I promised myself that I would not watch the video of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer. Even in the still photos of Sterling in life, I see the face of every black man I know — my 39-year-old brother, my male cousins, my college classmates, my friends.
Instead, I watched the video of Sterling’s widow speak at a press conference while her 15-year-old son sobbed next to her. I saw not just a boy reeling from the loss of his father, but the realization of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man that he too faces the same peril. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong cop.
Then to be greeted this morning by news of a second police shooting death, even more egregious than the first. A black man stopped for a broken taillight in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., shot with a 4-year-old in the back seat and his girlfriend sitting next to him. By witness accounts Philando Castile had a license to carry a handgun — a fact that he disclosed to the officer as he had been trained to do. His girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live, which has received more than 2 million views by Thursday morning.
Just as Roxanne Gay in today’s New York Times writes, I am also “so very tired.” I am distraught that two years of videos and outcry seems to have made little difference in the outcomes of these cases. It is one thing to talk quietly among family about how to be cautious in your dealings with police because you know the threat is real; it is entirely another to be bludgeoned month after month on social media by graphic images of case after tragic case with seemingly no end in sight.
We know what happens now because this brand of tragedy has become routine. The video of Mr. Sterling’s death allows us to bear witness, but it will not necessarily bring justice. There will be protest as his family and community try to find something productive to do with sorrow and rage. Mr. Sterling’s past will be laid bare, every misdeed brought to light and used as justification for police officers choosing to act as judge, jury and executioner — due process in a parking lot.
While gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association sanctimoniously argue about preservation of their Second Amendment Rights and their recent victories in Texas over campus carry and open carry, I know that I will never carry a firearm any further than a gun range. I also know that I will tell my daughters to never ride in a car with a firearm, whether the owner is licensed or not. Why? Because the “hero” image in the fight for open carry and gun rights in Texas is a white man in boots, not a black man in a hoodie.
There are problems that our society has no idea how to fix — and the issues of race and policing are in that category. Body cameras help, better training helps, community policing helps, but these are not complete solutions. Ridding ourselves of these senseless shootings requires a degree of honesty about cultural bias, white privilege and perceptions about black and brown people that I’m not confident our society can muster. And as long as the immediate (and human) instinct is to draw a weapon in the face of fear, it is inevitable that an officer will eventually shoot to kill without cause.
I watched both shooting videos this morning so that I could write this column. With each viewing I feel a small sliver of hope and optimism about the future for my daughters and my nephews being sliced away. But this is my job, so I can only hope that one day there are no more videos to watch, not because no one is brave enough to film, but because there is no longer anything to see.