How Not to React to Stories about Police Shootings, from One White Person to Another

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Did Keith Lamont Scott (left) and Terrence Crutcher (right) have to die as a result of their encounters with police? Your answer may have more to do with the color of your skin, and the color of theirs, than you’d like to admit. (Image retrieved from rinf.com.)

Unfortunately, it seems that all you have to do nowadays is to wait a week or two, maybe a month, and soon enough, you’ll have news of another fatal shooting of a black person at the hands of police reach the national consciousness. Yesterday, it was Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today, it’s Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Though the pain for the black communities of Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, NC, respectively, is nothing less than the kind experienced by African-Americans and other concerned citizens in Baltimore and other cities, regrettably, for many Americans watching, instances of this sort of scenario are becoming old-hat. Black individual (most likely male) is stopped as part of “routine” police business. He is shot and killed by police, or otherwise subdued in a lethal fashion. The exact details of what transpired during the incident are debated. One or more people involved with the arrest-turned-fatal is put on administrative leave and later arrested themselves. Seemingly more often than not, those who face trial are legally absolved of their role in their proceedings. Frequently, as a result of the initial violence or the ruling which acquits the accused officer(s), there are vocal protests and/or more violence which threatens the lives of those in affected communities, not to mention the surrounding buildings and other property. It’s an awful set of scenarios, but sadly, it’s not one we haven’t heard before.

Likewise unfortunately, many of the same reactions we have heard from the likes of critics of the deceased, a good number of them white, conservative and/or Donald Trump supporters, are well familiar to us by now. With my use of the word “unfortunate” in this context, it’s obvious I am making a judgment about these critical reactions, and one the intended audience for this post is unlikely to absorb because a) not many people follow my blog to begin with, and b) my liberal attitudes would likely dissuade them from reading further. I also fully understand, as an average white dude with no formal basis in African-American studies, anthropology, or a related field, I am not the most qualified person to comment on these matters. All of the above notwithstanding, allow me to add my 47 cents (two cents, adjusted for inflation) and opine as to why so many self-righteous attackers of the victims in these situations and uniform defenders of uniformed police are, well, wrong. In doing so, I will try to consider multiple angles and the “broader picture,” which, in a writing-oriented context such as this, is usually advisable. So, here goes nothing.

First things first, stop saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”

If we’re going to have an honest conversation about race relations in the United States and the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re going to have to get past this “all lives matter” nonsense. First of all, the very notion of “all lives matter” actively seeks to negate the fundamentally most important word in the original phrase: “black.” As John Halstead, writing for Huffington Post, argues, this alteration only serves to betray white people’s discomfort with blackness and black cultural identity. Moreover, the use of the phrase “all lives matter” speaks to an attempt at racial colorblindness, a theoretical concept which only white people can hope to benefit from owing to the reality whiteness is treated as the cultural default in American society. We can only pretend not to see black people, their trials and their tribulations for so long. Many people of color, meanwhile, can’t help but see how differences in skin color matter, because they’ve experienced some degree of prejudice or animosity against them. In other words, to insist “all lives matter” because “race doesn’t matter” is to suffer from a serious case of white privilege.

Besides this bit of sociological theory, when it comes to simple logic, the concepts of “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. After all, if all lives truly matter, there should be no problem admitting that black lives, as a subset of all lives, matter in them of themselves. Saying “black lives matter” doesn’t mean you believe that black lives matter more than others. It means you believe that black lives should matter as much those of whites and other races, which is clearly not the case, because if it were, there would be no need for a movement called Black Lives Matter in the first place. Black lives matter. Say it. If you can’t, we already have a problem.

Black Lives Matter is not all about killing police.

The vast, vast majority of people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are opposed to violence against cops as well as violence against everyday citizens at the hands of the police. I obviously can’t speak for the organization or for black people in general, but I tend to think most African-Americans have respect for individual officers of the law, and activists who criticize police departments are interested in bringing only those who abuse the badge to justice, as well as dismantling the prejudicial systems that facilitate bad behavior within their ranks. To put this another way, protests by black activists, by and large, do not cause violence—but rather expose it. Calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist” organization or “hate group” is a blatant attempt to de-legitimize the movement because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative—or worse, is designed specifically to silence the truth.

Not all protesters want to burn buildings, loot stores, or smash windows.

Just as very few African-Americans encourage hostility and violence against police officers, it is the worst among them who show their frustration at brutality against their brothers and sisters in the form of rioting, violence and destruction. Certainly, most people within the black communities affected by unrest like that experienced in Baltimore and now Charlotte would condemn this sort of behavior, and I don’t excuse those actions. Still, even if the logic behind expressing one’s rage by lighting a car on fire is faulty, you can understand the raw emotion behind it, can’t you?

Well, if you’re white, maybe you can’t. Whatever your level of sympathy, viewing violent protests through a biased lens—that is, viewing looting and rioting as an inherently “black” phenomenon—is faulty in its own right. I mean, in 2011, following a Game 7 loss by the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, there was a riot in the city of Vancouver. In Canada, for gosh darn’s sake! If a bunch of riled-up hosers can tear shit up, anyone has that potential—black or white.

Barring one or more outstanding warrants, personal histories don’t matter when it comes to why someone is stopped by police or why they end up shot and killed.

Almost immediately after news breaks of a shooting by officers of the law of a black suspect, the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd and vigilante social media “thug” police set upon providing reasons why the men and women with the badges were unequivocally justified in their response, and why the deceased, in all likelihood, deserved it. As a function of what frequently amounts to character assassination, this sanctioning of police brutality is viewed through the lens of some criminal past of the victim’s, as if to say, “He wasn’t exactly the most law-abiding citizen. Why am I not surprised he reached for his gun?”

Stop. Unless the person gets killed had outstanding warrants for his or her arrest necessitating pursuit or influencing the judgment of the police officers involved, any criminal history is irrelevant. Alton Sterling pulled a gun on a homeless person who kept asking him for money. Did he deserve to die for it? Philando Castile had numerous run-ins with the police for traffic violations. Did he deserve his fate too? In so many cases of police brutality and shootings, and of police interceding in general, a critical element of why African-Americans and other people of color are stopped is the color of their skin. It’s called racial profiling, and I’m sure you know the term. Police forces say they don’t do it or encourage it, much as we white people might say we aren’t racist against blacks, but to that, I say they totally do it, and for all of us melanin-challenged individuals, here’s another term for you: implicit racism. Look it up. You might actually learn something.

Besides, if we’re invoking people’s personal histories and legal troubles, there’s a chance the same preceding logic of “they were probably guilty” can be used the other way around. In the case of Terrence Crutcher, Officer Betty Shelby was arrested for manslaughter for her role in the shooting. Shelby, as it turns out, was mentioned in a Tulsa PD November 2010 use of force report, has been involved in several domestic incidents in her adult life, and by her own admission, used marijuana recreationally as a teenager. If we’re applying the same conduct standards to Betty Shelby, then she’s lucky she’s on the “right” side of the badge, because she might as well have been shot in that moment. For her sake, all that’s important is what Shelby and witnesses say happened leading up to and including Crutcher’s shooting, what the evidence of the crime scene bears out, and whether the reports and the evidence match. Unless you’re already doubting her judgment just because she’s a woman (I, for the record, am not), and that’s another proverbial can of worms I don’t care to open in this space.

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Betty Shelby was cited in a 2010 use of force report by the Tulsa Police Department and was involved in multiple domestic incidents in her adult life. By some people’s logic, doesn’t that mean she’s probably guilty in her own criminal case? (Photo Credit: Tulsa County Jail)

Black people are allowed to have guns in an open-carry jurisdiction.

I’m no jurist, but um, I believe this is true. If everyone in a particular state is allowed to carry a gun, as an extension of our vaunted Second Amendment rights, then in theory, all things considered equal, an African-American suspected of wrongdoing should be viewed as no more hostile or a threat than an individual by any other skin color. And yet, we know this isn’t the case. Despite evidence cited by John Halstead and others that blacks shot by police are no more likely to be an imminent lethal threat to officers than whites in similar situations, they are disproportionately fired upon by officers of the law, and it has nothing to do with them being “violent criminals” or even being apprehended in a “violent” community. The predicting factor is their race. And I’m not even going to go into a diatribe about the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted as potential perpetrators of crimes or arrested and jailed for committing certain crimes, notably drug-related offenses—even though there is plenty, ahem, ammunition on this front.

What this all boils down to, essentially, is that there is a double standard for blacks and whites carrying guns in the United States of America, as there is with any number of individual liberties. Bill Maher recently discussed this subject on Real Time, arguing, among other things: 1) there is a double standard for gun carry and ownership in this country, such that “open carry” apparently only means “open carry for white people” (on a related note, Maher suggested that, evidently, only white people like Donald Trump are justified in their anger, whereas black protestors and Black Lives Matter activists are treated as agitators or advocates of violence against police/whites), 2) that police should not automatically be “emptying their clips” at the first sign of something that “makes them nervous,” and 3) that officers like Betty Shelby should be better trained to handle a situation such as the one involving the death of Terrence Crutcher, and if they are still as nervous as Shelby appears to have been during their fateful encounter, they shouldn’t be doing their job, or at least not in such a capacity that they could potentially end someone’s life at a routine traffic stop. Granted, people like myself and Bill Maher don’t know what it’s like emotionally and physically to be involved in such an altercation as the one Betty Shelby faced from the officer’s point of view, but just the same, I don’t feel police officers and their departments should be above scrutiny on the use of force. Not when lives hang in the balance.

If an official video recording of a shooting exists, in the interest of transparency, police departments should want the public to see the footage.

You know, unless there’s something they don’t want the public to see—though that won’t necessarily stop the truth from eventually emerging, especially not in this day of cell phone ubiquity. What has struck me about the rather defensive reaction from a number of local police unions, police departments, and even supporters of the men and women in blue after fatal shooting events is that these groups seem to have forgotten that the police work to serve and protect the public—and not the other way around. Of course, this does not mean we should encourage police to walk into dangerous situations without the requisite defenses. Many good people have lost their lives in the interest of preserving order. At the same time, however, if protocol is being observed and a reasonable person would be able to observe that the apprehending officer or officers acted responsibly, there should be no reason forces shouldn’t want us to see the footage. Even if one or more officers involved unknowingly violated established guidelines, given the gravity or peril of the situation, they could be afforded some administrative clemency, or some sympathy from the general public. Likewise, when there is evidence to suggest that failure to comply with laws/rules manifested, as in the case of an officer “going rogue,” the powers-that-be in police departments should want to know this information. After all, these departments, as part of a larger and valuable societal institution, should strive to remain above reproach, and in theory, should be thankful to those that point out wrongdoing within their ranks.

Instead, as noted, the prevailing sentiment seems to be one of contentious resistance to criticism and scrutiny of our uniformed police. Black Lives Matter and other black rights activists protest the use of deadly force when it is seemingly unwarranted, only to be painted as would-be cop killers and ingrates. Colin Kaepernick kneels to acknowledge there is injustice in America’s criminal justice system today during the playing of the National Anthem. He, too, is branded disrespectful and a traitor, and is angrily told that if he doesn’t like it, he can kindly move to Canada or some other country. Beyoncé pays homage to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Police threaten to boycott her shows. Indeed, while not exactly a uniform response, too many uniformed police have met well-founded objections and calls for justice with, to be honest, fairly childish attitudes. It is, in fact, possible to still show respect for officers of the law and want to see proper procedure followed and offenders brought to justice. Money and privilege shouldn’t exempt people from prosecution, and neither should the badge.


There’s much more on this subject upon which to expound, but I’ll leave it to the people truly qualified to wax philosophical on what is the right course of action going forward for the country. Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to revisit these same themes in the near future. Another shooting. Another community in grief. Another dash of salt in a deep wound that divides our nation, black and white, as well as though who see there is a problem versus those who think people are merely “playing the race card” and trying unduly to invoke a sense of white guilt. This issue is not going away, and with people continuing to take sides and becoming more entrenched in their belief the other side is wrong, or even what’s wrong with America, it’s evidently not going away anytime soon.

The larger significance of tragedies like the shootings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I submit, is that if more accountability is not demanded of those who serve the public interest on behalf of African-Americans and people of color—be they elected politicians, executives of publicly-held corporations, officers of the law, or other individuals in positions of influence—this moves us all dangerously further along the path to wide disparities of power between the public and those who represent it. Congress is already disliked by a vast majority of Americans for being beholden to special interests and generally proving ineffective in authoring substantive public policy. Numerous corporations over the years have violated the trust of their customers and shareholders in the quest for short-term profits and maximum gains. If police forces continue to operate all but unchecked, their actions sanctioned by juries of shooting victims’ peers and certain task forces resembling miniature armies, those apocalyptic visions of the future we have seen in sci-fi movies, in which cities and whole countries are ruled as part of a police state, might not seem so far-fetched down the road after all. I may seem like I’m being overdramatic here, but many of us probably thought a Donald Trump presidency was a joke or a worst-case scenario—and yet here we are.

In short, wake the f**k up, White America. People are being killed in incidents that objective observers have likened to lynching. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings are dying in the street, in instances in which deadly force likely could have been avoided. And if we keep trying to deflect blame and reason away this fact, we all risk having our civil liberties infringed upon and our overall sense of freedom curtailed at the hands of larger forces. Until we realize that the deaths of American citizens like Terrence Crutcher and Keith Scott affect us all, we’re not ready to make real progress in the United States. Not by a long shot.

Sitting Down to Stand Up: The Colin Kaepernick Remix

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Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his decision not to stand for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner means something, and our reactions speak volumes about where we are in 2016 on race relations in America, as well as what the First Amendment and true patriotism entail. (Photo retrieved from yahoo.com.)

These days, with cameras on every cellphone and the proliferation of online content and social media such that content is easily shared and thus highly visible, not much that we as human beings do goes unnoticed. The NFL, of course, one of the most successful organizations in professional sports today, is no exception. That’s why when running back Marshawn Lynch took to the sidelines and enjoyed some celebratory Skittles once upon a time, or quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to sneak a bite of a hot dog while as the quarterback of the New York Jets, or when Sanchez, still with the Jets, um, picked his nose and wiped it on his teammate’s jersey, word got around, and because the Internet remembers everything, these athletes will always be linked to their less-than-private moments.

It is no great wonder, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions and comments concerning police brutality against African-Americans and the overall treatment of blacks in the United States have caused such a firestorm of controversy. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback—though whether or not he will actually remain on the team has been in question even before he started gaining attention for his political and social stances—has caused a stir among casual football fans and even those people who don’t follow sports for his decision not to stand up for the playing of the national anthem before the start of a recent preseason contest. Here’s what Kaepernick had to say about his very public, ahem, stand on the issue of race relations in America:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Colin Kaepernick is not mincing his words here, and I am of the belief that he shouldn’t with respect to a subject of such relevance today, necessitating talk of expanding the use of body cameras within police forces and activism on the part of Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups. Certainly, though, others disagree with his viewpoint, not to mention the form of his protest, and made their objections to his silent refusal very vocal indeed. Former New York Giants running back and current CBS Sports radio show host Tiki Barber, for one, voiced his displeasure with Kaepernick’s actions, saying this:

I agree with his desire to continue the narrative. There are issues in this country. That, you have to commend him for. But I don’t commend him for sitting and not honoring this country and our flag.

Barber, for his trouble, was roundly criticized for aiming to lecture someone on their behavior when he, among other things, ditched his pregnant wife for his 23-year-old blonde “sidepiece,” but at least his argument was a more nuanced one. Others were more unequivocal, with athletes from other sports such as John Daly and Tony Stewart going so far as to call Colin Kaepernick an “idiot.” And lest we envision this as merely a black-vs.-white controversy, instead of a red, white and blue one, former NFL player and sports personality Rodney Harrison had to recently apologize for comments he made in anger that Kaepernick isn’t really black (Colin was born to a white mother and raised by white adoptive parents). Clearly, not all current and former players support Colin Kaepernick, and perhaps fittingly, there aren’t clean divisions of opinions along racial lines regarding the biracial quarterback’s protest.

However seriously football players, athletes and other critics are taking Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, for those who disagree with it, the same types of comments seem to predominate, and I think each is worthy of dissection on its own merit.

“He should respect the flag.”

Jerry Rice, whose legacy among the greatest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League is unquestioned, is among those who believe not standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner equates to disrespecting the American flag, and by proxy, I guess, America. To say that Colin Kaepernick, by staying seated, it is disrespecting the flag, however, may be to make a faulty assumption. The Supreme Court has affirmed twice within the past 30 years that flag desecration, in particular burning, is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution as “symbolic speech.” Granted, one can’t just go taking other people’s flags and burning them all willy-nilly, but like it or not, people can burn the flag however they want, barring context-specific restrictions. In Kaepernick’s case, he is merely refusing to stand, and certainly not bringing flames into the situation. Literally speaking, the QB isn’t doing anything to make a demonstration against the Stars and Stripes.

“He’s disrespecting the men and women who serve our country.”

In his explanation of the reasons behind his actions, there’s nothing to suggest Colin Kaepernick is showing a disrespect toward or protest against members of the United States military, let alone those who serve and protect the public faithfully as officers of the law. Kaepernick’s concerns are with systemic bias and prejudice against blacks and other people of color in America, and accordingly, reflect frustration with racial inequality rather than specific individuals. Either way, again, he is not making any pointed attacks against our servicemen and -women, and is simply showing his discontent for the status quo. Moreover, it is not out of character for him, as he frequently posts civil rights-oriented material on social media.

Such is apparently the state of today’s hyper-patriotism where any perceived slight against our soldiers or against the United States, whether this takes the form of choosing not to stand for the playing of the national anthem, criticizing the endless War on Terror (and bear in mind, this is a knock on the mission and its parameters or lack thereof, not the troops themselves), or not wishing to throw piles of money at the Department of Defense, is liable to earn someone of an opposing viewpoint a harsh rebuke. However, it is not as if our veterans would necessarily think raging against conscientious objectors to standing for the Star-Spangled Banner is the right course of action. Going back to 1989 and the notion of flag desecration, before United States v. Eichman reaffirmed flag burning is protected as free speech, President Bush signed into law the Flag Protection Act of 1989, and who protested by lighting cloth aflame? It was Vietnam veterans, furious in thinking they put their lives on the line so that future generations could have fewer freedoms. As they would have it, they fought for the sanctity of the Constitution, not for a piece of colored fabric that costs $20 or less at the local store.

“There’s a time and a place for that kind of protest.”

This paraphrases the thoughts of Alex Boone, an offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings, who admittedly has a bit of a personal connection to the Stars and Stripes and to our Armed Forces with a brother who served as a Marine in deadly combat situations. Here’s some more of what he had to say when interviewed by reporters and asked how he would’ve handled the situation if he were still playing for San Francisco, in his own words:

See, I’m a very emotional person. So I think if I had known that, my emotions would’ve been rolling—I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline. And I get that he can do whatever he wants. But there’s a time and a place. Show some respect, and that’s just how I feel.

With all due respect to showing respect, Alex, what exactly is the right time and place for such a protest? At 3 AM in his living room—with no one around him? This is the big problem I have with people suggesting there’s a time and place for a protest. I think if it were up to people like Boone, such a show of dissent would never occur, at least not in this country. Often enough, when people offer some pointed criticism of the United States that is judged by others who are self-appointed arbiters of patriotism as borderline heretical, they will offer something along the lines of, “You don’t like it here? Why don’t you leave?” Presumably, these angry defenders of America’s virtues would be apt to point the original critic to Canada, or Europe, or some other region assessed to be a home “for pussies.”

Barring the logistical difficulties of suddenly relocating upon request, this kind of thinking, despite the “best” intentions of the jingoist expressing herself of himself, is the most un-American expression of them all, in that it tries to squelch those opinions the expresser doesn’t like, thereby ironically limiting expression. It is thereby antithetical to our American ideal of the “home of the free.” In modern-day political and social theory, a mindset outside of black-or-white thinking seems to be one of a dying breed, such that one must agree or disagree with a political candidate, ideology or party in sum, or else risk looking wishy-washy or whiny. Speaking of black and white, as we must keep stressing, Colin Kaepernick is sitting out the playing of the national anthem because of the need he feels to express his anguish at seeing African-Americans get routinely shot and killed by police, a sentiment that already has been co-opted by the kinds of people who see Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization and inherently anti-cop or anti-white (see also All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter). Now throw a perceived slight toward past and present members of the military into the fray, and there’s no way Kaepernick’s message can survive over the shouting. Or, as Dylan Hernandez, writing for the Los Angeles Times put it, “A well-meaning Colin Kaepernick starts a conversation that, sadly, seems headed nowhere.”


As you might imagine, not everyone has been critical of Colin Kaepernick, though it should be noted few public figures have fully embraced him, either deferring to the idea “it’s a free country,” or saying they feel his message is important without “approving of his methods.” Hall of Famer Jim Brown says he is behind Colin 100%, though for him, the top issue is young black men killing other young black men. Perhaps the best defense of Kaepernick’s stance, meanwhile, comes not from a civil rights attorney or even a fellow football player, but rather a basketball player. Like Brown, this man carries quite a bit of clout as a legend of his sport, as well as someone very politically engaged on a personal level. In an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how our response to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand reveals more about what we think and how we express our patriotism than it does him (Kaepernick). From the beginning of Abdul-Jabbar’s essay:

During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.

In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.

The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.

Kareem goes on to say that Kendricks’ and Kaepernick’s actions carry meaning because they involved sacrifices; for Sam Kendricks, he broke concentration to salute his country, risking poor performance. In Colin Kaepernick’s case, he made a stand knowing full well this could jeopardize his place on the team and in the National Football League, as well as cause sponsors to bail on him, and yet he did so anyway, vowing to continue his protest as long as he deems sufficient. Both seemingly small gestures are much bigger than the sum of their physical requirements.

It also should be recalled that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not the first of its kind in sports. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, some 20 years ago, sat during the playing of the national anthem for a game in opposition to America’s “oppression” and “tyranny,” a decision which was instrumental in the demise of his NBA career. In Major League Baseball in 2004, Carlos Delgado did not take the field for the playing of “God Bless America” over political objections, for which he caught his fair share of heat, too. Going back further in time, there are a number of salient examples of political protests in and out of sports. The flag-burning at the hands of Vietnam vets has been discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likewise touches upon it in his editorial, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics, and obviously, Rosa Parks’ historic act of “sitting down to stand up” is alluded to in the title of this article. Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his stance on police brutality is important, particularly because this is 2016 and we still have so far to come in this country with respect to race relations. If we can put aside our emotions and prejudices long enough, we might be able to use this event as a springboard for an authentic discussion about race and other related issues. With the NFL regular season soon to begin, however, and with a presidential election not far behind, I worry that larger discussion will be quick to get swept under the proverbial rug as a function of the calendar year and the 24-hour news cycle, and that is indeed a shame.

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.


Philando-Castile
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.