The death of Black people at the hands of law enforcement has become so commonplace and routine that many of us who are African-American have managed to become simultaneously outraged and psychologically numb. Over the past few years, we have become front row spectators to grainy and, in some cases, graphic footage of police offices engaged in horrific levels of violent behavior toward people of African descent.
Tamir Rice, Ousmane Zongo, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Kayla Moore and Tanisha Anderson are among those whose deadly encounters readily come to mind. We can now add Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to the growing number of victims of a list that is already far too long. The world has witnessed Sterling, 37, being shot multiple times at the hands of police officers, Blane Salamoni, a four-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police and Howie Lake II, a three-year employee. He was shot like an animal.
While we all have been asked to wait for “due process” and to “wait for the facts,” many Black folk with good reason are likely bracing ourselves for the likelihood that justice (as has been the case in far too many incidents involving Black citizens) will fail to materialize. As predictable, the standard police defense of the officers is that Sterling was armed and thus they feared for their lives. The fact that one of the police officers removed an object from his bag draws their (police officers) explanation into question. To their credit, the Justice Department immediately launched an investigation into the matter. The incident is disturbing on many levels.
Witnessing the news conference of Quinyetta McMillon’s oldest child weeping as he cried out for his father while his mother read an impassioned statement denouncing the slaying of her husband and her now fatherless children, advocating for justice was indeed a chilling and haunting moment for people across racial lines. It was a clarion call demanding that justice be served.
Predictably, there have been certain segments of the media and right-wing trolls who have wasted no time going on a perverse form of offense, brazenly attacking Sterling’s character. They say he was a violent man, was a deadbeat father, had a lengthy criminal record and so on. Personal flaws aside (and we all have our shortcomings), it is probably safe to say that he never fatally pumped four bullets into another human being while that person was pinned on the ground. The entire issue is sickening.
The fact is that, since stepping foot on the shores of America, Black lives and bodies have been routinely scrutinized, objectified, sexualized and racialized. For many people, Black bodies and Black people, children as well as adults, have never been seen as fully human. All too often, we have been seen as men and women who are largely primitive and invisible, largely denied any degree of humane acknowledgment from mainstream society.
One has to answer whether the average White person be the victim of such random violence by police officers. The answer is absolutely not! The fact is that, if White people were routinely and randomly subjected to police violence and being gunned down in the street by law enforcement duplicative to the rate of Black and Hispanic people, there would be calls for congressional demonstrations and cries of protests so loud that it would result in political suicide for any politician or police force who dared to ignore such a rallying cry and decisive message.
An equally formidable message must become a reality for people of color as well.
There are police officers and other members of law enforcement (arguably most) who are decent, law-abiding human beings who manage to perform admirably doing a job that undeniably is stressful. There also is a faction — one is too many — of those with badges who are not and shamelessly abuse their power. White denial, resistance and other factors notwithstanding, Black people are human beings and deserve to be treated with as much respect and dignity as any other group of people.
These killings are modern day lynchings. Such sadistic behavior and wicked disregard for people of color cannot continue.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.