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The Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Shootings, In Brief Context

Updated on July 29, 2017

Normally, I’m not given to being moved by the impact of day-to-day events going on in the world. After all, I tend to view events rather objectively in my personal effort to search for truth…or at the very least, answers to the Big Questions of life. But as an African-American male, I was moved—no doubt like many others across the country—by the almost tangible emotional impacts of social media posting of the two high-profile police shootings of black males from Minnesota and Louisiana.

When President Obama responded after the Trayvon Martin shooting, “If I had a soon, he would look like Trayvon Martin,” he was pilloried by many on the conservative right as “race-baiting” and being “racially divisive.” As usual, many of us in the black community didn’t understand what they hell they were complaining about. We didn’t see it as the “dividing tactic” they saw it as. We saw it as a high-profile black male with no personal frame of reference for the life on any young black would-be Trayon Martin, attempting to show his ability to identify with a young black male—cut down in his prime under questionable circumstances—and the pain others who sympathized felt. For his attempt to show a level of emotional solidarity, the president was tarred and feathered by the right.

Being the defiant sort, allow me to take things a step further. Although I couldn’t identify with Freddie Gray or Michael Brown, I could—and did—identify with Philando Castille. When I watched that video of him gasping for breath after having been shot—not for engaging in any sort of criminal activity—I could easily see myself or my closest male relatives in that video. It was more of a there but for the grave of God moment for me…one I don’t expect many white conservatives to understand. And as I watched the Alton Sterling video, I thought back to the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant, occurring in similar fashion as they both were captured on video, both shot while laying on the ground surrounded by police officers. I thought about how I would react if they had been my close relatives. But for the sake of keeping things civil, I will refrain from conveying what I know my response would be (but for the record, it would not involve my walking around the streets chanting, “No justice, no peace.” We get peace when I get even).

Philando Castile & Alton Sterling
Philando Castile & Alton Sterling

Usually, I don’t make excuses in every case of a newsworthy police shooting. This is because in many cases, it’s hard for me to ignore that some of my fellow black males involved in police shootings were initially engaged in some level of extralegal malfeasance. However, in no way does this justify a death sentence in the majority of cases. But staying out of trouble does go a long ways toward not becoming a police shooting statistic.

Comedian Chris Rock's comedic take on a serious issue...confronting the police.

In most cases, it’s not hard to stay out of trouble. Don’t carjack. Don’t rob or assault others. Don’t burglarize other peoples’ homes. Don’t steal. Etc. In addition, normally complying with the requests (or even commands disguised as “requests”) should keep most non-white individuals safe during a routine traffic stop.

However, I’m not so blind as to believe that there are no differences in the way that people of color tend to be treated during a routine police traffic stop. And since people tend to see reality through the prisms of their individual experiences rather than trying to put themselves in another person’s shoes (complete with the nuances those individual experiences entails), I won’t bother to point out those differences. However, we all know who are; they’re the ones who side with the police no matter what, without question, and even before all of the facts are in. Suffice it to say that if you’re open-minded and intelligent enough to see things as they are, rather than as you believe them to be, you will know what I’m talking about.

Even still, it’s hard not to talk about the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile without discussing murders and other serious crimes that occur in ‘hoods across America. Whether promoted unfairly or not by the media, one cannot deny that high-crime areas tend to produce the type of paranoia that (those) police officers responsible for shooting Sterling and Castile routinely exhibit when they patrol those areas. The result is a vicious cycle of crime and related conditions feeding perception, which feeds mistrust, which feeds paranoia, which feeds unprofessional (mis-) conduct, and questionable shootings. The virtual free-for-all ongoing in my hometown of Chicago provides an example of how these conditions can breed these types of police shootings.

And before I am predictably attacked by critics and police supporters alike, let me state that I am in no way attempting to make excuses for, or otherwise exonerate the unprofessionalism of police officers who give people like myself pause not to fully trust them. Nor am I trying to justify giving black people/people of color a pass for counter-productive behaviors that run rampant in some of our communities. What I am saying is that all sides involved have a responsibility to put an end to this cycle of paranoia and police shootings.

Like every other pundit and would-be pundit, I can offer a ton of analyses and proposed solutions regarding what the problems are and how best to work toward changing this dynamic. But admittedly, it would be a waste of time without the wherewithal, the attitude changes, and/or resources it would take to invest in any substantive changes to address this issue.

In regard to one proposed solution in particular, last year I wrote a piece on my sister blog entitled, “How To End Black Male Deaths At The Hands of The Police - The Black Panthers (Redux).” In the piece, I proposed that particularly troubled black communities take responsibility for excising both the counter-productive, self-destructive criminal elements as well as unprofessional police elements from our midst. As the title suggest, to that end I proposed the reformation of a new, modern version of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Please take some time to read this piece and leave a comment (or two) regarding what you think of the idea).


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      brian 19 months ago

      I think it would help if the white police could disguise themselves as black. That will help calm the situation down moving forward. The white police are gonna keep catching hell for the mistakes of others.

      If I was a white policeman I would find a way to change my appearance to black. Real talk.