Questions on the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile
Posted on July 8, 2016
This week, two innocent black men were shot dead by police officers. On Monday evening, Alston Sterling was, as per his normal weekday schedule, selling CDs outside his local supermarket in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was also carrying a handgun in his pocket; Louisiana is an open carry state, and Sterling had been mugged in the past. Based on a phone complaint by an anonymous individual, police arrived and confronted Sterling about his gun. In the process of tackling and arresting Sterling (for what, exactly, I still don’t know), the officers had pinned Sterling to the ground, when one yelled “He’s got a gun!” Immediately after, at least one if not both officers opened fire, killing Sterling with point blank shots to the chest and back.
In a similarly disturbing case, on Wednesday evening a police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota, stopped a car for a broken tail light. Philando Castile was driving, with his girlfriend in the passenger seat and her four-year-old daughter in the back seat. The officer asked for identification; Philando informed the officer that he was carrying a handgun, with a legal carry permit, and then that he needed to reach into his back pocket to retrieve his identification. As Philando retrieved his identification, the officer opened fire, hitting Philando in the chest and arm; the girlfriend started videotaping the situation with her phone; and Castile was left to bleed out in the car, while the girlfriend was removed from the car put in handcuffs (!). Meanwhile, remember: there was a four-year-old girl in the back seat of the car. Instead of providing aid to Philando, arriving officers aided the officer involved in the shooting (though perhaps he needed it, as the video shows a frantic, panicked officer).
The completely outrageous nature of these cases — which are but two fresh examples of a long list of black men killed by police officers over the past several years — raises some questions in my mind.
1) Are we supposed to believe that two highly trained law enforcement officers in the United States of America, straddled atop one man on the ground, could not prevent this man from reaching into his pocket without resorting to deadly force? That in the 20 seconds they spent tackling and straddling him, they did not have enough time to simply grab his right arm with one or all of their four arms — but that they did have enough time to unholster both of their guns and fire several shots into the center of the man’s chest and back?
2) Are we supposed to believe that a white police officer reacting to a black man reaching for his wallet, as ordered, by pulling his gun and opening fire is … just a mistake? That the incident in no way involved explicit or implicit racial bias? Certainly this was not the reaction taught to the officer in training. Why did he react this way?
3) Are we supposed to accept that black Americans responsibly exercising their constitutional rights to bear arms open themselves up to death at the hands of law enforcement officers simply for doing so? What point is there in granting rights if the excercise of those rights will not be protected and, in some cases, will be met by police with a strong suspicion of wrongdoing and violence?
4) “Would this have happened if the driver were white?”, asked the governor of Minnesota after the killing of Philando Castile. It is true white people die in police shootings, but those deaths are typically different in nature (example: an accused criminal on the run pointing a weapon at police and/or presenting a danger to the public). Some people are claiming that Philando Castile could have been any of us, but that’s almost certainly not true. It almost certainly could not have been me. In the United States, incidents of police brutality really only involve minorities, particularly black men. Given the same circumstances, do you really think a police officer would have shot me, a white male, dead? I’ve never carried a gun, let alone in a car, but then I’ve also gotten away from more tickets than I’ve been written. I strongly suspect black men cannot claim the same thing.
5) The NRA has advocated for open carry and similar laws, and provided a full-throated defense of the right of Americans to own and carry guns after all manner of shootings — including the slaughter of school children in Newtown, Connecticut. Yet after these shootings, in which individuals exercising their right to own and carry guns were killed for doing just that, the NRA is silent. Why? Are we to believe this is coincidence and has nothing to do with race?
6) Is this what it means to live in the supposedly “greatest country in the world”? To accept that our society is arranged in such a way that peaceful, law-abiding black citizens might be shot dead by police in routine traffic stops with their family in the car, or while socializing and doing business outside neighborhood supermarkets? What does this say about our policing? What does it say about our country?
7) Finally, when will a white police officer or a predominantly white police department or union come out and admit there is a major problem with law enforcement and race in the United States? Not only would this be the right thing to do — it could also help to restore or create some faith that law enforcement in the United States. Instead, we continue to see statements from officers and unions that, in some way, defend officers and their actions. As radio host Peter Rosenberg told to one police officer:
Y’all don’t ever want to point at someone else and say “You can’t do your job well.” I could tell you right now, if I heard a radio personality get on the air and do something irresponsible, I’d go “That’s a bad radio personality. He does a bad job.” Police officers never wanna say when y’all do a bad job. So and that’s the reason the public thinks all of you are bad, because you won’t ever call someone out and say “They murdered someone in cold blood. It happened again.” And until you guys start taking responsibility for your own, people in the street are gonna be upset instead. So how about y’all lead the movement instead? How about instead of people rioting, police officers get out in front of it themselves, and you guys are the first ones on the front lines? That’s what should happen instead of you struggling to say, “Well I don’t know, it could be…” “They murdered that man. We just saw it.”
RIP, #AltonSterling and #Philando Castile
Postscript: this blog post was written prior to the horrifying killing of five police officers of the wonderful Dallas police department at a protest on police shootings. As others have said, there is absolutely no conflict between opposing police brutality and opposing the senseless killing of police officers simply trying to do their jobs and protect their fellow citizens in the exercise of their civil rights. May the officers rest in peace.