re not disrespecting police officers by acknowledging this truth. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

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.