It’s becoming increasingly difficult to fight the sense that, for the rest of my life, I’ll be writing about black Americans who’ve been killed, in one way or another, by the police.
Every generation likes to believe that they’ve made progress that distinguishes them from the one before them, and the one before that. But just as many white Americans have not outgrown their violent hatred of black people, as America itself has not outgrown its practice of giving white Americans impunity for the result of this hatred—a new wave of black Americans are inheriting something close to a hatred of their nation, as well as the burden of resisting this, however we can.
In the time it took me to write about one fatal police shooting, another occurred. Originally, I intended to address Alton Sterling, a father of five from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was shot to death on Tuesday night by a police officer as he was selling bootleg CDs in a parking lot. Sterling was murdered at a point-blank range while his back was on the ground.
Then, on Wednesday, 32-year-old Philando Castile was executed by a St. Paul police officer during a traffic stop. The aftermath was caught on camera by his girlfriend, who sat in the car next to him. Her four-year-old daughter was in the back seat.
Neither man presented any reasonable danger whatsoever to the officers who shot them, though the officers will certainly end up crying danger in the inquest, and probably successfully. Alton Sterling, whose hands were empty when he was shot, had a gun in his pocket that was pulled out by the officers as he died. A woman who occasionally bought CDs from him told the AP that Sterling was hustling to make a living, and likely feared being robbed. It doesn’t seem to matter that Louisiana is an open-carry state (Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot for his toy gun, is too).
Philando Castile’s girlfriend filmed a cop in the throes of self-induced panic pointing a gun at his unconscious, bleeding body. She says the officer “asked him for license and registration. He told him that it was in his wallet, but he had a pistol on him because he’s licensed to carry. The officer said don’t move. As he was putting his hands back up, the officer shot him in the arm four or five times.”
And so this song plays again. A black life is stolen and we must now struggle to measure the pain and remember that none of our lives are really safe. We must sit with the footage of these incidents, which fill in what our imagination would write otherwise, and wonder if one of these horrifying videos will ever result in change. So far they have not. Some people will sit with their children to teach them to be cautious around state agents ostensibly tasked with protecting them. Some will cry and some will rage. Some of us will write.
Yesterday, Roxane Gay wrote a powerful piece for the New York Times on Alton Sterling and the continued disregard for black lives. Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray and Brittney Cooper about Sandra Bland. I myself have offered more than a few words on the subject.
So many of these writers—black and otherwise—write beautiful, tragic and true prose in the aftermath of these offenses about the fallacy that is being both safe and black in America. Their articles are shared and lauded and discussed and responded to and built upon. Then we wait for another—another shooting, another lost life. And we write again, and wonder: is this just the way of things now? How much time will I spend finding the correct words to say that the color of a person’s skin is not justification for ending their life? And how much time will elapse until those words mean anything to the people who actually kill us?
The shooting of black people by the police has been happening for as long as America has existed. But this cycle—the graphic videos, the celebrity social media posts, the GoFundMe campaigns, the essays, the thinkpieces, and then the wait to do it all again—it’s fully visible. We ache and we yell and we hope that, eventually, the obvious weight of all this pain will be enough to move something to change. But at times hoping in public feels even more precarious. We cannot appeal to a national conscience when, as Stokely Carmichael reminded us, there is none.
Slavery in the United States lasted about 240 years. The lynching era lasted for 70 more. And now, in 2016, black people are living through a second struggle for our civil rights: we’re asking for independent investigations, body cameras, more rigorous police training, and a minimum affordance of personhood. We’re asking for something very simple that sometimes feels impossible: for the nation to be compassionate, for the nation to recognize our humanity.
Every time another black person dies at the hands of police, it feels like we’re slamming into a wall. The state and white supremacy have perfectly crafted yet another tactic to keep us scared and compliant. As with lynching, it’s less about the total loss of life—though the numbers are horrific—and more about the constant state of fear it breeds, audible and visible in the way Philando Castile’s girlfriend refers to the officer who just shot her boyfriend as “sir.”
I can continue to vote and go to protests and sign petitions and donate money and get in arguments with racist white people. And I can write. I can write again and again for as long as the this nation piles up black bodies. But when you’ve just watched a man bleed to death after a routine traffic stop while a child sits in the back seat, it sure as hell doesn’t feel like much.