Black Lives Still Matter
The Fourth of July, our Independence Day, was just three days ago. It was filled with fireworks and pride and God Bless America, a celebration of freedom. Since then, two American men have been shot and killed by police officers. Their names are Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both of their deaths were videotaped, and both videos indicate Sterling and Castile were killed unnecessarily and cruelly. These men died at the hands of the people who were supposed to protect them.
These men were black.
So here we are again. Wondering if the officers responsible for these deaths will even be indicted for their crimes. And it's the grossest form of deja vu because this is not the first time black men and women have been killed by police. Since 2014, we have mourned the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and many more black Americans who died at the hands of police officers. Tragically, these most recent deaths probably won’t be the last.
Alton Sterling was killed outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he was selling CD’s with the owner of the store’s permission. Two officers came to the scene after a homeless man made a 911 call reporting that a man who matched Sterling’s description had a gun. The officers and Sterling had a confrontation that led to the officers taking Sterling down with a taser, and then holding him down on the ground. Sterling fidgeted under the weight of the officers, so one of the officers decided he needed to use deadly force to subdue Sterling despite the fact that Sterling was already pinned to the ground. The officer coldly shot Sterling in the chest and back.
Philando Castile was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota after a police officer pulled him over for speeding. The officer shot Castile when he reached for his license and registration from his wallet, which he only did in an attempt to comply with the officer’s directions. The moments following his shooting were filmed by his girlfriend, who was sitting in the passenger seat. The girlfriend reports that Castile told the officer he had a firearm and was licensed to carry it when the officer pulled him over, providing more information than he needed to in order to ensure he was handling the situation as transparently as possible.
Castile’s death helps debunk the myth that black people are killed by police more often than white people because they are non-compliant with officers, and they somehow deserve to die due to their behavior towards police. Maybe people promote this idea because they’re racist, because they want to believe blatant racism doesn’t still exist this violently in America, or because they just want to believe that all police officers really are good guys. But a black person can follow all directions given by a police officer and still die, demonstrating that the problem isn’t about disobedience in the black community. These murders are happening because of unconscious bias and systematic racism that is still tearing our country apart.
Kendal Harris, a college student and member of the black community, strongly agrees that these deaths stem from racial prejudice and stereotyping—her lived experience has led to her expect nothing else. “My thing is,” she explains, “Why [should] we as a people...have to be trained at a young age to behave a certain way because other people want to believe that blacks are these scary human beings that only steal and kill? Growing up, I was taught to keep my hands out of my pockets and not to touch anything when I walked into a store because they would think I was stealing. I went into Francesca’s one time and they followed me around that store like I was gonna rob them of everything they had….I shouldn’t be afraid that my brother (who is frankly the least thug, [most] harmless kid out there) will get shot because someone is afraid of him based on the color of his skin. All he does is play Lego video games all day.”
Harris believes that this preconceived notion that “black dudes are these thugs, gang bangers, drug dealers, etc.” quickly escalates interactions with police into the fatal situations that Sterling and Castile experienced: “...[The police will] quickly draw a gun on a black dude to “protect themselves” before they draw a gun on a white dude. The police had already pinned [Alton Sterling] to the ground. Did it take four or six shots at point blank range to subdue this man?”
A mere week before these controversial deaths, Jesse Williams received the Humanitarian Award from BET for his work on a documentary focused on the Black Lives Matter movement; his acceptance speech was a controversy all its own. He reminded the audience and viewers of the senseless police killings of the past, emphasizing the term senseless: “Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year olds playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt.”
Or Alton Sterling.
Or Philando Castile.
Williams also spoke on the concept of freedom and how hard the black community has worked to attain freedom. “There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of,” he says, “There has been no job we haven’t done. There has been no tax that they haven’t leveed against us—and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so...free.”
The reality is that two white girls wrote this article, and that matters. The privilege of our race impacts the way we think about these issues and write this article, and denying our privilege is wrong. Not being black allows us the luxury of thinking and voicing our opinions about the relationship between black people and law enforcement without fearing for our own lives. We can watch these stories play out and react with horror, but our shock doesn’t have to become defense. And doesn’t have to become defense, but it should.
This isn’t happening to us, but these deaths are happening to Americans who have hopes and dreams and are supposed to be free—free of unfounded and deadly hatred, free of the fear associated with merely existing as who they are. The only reason it isn’t happening to us is because of a random amount of melanin that somehow determined what our lives would be like. We can’t be divided by color when the people who are supposed to protect all Americans are unjustly killing one group of Americans more than others. Freedom doesn’t mean you just celebrate your own freedom; it means you fight until everyone around you shares the same sense of security and opportunity that you enjoy everyday. It means if one group is being targeted, others have a responsibility to stand up for the voiceless until they are heard. Watching crime happen without speaking against it is the same as allowing the crime to happen, and we cannot continue to have this blood on our hands.
We don’t know how to fix this. We don’t know how to rid our society of bias and corruption completely. But we do know it starts with recognizing that this problem exists. Because there are those out there who don’t acknowledge their privilege, those who cannot see past it to view this as the very real struggle that is specifically happening to the black community. Just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. We cannot continue to blame the victims in any way—whether that be through a condemnation of the actions of the victims, black culture, or trying to justify the actions of the officers at fault.
At the same time, this does not mean that this is about us, white people. This is not our chance to vent on Facebook about how we wish the world was more beautiful or fair. That doesn't make you a revolutionary, or a savior; no one is disagreeing with you on this vague front you decided to ramble on. It is not enough to just acknowledge what is going on by sharing that last article, or to play martyr and wax poetic about how you "don't see color." You've never had to; that's the problem. Vow to use your privilege to draw attention, not to ourselves, but to the victims, to causes like Black Lives Matter, to putting black voices at the center of the discussion, and (here’s the important part) to listen to them, empower them, and support them.
Sam and Sara Lacey
P.S. here are some ways you can make a difference
Click here to raise money for Alton Sterling's childrens' college funds
Click here to raise money for Philando Castile's family
Feature photo by Annette Bernhardt/ Via Flickr