For the longest time I’ve avoided writing about this issue, mostly because whenever I attempted to, I found myself bogged down by the sheer amount of information and emotion I felt the need to convey. I think I can partially attribute this to the history major part of my brain trying to explain the causality of everything, which, when talking about black lives in America, reaches quite far back. I toyed with the idea of writing about the recent Baton Rouge murder and just when I had talked myself out of it; I received a swift kick in the chest in the form of another murder.
For those who don’t know, the last 48 hours have seen the death of two different black men at the hand of police officers, 37-year-old Anton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and 32-year-old Philando Castile in Minnesota. Officers shot Sterling they received calls about a man outside of a convenience store in possession of a gun. Sterling was known for regularly selling CDs outside the store, something he received permission to do from the owner. Now, here’s where details get a little hazy. The video recording appears to show Sterling immobilized by law enforcement, who yell out that he has a gun, and proceed to shoot him several times. I say “appears” because I have not seen the video, for reasons in tho which I will later venture. Castile’s murder was also caught on video but under different circumstances. Castile was in a car with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter when they were pulled over for a busted taillight. The video apparently shows Castile’s girlfriend exclaiming that the officers had shot the victim, after having asked him to reach for his ID. The officers reacted in gunfire after believing that he was reaching for a gun (that he was licensed to own, and notified them that he had on his person, but I digress). The officer in the video appears to panic but fails to call for medical help, instead choosing to handcuff Castile’s girlfriend and placing both she and the probably traumatized child at the back of a police vehicle.
While both of these stories are horrible, they are in no way unfamiliar. Over the past five years, the media has plagued us with stories of black men and women being unjustly assaulted, and in some cases outright murdered, by law enforcement officials. Worse still is the unfair legal repercussion meted out to these individuals, such as the officers responsible for the death of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, etc.,(No, really, the list goes on for quite a bit). After having thought about this for some time, I’ve decided to focus on a few key issues, starting with media coverage of tragedies like this.
For some reason, it has become totally normal, expected even, to see dead bodies splayed out on my Facebook newsfeed for the easy consumption of millions. In the best case the clip might be prefaced with a warning for graphic content, but in the worst, it might come after a nostalgic post from your high-school best friend. A part of me is appalled by the way in which we put these victims on display, even in death, their violated bodies laid out to be scrutinized and judged by millions of strangers. It pains me to think that the children of these victims might be met with these graphic images if they google the names of their deceased parents. Surely, even in this age of instant information, we can still afford respect for the dead? However, another part of me can understand the need for this. We share these images and videos in a way that can’t be avoided, and that’s on purpose. People are angry, and they want their rage to be felt. Furthermore, these videos serve as evidence. While it is heartbreaking to think of all the individuals who suffered this same injustice and had nobody there to defend them, modern technology has allowed people to take control, in a way that goes past reliance on police body cams that disappear in the most convenient of ways. While I have personally chosen not to view the recordings of these men’s deaths, for many, these videos provide comforting, irrefutable proof that these men were innocent and did not deserve to die (although I can guarantee that Becky on your feed will disagree).
Another thing that has come out of this, predictably, is the backlash against police. Now, before someone mentions that #notallpolicearebadandtheydeservemorerespect, I will preface this by saying DUH. The vast majority are well aware that not all police are bad. Most people have seen a couple of episodes of NCIS. Or at least Blue Bloods. We know this. Policemen and Policewomen are mostly brave individuals that put their lives on the line to protect the population. They deserve our respect for the job they do, which is terrifying, and impossible for a majority of said population. However, to assume that all police officers go into the job with the intention to serve and protect is a pure fallacy. If that was true then where did David Ayer get the idea for Training Day? You’d best believe that Denzel speech came from somewhere. But on a serious note, just as there are bad teachers and bad politicians, there are bad policemen who are on the job to fill the gaping chasm in their souls where self-worth should be. They overcompensate for this with aggression and general ass-holery. In some cases, they accompany this with racist thought and action, which, shockingly, did not disappear with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Despite this, most of the police force seem to be members of some strange fraternity/blood cult that forbid them from acknowledging the wrongdoing of a fellow police officer, and that. Is. wrong. Yes, it might be risky to stand up against injustice, but that’s how it works. And we need to commend those that have the courage to do this. Choosing to remain silent is the same as siding with the perpetrator, and it needs to stop. Not all cops are racist; this is a given. But some are, and they too often go unchecked. Rather than boycotting Beyonce for her comments on police brutality, how about something, literally anything, that shows people that there is an acknowledgment of the problems in the system, and a plan to fix it? Some officers may not even be aware of their prejudice, as it presents itself in a more subtle form, such as being more on alert when confronted with a person of colour, etc. Comedy often uses the “black people hate police” trope, but it takes a second to look closely and think but why? And then you realize that a lot of that hostility comes from history, and situations where police would be used to deprive black people of rights and freedoms in the 60s, or unfairly jail young black men in the 80s. It might be funny in a Chris Rock standup, but the history behind it is real, and it is this history of conflict and resentment that makes a cop quick to rest his finger on the trigger when he sees a black man.
It’s understandable that a job that necessitates that someone risks their life results in a heightened sense of nervousness and tension, but that’s why police are trained. They are trained to keep cool in these high-stress situations. And for some reason, these nerves always seem to boil over when confronted with black people who may or may not be armed. Given all this, it is baffling to me when news correspondences bring up the issue of “black on black violence” whenever something like this happens, and this is for two reasons; firstly, police are paid to protect people. Surely it’s a bit odd when they are the ones killing them? Perhaps I might understand the comparison if we started paying murderers to protect us and still saw that violence, but until then I remain confused. Secondly, what the hell is black on black violence? You never hear that phrase about any other race. You never hear “Asian on Asian violence” or “white on white violence.” Is this because white people don’t kill each other? Surely not. Moreover, black people don’t kill other black people because they’re black. They just happen to be black when they kill them for whatever reason killers kill for.
Another phenomenon that takes over social media after tragedies like this is the surge of hashtags. After the series of black murders in the past few years, #blacklivesmatter emerged as a hashtag meant to draw attention to the staggering amount of police-related deaths of black people. Somehow this was seen as an assertion that only black lives matter and black lives are superior to all other lives on planet earth. Given that not so long ago, black lives were seen to matter quite a bit less than all other lives on the globe (see slavery, colonization, eugenics, etc.,) this was quite a remarkable leap. Eventually, this reaction caused the creation of the hashtag #Alllivesmatter, meant to draw attention to the fact that..all lives are equal? Now, to me, this is little redundant seeing as, from my understanding, the point of #blacklivesmatter is to promote the idea that all lives matter, and so police need to be a little less trigger-happy around black people. Anyway, the majority of people trending #blacklivesmatter continue to be perplexed by the fact that #alllivesmatter doesn’t seem to try and better the lives of anyone, not the black citizens in America, or the white people in America, or the dying, homeless or starving rainbow of individuals around the world that should matter. We know that all lives matter. All men are created equal, and the law should see them as such. But nobody seemed to care about “all lives” until black people started talking about black lives. Youtube will show you white people that are comfortable enough with the police to provoke them for a “social experiment,” or a prank, but a black man might risk his life if he tried the same thing.
Now, while I may approach this in a rather sarcastic manner, I do take into account that not everyone has had the ability to take a black history course in University. Or read about it on Wikipedia for free. For those who have never seen Roots, or The Help, it may be hard to grasp the tumulous racial underbelly of today’s American society. It is easy to look at Obama and Joe Biden’s bromance and imagine that racism is well and truly dead and that black people are overdramatic and just love the attention. It may ruin Grey’s Anatomy to imagine that Doctor Jackson Avery is an angry black man who hates white people for no reason, and I understand. As someone who is black, but at the same time, not African American, I feel for you. Really. As a black woman hailing from Nigeria and residing in Canada, it is easy to glimpse America with a brief, pitying glance and turn back to Canadian Netflix, believing that their issues have nothing to do with me. After all, I don’t live in America. It’s not as if I’ll ever get shot by the police. It may even cross your mind to compare your situation. Our police may be bad, but they’re not that bad, am I right? Well no, you’re not right, but that’s a whole other piece.
For anyone who has ever been tempted to think this way, go back and watch those two videos again. Pause at the moment when the police stop to ask the two men “do you happen to be African American or African-African?” If you don’t recall this moment, it’s because it didn’t happen. Regardless of the many divisions that we in the black global community create amongst ourselves, African, American, light skinned, dark skinned; the global collective sees us as black, and so we are treated as black, in the collective. If you believe that your self-appointed label gives you a pass, I pray the day never comes you are proven to be wrong. If you imagine yourself above the problem, and still expect to walk freely in today’s globalized world, you are a part of the problem. If you take this opportunity to self-aggrandize, thinking, “well, Africans Americans just need to-” then you are part of the problem, because racism isn’t exclusive to North America. Black bodies are seen as targets all over the world, and to turn a blind eye due to some misconceived illusion of some degree of separation is ignorance to the point of cruelty. Don’t believe me? Take a second to Google “Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi,” I’ll wait. We shouldn’t have to imagine this happening to somebody we know to feel the injustice of the murder of two innocent men. Justice may be blind, but I’m not. And neither are the lenses of the iPhones that will continue to record these deaths until we do something.
Update: Regarding the shooting and killing of five police officers in Dallas; this was a terrible and heartless act perpetrated by senseless individuals. To try and justify these murders in the shadow of the Castile and Sterling murders is not only an insult to the lives of these men, but it is also an insult to everyone fighting for the betterment of black lives. Anyone celebrating the loss of these lives or dismissing them as unimportant is a part of the problem. Many good policemen and policewomen put their lives on the line, which is why the officers who do abuse their positions deserve our outrage, but this is also why those who appear blameless should be given respect in their death as human beings with families that will feel their loss.