On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, that great 19th-century abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, delivered one of his most stirring addresses at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass had been invited to speak before an assembly gathered at the hall in continued celebration of July 4th, America’s annual ritual and performance of independence. Instead, Douglass’ words were anything but celebratory as he condemned the hypocrisy of celebrating independence as an entire nation of people - his people, Black people - remained in bonds. A former slave who had escaped to freedom, these were bonds that Douglass, himself, knew all too well. Douglass spoke:
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 thanksgivings, 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
During the early hours of July 5th, 163 years removed from Douglass’ poignant address, just moments after another day in another year of America’s annual ritual and performance of independence had concluded, Alton Sterling, 37, a father of five, was standing outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store selling CD’s. He was soon confronted by two police officers who demanded that he get on the ground. Standing, and with his hands raised up in the air and to the side, Sterling did not immediately comply with their directive. Sterling was subsequently tackled and thrown down to the ground. The two officers ultimately pinned him down to the ground beneath him.
Sterling appeared to struggle with the officers even as his arms were pinned down to the ground under their full weight. The officers withdrew their guns. An officer exclaimed, “He has a gun!” A few swift moments passed before Sterling’s body was riddled with bullets at point blank range, the bullets entering and exiting his chest. However, when later interviewed, the owner of the convenience store, who witnessed the entire confrontation, stated that only after Sterling had been fatally shot had a gun been removed from his pocket. The owner further stated that at no time did Sterling place his hand in his pocket to retrieve his firearm.
The last two years of American life in particular have been marked by a new ritual and performance: the filmed ritual and performance of Black death. These filmed deaths of Black people have become as consistent and as predictable as fireworks on the 4th of July. In viewing these deaths, the corporate refrain of “What did I just watch?” has become all too familiar.
As police officers tackled Eric Garner two July’s ago and placed him in a chokehold, and as Garner struggled for air and declared, “I can’t breathe!” upon a Staten Island sidewalk, and as we, as a nation, witnessed life expire from his body, we exclaimed, “What did I just watch?” As police officers exited their cruiser and immediately shot twelve year old Tamir Rice while he played with his toy gun in a Cleveland playground, we exclaimed, “What did I just watch?” As film was finally released of Chicagoan Laquan McDonald’s death over a year after his demise, and we witnessed police officers unload sixteen bullets into his teenage frame, we exclaimed, “What did I just watch?” Even as an officer removed Sandra Bland one July ago from her vehicle and mounted her on the ground for failure to use a signal when changing lanes, we exclaimed, “What did I just watch?”
Yet, there is an added torture to bearing witness to these filmed atrocities. There is the grim knowledge that often the final gruesome act in America’s ritual and performance of Black death is to remove all responsibility for the death from the police officers who perpetuated the violence and to lay all responsibility exclusively at the feet of the deceased. This, in fact, may be the most shocking aspect that accompanies this Black death. Rarely has any living person been found guilty; not in the death of Kendrick Johnson, not in the death of Lennon Lacy, and not in the death of Freddie Gray. The Black dead are often victim and suspect.
Rather mysteriously, the body cameras on both officers were somehow disabled in their confrontation with Sterling. Thankfully, the confrontation was recorded by bystanders. Still, if history forecasts the future, the mere presence of film does not ensure that any indictment or penalty will actually follow. All that is guaranteed is that we now have another life to mourn and another ritual performance to view. No longer is there a veil needed to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. We are the savaged nation, and our shockingly bloody rituals and performances are available on demand.