On Alton Sterling: America Must Face Its Demons

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

Waking up to a text message from a close friend that read “I’m sick of the police,” I didn’t respond immediately, instead typing “police shooting” into Google and instantly coming across an article from The Advocate about the shooting of Alton Sterling by an officer of the Baton Rouge Police Department.

I watched the video, punctuated by the crying of a woman after the camera was turned away, facing nothing but black. The woman’s sobs continue until the video ends.

Reacting to police shootings is something that happens with a frequency. The discussions. Reading the news headlines. And, if you’ve got the stomach for it, reading comment threads to the stories published across the Internet.

Reading the work of NY Daily News’s Shaun King, whose own history with police brutality lends a deep human element to his words, is sobering, frustrating and sad:

The sum total of the injustice and lack of progress has left activists absolutely exhausted. We’ve tried protesting, and we will continue to protest, but it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. I don’t know where we go from here, but I know this much — I don’t like how I feel right now and I don’t like what I see brewing in the future of this nation.

As King notes in another article published today, while black men comprise less than 10 percent of the total US population, they are victims of police shootings over 40 percent of the time. A Washington Post study puts forth an almost unreal 700 percent “more likely” rate for unarmed black men and youth to be killed by police than unarmed whites.

In July 2016 alone, police in the United States have killed 15 people. That’s a number many other Western nations see throughout the course of a year, or several. Added to this, 2016’s rate of deadly police shootings in the United States currently projects to be the highest yet recorded.

When Ferguson, Missouri exploded after the high-profile shooting of Mike Brown, when parts of Baltimore burned after the death of Freddie Gray, when masses of New Yorkers marched for Eric Garner (and Trayvon, and Tamil, and Sandra, ad nauseam) — what else could be expected?

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Yearning for justice takes many forms. Sometimes crowds gather and chant. Sometimes property is destroyed. Sometimes tea is dumped into a harbor. There are any number of historical examples that the oppressed have employed as a means to push back, at the very least to assert their own dignity. At the most, to exact revenge.

And if a group somewhere does take a hard look at the numbers, determines that enough is enough, and goes on the offensive, we will immediately be expected to side with authority. With the law. With the very institutions which have failed.

We’d be expected to view aggressors as dangerous, subversive elements to order. Threats to the peace in our lives, by whatever relative measure it may exist. It’s a narrative pushed through so many of these stories.

As expected, The Advocate’s report included among its other details a full 20-year scope of  Alton Sterling’s criminal activity. Sterling, lying on his back, bleeding out from several gunshots to the chest, gave his last breath at 37. By all means, let’s bring up aggravated assault charges from when he was 17.

Let’s bring up the charges in 2000 that he possessed unlawful carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Sex crimes against minors are serious things and evoke strong reactions, but Alton Sterling went to prison for it. His sentence was three and a half year’s longer than Brock Turner’s will be.

As for 2009 charges of possessing marijuana with the intent to sell, and “illegal” firearms, he also went to prison for those. He served five years. He was already punished for these transgressions no matter how major a sex offense can be, or how illegitimate drug laws are, he still served time.

As for “illegal firearms”, I don’t have a concrete enough grasp on the nuances of Louisiana’s laws to uncover where among the nation’s most liberal gun laws there are regulations on possessing them. In a state where you don’t need a background check, license, or registration to have a weapon, and where open carry is legal, it defeats the purpose of bringing up guns in the first place. Guns will of course, however, take a prime role in the developing narrative of this latest shooting.

A great deal of oxygen is spent on discussion around whether or not victims of police shootings were armed or not. The arguments go, if the suspect was armed, they were asking for it, or they were, by association, criminally-minded, or a credible threat to the police. These arguments, though, are recycled by the same people who, in the wake of mass shootings, suggest that we all be armed at all times.

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Guns are for heroes among us, unless you’re a criminal, then they aren’t. So it goes. It’s a very flexible argument, designed to be pliable with the intent of proving a Tweet-length point. When it comes to arguments, concision is king; they who say it quicker and shorter, carry the crowd. It’s a key element of propaganda, after all.

Facing our own history, there is a deeply-rooted and fundamental malice aimed at black males when it comes to guns. Ronald Reagan can deride the presence of guns when the Black Panthers stormed the California state Capitol building in 1967,  but when the Bundy family took explicit aim at federal agents, they ascended to folk hero status especially among the alt right spectrum of Americans.

We can go back to 1640 to find race-based gun laws in Virginia. There’s little doubt that these created a segregated view of gun ownership in the same manner that racist laws at the same place and time created animosity between lower classes when poor whites were granted just a bit more privilege than their black counterparts.

But pulling from Shaun King’s words earlier today, what can the black community do? Thinking back to that day in May of 1967, it’s important to remember the words of Bobby Seale on the steps of the Capitol building in Sacramento:

“Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. All of these efforts have been answered by more repression, deceit and hypocrisy. As the aggression of the racist American government escalates in Vietnam, the police agencies of America escalate the oppression of black people throughout the ghettoes of America. Vicious police dogs, cattle prods, and increased patrols have become familiar sights in black communities. City Hall turns a deaf ear to the pleas of black people for relief from this increasing terror.”

The similarities are too close. Responsibility does not fall directly on police to stop deadly encounters, it’s a shared responsibility of our entire society that we will achieve only through the deliberate means of actively confronting history, policy, law, privilege and racism in the United States. Mostly, for allies too, it will take a lot of listening.

We can’t just legislate it all away. It’s cultural.

America scrambles and clamors to forget its past while its reality is set to a constant loop.

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