The death of Black people at the hands of law enforcement has become so commonplace and routine that many of us who are African-American have managed to become simultaneously outraged and psychologically numb. Over the past few years, we have become front row spectators to grainy and, in some cases, graphic footage of police offices engaged in horrific levels of violent behavior toward people of African descent.
Tamir Rice, Ousmane Zongo, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Kayla Moore and Tanisha Anderson are among those whose deadly encounters readily come to mind. We can now add Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to the growing number of victims of a list that is already far too long. The world has witnessed Sterling, 37, being shot multiple times at the hands of police officers, Blane Salamoni, a four-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police and Howie Lake II, a three-year employee. Like Sterling, 32 year old Mr. Castile had multiple bullets pumped into his body by St.Paul police. Both men were shot down like animals.
While we all have been asked to wait for "due process" and to "wait for the facts," many Black folk with good reason are likely bracing ourselves for the likelihood that justice (as has been the case in far too many incidents involving Black citizens) will fail to materialize. As predictable, the standard police defense of the officers is that Sterling was armed and thus they feared for their lives. The fact that one of the police officers removed an object from his bag draws their (police officers) explanation into question. To their credit, the Justice Department immediately launched an investigation into the matter. Both incidents are disturbing on many levels. In the case of Philando Castile, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton made it clear that he saw the murder as having racial overtones. President Obama has weighed in on the recent tragedies that have engulfed our nation as have presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump .
Witnessing the news conference of Quinyetta McMillon's oldest child weeping as he cried out for his father while his mother read an impassioned statement denouncing the slaying of her husband and her now fatherless children, advocating for justice was indeed a chilling and haunting moment for people across racial lines. Likewise, observing Diamond Reynolds, the 24 year old girlfriend of Philando Castile with tremendous poise, calmly describe the sadistic murder of her lover as he lay dying as blood poured from his body like a river while her 4 year old daughter sat in the backseat was nothing short of surreal. I was immensely impressed. Both situations indicated that it was a clarion call demanding that justice be served.
Predictably, there have been certain segments of the media and right-wing trolls wasted no time going on a perverse form of offense. Some segments of the media brazenly attacked Sterling's character. They made the case that he was a violent man, was a deadbeat father, had a lengthy criminal record and so on. Personal flaws aside (and we all have our shortcomings), it is probably safe to say that he never fatally pumped four bullets into another human being while that person was pinned on the ground. The entire issue is sickening.
The fact is that, since stepping foot on the shores of America, Black lives and bodies have been routinely scrutinized, objectified, sexualized and racialized. For many people, Black bodies and Black people, children as well as adults, have never been seen as fully human. All too often, we have been seen as men and women who are largely primitive and invisible, largely denied any degree of humane acknowledgment from mainstream society.
One has to answer whether the average White person be the victim of such random violence by police officers. The answer is absolutely not! The fact is that, if White people were routinely and randomly subjected to police violence and being gunned down in the street by law enforcement duplicative to the rate of Black and Hispanic people, there would be calls for congressional demonstrations and cries of protests so loud that it would result in political suicide for any politician or police force who dared to ignore such a rallying cry and decisive message. An equally formidable message must become a reality for people of color as well.
As we all know, there are police officers and other members of law enforcement (arguably most) who are decent, law-abiding human beings who manage to perform admirably doing a job that undeniably is stressful. The horrific assassinations/murders of five (5) Dallas police officers (6 were wounded) Sr. Cpl Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, a nine year veteran, Michael Smith, retired, Brent Thompson, a recent newlywed, Patrick Zamarippa a five year veteran on July 7th by Michael Xavier Johnson a 25 year old army veteran with a disturbing level of unhinged racial hatred toward Whites was another senseless act violence. We can only hope their families and loved ones will have the strength to get thorough such an unspeakable crisis. Honorable police offers aside, the fact is that there is also a faction -- one is too many -- of law enforcement officials with badges who personify corruption and shamelessly abuse their power.
White denial, factions of right wing media irresponsibly suggesting the strong possibility of an impending race war, declaring certain Black organizations as hate groups, wrongly blaming President Obama as being a racial divider, various forms of intellectually dishonest rhetoric and other factors notwithstanding, (certain segments of the left have been irresponsible in this regard as well) the fact is that Black people are human beings and deserve to be treated with as much respect and dignity as any other group of people. These killings (as well as those of the police officers) are modern day lynchings. Such sadistic behavior and wicked disregard for people of color cannot continue.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book Violence Against Black Bodies. Routledge Press (2017)