Just a day after millions of Americans celebrated the “Fourth of You Lie”, our nation got more evidence of the lie we live when we “celebrate” freedom. On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was killed by White police officers in Baton Rouge, La. in an encounter that was blessedly videotaped and showed a man being shot, even as he was down on the ground. A day later, on July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot four times as he attempted to comply with a police officer’s request to provide identification. His fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, who was driving the car (her 4 year old daughter was in the backseat) videotaped this encounter.
If patriotic fireworks make you feel warm and fuzzy about our nation, these two videos ought to be enough to throw ice water on them. I am chilled, disgusted, and angered at yet more senseless killings of Black men by police officers, 136 so far this year (about 25.3 percent of all police killings). You ought to read Frederick Douglass’ speech and understand why those videos leave me with cold antipathy for “my country.” Many things have changed since he delivered this oratorical masterpiece in 1852. Many things have not.
Watching Philando Castile’s blood seep from his body reminds me of our nation’s hypocrisy, and of Douglass’ searing words:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Indeed, while there is talk of fighting the terrorism of ISIS, when will we fight the terrorism that too many African Americans experience? If a law-abiding person with a right to carry a concealed weapon (hello National Rifle Association) can be killed because his taillight is busted, that’s terrorism, defined as the use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aim. The aim is the maintenance of White supremacy “lite.” It dictates “the talk” all young African American men get from their dads (White men don’t have to have the talk because they aren’t the victims of violence and intimidation). It explains the fear and mistrust between so called law enforcement officers and the African American community. It is a gut-wrenching reminder that, black President or not, it is still important to assert that Black Lives Matter.
Diamond Reynolds is a woman of amazing grace and courage. She had the foresight to use Facebook to live stream what happened after her fiancée, Philando Castile, was shot four times in Falcon Heights, Minn. She had the composure to respond with civility and respect, and in a level tone of voice, to the hysterical human being masquerading as a police officer who shot Mr. Castile. She had the presence of mind to remind the officer that Castile had indicated that he had a conceal carry permit for a weapon before he reached into his jacket to provide the identification that had been demanded.
If you had a heart, the 10-minute video would break it at least a dozen times. I know that when the officer barked at Ms. Reynolds to get out of the car and get on her knees, my stomach lurched and I cried out in outrage. After witnessing an execution, and clearly not armed, why was Diamond Reynolds forced onto her knees and handcuffed? Did that sick White police officer think he was a god that had to be knelt to, paid homage to? He already had a license to kill. I guess a badge also gives you a license to humiliate. Diamond Reynolds had done nothing wrong. The police, surely, had a right to detain her as a material witness to Philando Castile’s murder. They also claimed the right to demean her and to deny Philando Castile’s relatives the right to identify his body the morning after his death.
I am, oh, so weary of these police killings, and all the more weary of our nation’s hate, hubris, and hypocrisy. I am weary of the attempts, already, to discuss Alton Sterling’s criminal record. And I will be weary of the conversation that will ensue as these murders are investigated and as the so-called police officers are not prosecuted because there was “reasonable doubt” that they “intended” to kill.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, President Obama appointed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. A year ago, they submitted a report that talked about issues like trust between police officers and communities, and “best practices” for police officers. Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a similar commission, the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. In their report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, one of the major findings stated, “Officials of the criminal justice system . . . must re-examine what they do. They must be honest about the system’s short-comings with the public and with themselves.” Not much has changed in 50 years. Too many police officers are guided by hate and hubris, and protected by hypocrisy. And too many Black men are the “collateral damage” of our broken system.