It has been nearly two years since Ferguson, often remembered as the turning point of the Black Lives Matter movement, but things haven’t improved since then. In fact, police violence is up, in both directions. People shot and killed by police is up in the first half of 2016 compared to the same timeframe of 2015. And the recent Dallas shooting marked one of the deadliest for police in American history, the most since 9/11. These tensions and aggression have increased, not decreased.
The killing of black people by police isn’t new, but it is newly exposed to the masses through film and digital connectivity. But unnecessarily politicizing objective truths isn’t helpful, and if anything, it has proved to be more divisive. It is possible to believe that police brutality exists in the US, emerging largely from systemic racism that has never been entirely eradicated. It is possible to be disgusted and horrified at the slaughtering of police officers, who are trying to serve and protect our people. These are not mutually exclusive sentiments, but are opinions of the same face of the coin: enough is enough, no more violence.
The recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille had a few things in common. Firstly, they were publicly executed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the former case, police were alerted to a man allegedly threatening to shoot a gun, only to arrive to find a man illegally selling CDs outside a store in Baton Rouge, LA, where he was well known by the community. Two police officers ended up pinning him to the ground and seconds later pulling their own guns to shoot and kill him. Somehow, however, both officers’ body cams had “fallen off” prior to the confrontation. Alton Sterling did not draw a weapon as was claimed by police officers, shown by an amateur cell phone videographer. Instead, the whistleblower was arrested within 24 hours of filming the footage, as he was surrounded by ten militarized officers, some of who carried M-16 rifles for “assault and battery” (allegedly), which ended up being unpaid traffic tickets, leading to LeDay, the videographer, to spend 26 hours in jail and pay a fine. This is rather similar to how Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner’s murder, was the only one at the scene criminally charged with wrongdoing. This speaks volumes. Why are individuals being criminalized for legally filming police officers brutalizing fellow citizens? Why is law enforcement trying to implicitly intimidate individuals from capturing instances of injustice?
Philando Castile was stopped while driving with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Castile informed the officer that he had a licensed gun in the vehicle, a Second Amendment right that people have apparently forgotten about in just a couple days. But alerting the officer didn’t seem to help, as when the officer asked Castile for his license and registration and Castile reached to get it, he was shot multiple times and died, bleeding, next to his girlfriend and in front of a 4-year-old, all of which was live streamed on Facebook.
The governor of Missouri, where this second incident took place had the decency to admit that perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if the family inside the vehicle were white instead of black. But this was bound to happen. This wasn’t a lone incident. Philando Castile was stopped by cops 52 times in the past 14 years. He is remembered as a supervisor in a local school cafeteria, where he reminded children to eat their vegetables, would remember the name of each child, and would often sneak extra food to the kids. He was seen by the community as a role model, who graduated from the school in which he would later work, and is remembered as quiet, respectful, kind, funny, smart, and over-qualified.
Alton Sterling had been scrutinized for being a criminal and having a record, thereby somehow justifying his death. Regardless of his criminal record, which admittedly is lengthier than expected, we must remember that each offense was (supposedly) judiciously dealt with, but selling CDs illegally somehow warranted public execution. The story purported by the police officers of him drawing a weapon were unfounded, and the situation, much like Castile’s and thousands others, were unnecessarily escalated.
Both were registered gun owners, yet the NRA has nothing to offer, as the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to second-class citizens. Instead, in the next several hours, many cities not only across the nation, but around the world, began staging protests, demonstrations, and marches in support of black lives. This seeming outbreak and passing an important and recognized threshold was quickly overshadowed by a tragic sniper attack in Dallas that killed five cops by a man who wanted revenge on white people, police officers in particular, and was also angry at the Black Lives Matter movement.
Of course, this one unstable individual was not indicative of the Black Lives Matter movement, he did not represent President Obama’s call for police reform, he was not a manifestation of the anger and fear that black people across the nation feel. But he was treated as such, by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Fox News contributors, and former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who went as far as to incite a race war and threaten the POTUS.
When people of color are systematically executed by law enforcement year after year after year, we remind ourselves to not blame all of law enforcement. The vast majority, we remind ourselves, are good people doing a tough job. There are some racist cops. There exists systematic racism. There is a police culture that breeds violent confrontations. But at no point are all cops blamed. But when an individual pledging to hate the Black Lives Matter movement and police officers commits a horrific crime, the right is quick to blame President Obama and the entire movement.
Black Lives Matter isn’t a political statement. It isn’t a minority issue. It is an American issue, and it is a moral issue. And the people claiming that all lives matter ought to be asked why, then, they aren’t participating in Black Lives Matter protests. Are not Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and countless others’ lives included in that grand lump of all lives? When people say “all lives matter,” more often than not, what they mean is they do not wish to focus on the issue of black lives mattering. They wish to generally say that to them all lives matter and to do something about a particular subgroup of lives is somehow racist (?) because race is brought up. This only speaks to how uncomfortable vast pockets of our nation still are with regards to speaking about racial topics in an open and honest manner.
There is a reason you have never seen an All Lives Matter protest. There is a reason as to why cops kill black people at nearly twice the rate of killing white people. And bringing up black-on-black crime as a scapegoat for sidestepping the issue, that somehow black communities need to worry about killing each other rather than law enforcement picking out and shooting young black men is not a valid reason to stop talking about systemic racism. Black-on-black violence is, as one writer eloquently explains, “the foolishness of attributing violent criminality to blackness—rather than particular conditions faced by some black people—and the injustice of treating all blacks as criminally suspect because of the actions of a small minority.”
The media’s framing of these issues and the loudest voices in these talks are often of those least informed on the issues. These ideas are not incompatible: police brutality has to end, killing cops has to stop, and racism is well and alive in our nation, and it’s about time we admit it and address it.
This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine.