Two white officers, neither on the police force in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for more than 4 years, confronted, tackled, and then shot a black man outside a convenience store. Two cell phone videos have surfaced. The most graphic was taken by the store owner showing both police officers on top of Mr. Alton Sterling pinning his arms to the ground. One shouts, “He’s got a gun!” The officer with his knee on Mr. Sterling’s left forearm draws his sidearm and points it only inches from Mr. Sterling’s chest and head. A few seconds later, a gunshot is heard as both cameras pan away from the action. Then two more shots. One of the officers yells, “Get on the ground!” Three more shots are fired. As the store owner’s camera pans back to Mr. Sterling, one officer is laying on the ground, his gun drawn and pointing at Mr. Sterling who is gasping for air. Mr. Sterling lay there, still conscious, blood pouring from his chest with multiple gun shot wounds. The officer on the ground yells, “Fuck!” for no apparent reason (as though he is the one in trouble here?). The officer standing nearby removes what has been assumed to be a small firearm still in Mr. Sterling’s right pocket. Mr. Sterling raises his left arm over him and it begins to twitch. He is dying. (The entire video can be seen here, but I warn you it is very graphic and violent).
In an interview later, the store owner tells reporters he let Mr. Sterling sell CD’s outside his store and cannot remember any time when Mr. Sterling was ever violent toward anyone. A 9-1-1 call came in claiming someone selling CDs in front of the convenience store pulled a gun on a customer. The police responded.
The videos do not tell the whole story, I’m sure. They do not show how the officers approached Mr. Sterling right when they arrived. They do not show how Mr. Sterling responded, though the store owner recalls Mr. Sterling repeatedly asking the officers why they were there and what they wanted. All we see and hear is the officers telling Mr. Sterling to get down on the ground. When he does not get on the ground, one officer tackles Mr. Sterling against a car. It has been reported that the officers were both wearing chest cameras, but there is no word on when or if the videos will be released.
How many times do we have to see a black man shot by police on our cities’ streets? How long, O Lord, until we stop seeing every black male as a threat? How could these officers have handled this situation differently so Mr. Sterling did not lay there dying?
I am a white male. My only encounters with police have been either getting a speeding ticket or because I called them. I have never been arrested. I have never been accused of doing something wrong while just walking down the street. I have never been pulled over for no obvious reason. According to The Guardian, 1,146 people were killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, up from 2014. So far in 2016, 560 people have been killed by police.
|Rate per Million||Actual||Rate per Million||Actual|
The chart above shows more white people were killed by police. But, black people constitute only 14% of the U.S. population, making them twice as likely to be killed by police than white people. According to The Guardian, young black men are far more likely to be killed by police than young white men.
Since President Nixon launched the “war on drugs” in the 1970s, black people have been targeted by law enforcement similar to when “slave patrols” roamed Southern cities and towns in the 1700s to catch runaways. We have had a war on black people since the days of slavery, and it has not let up. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s only made systemic racism more subtle and more difficult to identify, further nurturing white people’s supposed “color-blindness.” How often have we said or heard a white person say, “I don’t see race.” But we know the story is different when they’re walking down the street at night and see a black man coming toward them. We better start seeing race and start understanding what our Black, Hispanic, and Native American neighbors have been trying to tell the world. The war on immigration is only the latest reiteration of our racially prejudiced xenophobia, but even it dates back to the exclusions of Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.
Though the U.S. comprises 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25% of the world’s population.1 On top of that, despite relatively comparable rates of drug use between black and white people, blacks comprise three-fourths of those in prison for drug use.2 We have a problem, and I do not think it is a crime problem. We have a race problem, still!
I watched the store owner’s video of Mr. Sterling being shot not because of morbid curiosity, but because this hidden oppression of blackness in our country needs to be made real and brought to the forefront. Maybe we all need to watch it so it is etched into our memories the next time someone suggests racism ended with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I have heard too many times on social media and in community meetings that we should say “All Lives Matter” instead of “Black Lives Matter.” It is often said by a white person, typically middle-aged. But there it is again: the suppression of our systemic oppression of Blackness in the U.S.
We cannot authentically say “All Lives Matter” until we see that Black lives really do matter. Shifting away from the struggles of Black people in our country when we say “All Lives Matter,” we continue to maintain the white colorblindness that has caused so much harm and death in our Black communities. I intentionally say “our” Black communities because they are a part of this country and we are a part of them. We all have a responsibility to challenge the profiling that continues to take place by our law enforcement. We are all responsible for Mr. Sterling’s death, and the deaths of so many others at the hands of overly aggressive police officers. We must call on our law enforcement to stop the racial profiling that kills black people for walking down the street while white people get a “talking to” for wrongdoing. We must demand our law enforcement take advantage of a wide range of tools available to de-escalate situations or use non-deadly force.
Why wasn’t Mr. Sterling tazed if he was really a threat and had no visible weapons (they did not know he had a gun until he and his arms were pinned to the ground)? The officers were within a few feet of him the whole time. Or before that, why does it look like the police walked on scene and immediately assumed it was a violent situation without assessing what really happened?
It seems more and more situations are being reported out of context when it involves a black man. For instance, when Mr. John Crawford III was shot in a Walmart on August 5, 2014, in Beavercreek, Ohio, he was holding a pellet rifle that he had just picked up off a shelf while talking on the phone. He walks through the store with no one being phased by him or the pellet gun he was holding. Mind you, Ohio is an open-carry state. The 9-1-1 caller, later identified as Ronald Ritchie (a white man), indicated Mr. Crawford was waving a gun around and pointing it at children. Mr. Ritchie even states during the call that Mr. Crawford was loading the gun—obviously, after watching the video, this was not possible. The video shows the police shooting around a corner down the aisle from where Mr. Crawford was talking on the phone. Mr. Crawford drops the gun and tries to get away as police approached. He comes back around the corner, hands up around his shoulders. What looks like without a word, he is shot and later dies. There are so many questions about this case it’s hard to know where to start. What caused Mr. Richie to first of all assume Mr. Crawford was a threat, secondly to make up the fact that Mr. Crawford was waving the gun at children in a menacing way (the video shows that he was not), and third to lie about Mr. Crawford “loading the gun right now”? Why did the police not call out to Mr. Crawford first to find out what the heck is going on in a state where it is legal to walk into Walmart with a gun? To add insult to injury, videos were later released showing Mr. Crawford’s girlfriend being interrogated by police trying to get her to admit that she knew Mr. Crawford had a gun, when the video clearly shows he picked it up off the shelf. I have a hard time coming up with any other reason than the fact that Mr. Crawford was black, and was therefore deemed a threat by that fact alone.
Below is a video of a white man walking into a Walmart with a real assault rifle hanging from his shoulder. He is questioned calmly by Walmart staff and asked to leave. An employee threatens to call the police because of the camera, not the gun. Toward the end of the video, another man walks up to the man with the gun and states that he supports what the man with the gun is doing. They even shake hands at the end.
A very different scenario. Why? What makes a black man with a pellet gun he just picked up from one of the shelves a threat worth killing on sight, no questions asked, and a white man with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder not a threat?
Below is another man video taping a police officer questioning him about several guns he’s carrying while walking around a residential area. The officer approaches after receiving a 9-1-1 call, without his gun pulled, and calmly questions the man. The officer finally pulls his gun after he asks the man if he has a gun permit and the man indicates he does not (though later the man reveals he does, but misunderstood the question). He claims he can open carry while fishing. The entire incident is calm.
The man with the camera is Jefferey Gray, a truck driver in Florida, who has made a hobby of video taping police. There are a ton of videos like these on YouTube, police acting calmly when those carrying guns are white.
Some folks decided to conduct a “social experiment” in the next video. A white man carries an AR-15 assault rifle out in the open. An officer approaches calmly and questions the man. In the next scene, a black man does the same thing. This time an officer pulls up, and from behind his open driver’s side door draws his fire arm and yells for the black man and the pregnant woman with the camera to lay on the ground immediately. For several minutes the officer stands behind the door with his gun pointed at the black man. Even after another patrol unit arrives, the first officer continues to keep his gun aimed at the black man. A third unit arrives, two officers hiding behind their doors as the second officer on scene disarms the black man. Two more patrol cars arrive with sirens blaring, and finally a sixth and seventh.
Gun control reform issues aside, we are facing an issue of racial prejudice. The black man is assumed to be nefarious, while a white man is just exercising his rights.
What can we do? For one thing, white people need to engage our ignorance and not be afraid of black people. How do we do that? We get to know people. We seek out relationships with black, Hispanic, [email protected], and Native American people. My congregation welcomed Luis, an undocumented immigrant, into sanctuary on our church property so he could avoid being deported and ripped from his wife (a legal permanent resident) and his two step-children. When we started, a significant number of members were upset by the decision. By the end of Luis’ 100 days in sanctuary in our Fellowship Hall, many of those who were upset got to know Luis and their minds were changed about the action our elders took and our country’s immigration system.
Just a few decades ago, LGBTQ people were labeled “pedophiles” and “deviants.” Then people started to realize they knew people who are LGBTQ—a niece or nephew, a son or daughter—and people started to realize that LGBTQ people are not bad people nor are they pedophiles. The tide shifted, and then a tidal wave swept across the country as churches began ordaining LGBTQ people and same-gender marriage became legal. Our children will grow up not understanding what the big deal was about our LGBTQ neighbors, but we still have a lot of work to do to “normalize” LBGTQ-ism. Transgendered people still experience horrific violence.
The fight for civil rights for our black neighbors has been going on for over 300 years. It’s time for the tide to change, and it starts with us opening our eyes, naming our racism, and seeking to truly dismantle the systems of oppression that continue to subjugate people for the color of their skin. The emancipation movement started in the Churches. The women’s suffrage movement was started by people of faith. The Civil Rights movement was born in the midst of worship. It is time that white people of faith recognize the hurt being inflicted on our neighbors, our community, and even ourselves. Making the shift against systemic racism that criminalizes black people for being black, that makes schools in poor neighborhoods perform poorly, that fills our prisons with more people of minority races, demands that white people of faith get out of their pews, out from behind the walls of ignorance, and start talking, or even shouting: “Not in my community! No more hate!”
Making the shift demands predominantly white churches putting banners up in front of their buildings that boldly proclaim #BlackLivesMatter. It demands white preachers talking about racism from pulpits. It demands us reaching out and listening to the stories of those who are suffering, partnering with our Black neighbors in their fight for their lives. It means getting educated about race issues, showing up to #BlackLivesMatter rallies, writing letters to legislators and local law enforcement and calling them out on how Black, Hispanic, [email protected], and Native American people are being treated. It means stepping in when we see injustice being committed and calling out our friends when we they post racial jokes on social media. It means recognizing and naming our unearned privilege as white people (just look at the videos above3), and then working to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those crying out for justice. It means, then, laying our privilege aside for the cause of justice. Yes, it will involve risk because change does not happen without risks. But our risk pales in comparison to the risks so many take just leaving their homes each day. It pales in comparison to the risk to our communities, nation, and world should this systemic racism continue for another generation.
Make the change. Be the change.
1. James Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Times (New York, NY: The New Press, 2015), 11.↩
2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerations in the Age of Colorblindness, revised edition (New York: The New Press, 2012), 98-99↩
3. A good book that helps explain “white privilege” is Paula S. Rothenberg, White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism.↩