“Does black life really matter?”
This is the question I’ve asked myself over and over again since two black men were killed by police last week.
Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday morning in front of a Triple S convenience store. There are two graphic videos of the incident, both filmed by witnesses. The first, which hit social media late Tuesday evening, shows Sterling detained by officers and on the ground. The two officers hovered closely over Sterling before one of them shoots him multiple times at close range. The second video shows that Sterling was not reaching for his firearm and that he didn’t have anything in his hands at the time of the shooting. Police were responding to reports of a man brandishing a firearm, threatening others and selling CDs.
Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, on Wednesday. An equally graphic video of his death was filmed by Diamond Reynolds, his girlfriend, using Facebook Live. It shows Castile bleeding from gunshot wounds, and Reynolds can be heard saying that the officer “shot him three times because we had a busted taillight.”
I still can’t quite articulate what went through my mind when I heard about these shootings. It was a mix of rage and despair with a dash of hopelessness. I immediately became exhausted. But I also knew that I had a job to do.
See, I cover police violence, among other things, for The Huffington Post. And whenever a black person is shot and killed by police for seemingly no reason, I go through a familiar routine.
So here’s a list of things I experience as a black reporter covering another police shooting of a black person.
First, I Go Into Shock And Throw Myself Into My Work
When Sterling’s name appeared on my Twitter timeline on Tuesday evening, I dropped my chin onto my chest and let out a deep sigh. I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my laptop and published a story about the graphic video of the incident that was circulating on social media.
I spent the entire day on Wednesday pumping out article after article on Sterling’s death at the hands of Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, two Baton Rouge police officers. I did this mainly because it’s my job. But I also didn’t want to think about my brother, another black man in his 30s who hustles in front of a corner store.
My routine repeated the following day. On Wednesday night, just before I fell asleep, the video of Castile’s death popped up on my Twitter timeline. This was met with another sigh, and that same sense of duty to make sure I covered his death.
I always feel the need to figure out what happened. I want to know as much about the victim and situation as I can because, for one, I am a reporter. But when black people are killed by police, I feel the need to find out who they were as a person since black people are so often dehumanized and painted as “thugs” in the media. It seems to make me feel a little better, a little more productive. I want to know who they were, what they liked to do, stuff like that.
I know that Alton Sterling had a mouth full of golds, was the father of five children and carried a firearm to protect himself. Philando Castile was beloved by the children who attended the St. Paul school where he had worked for years. He knew each child’s name, snuck them graham crackers and encouraged them to eat their veggies.
The more I know about these people, the more I mourn their loss. No one deserves to die and no one deserves to lose their loved one to police violence.
Next, I Check In On My Loved Ones
As the news of Sterling and Castile picked up steam, I began checking in on the black people I know by sending texts out asking them all if they were OK. The responses varied.
“I woke up this morning and cried,” one friend said.
Another mentioned the repetitiveness of the shootings. “It never ends. I just wanna go home and curl up in a ball,” she said.
Plenty of my friends also reached out to me asking about my well-being during all of this.
“Hey babe just want to check on you, I know your reporting is hitting you hard this week,” one friend said.
“I always make it [a] priority to check on [you] when this happens because you have to cover these stories. I can only imagine what it’s like,” another said. “And then to deal with the ignorant white people’s comments after you have to report on these types of things. I just want to make sure you’re okay mentally ya know?”
My mother simply said: “I know you’ve already heard about Alton Sterling ...😔”
This is all a part of the cycle. When a black person is gunned down by police, you have to make sure every black person around you is not having a mental breakdown. It’s an intense feeling. You want to make sure they’re OK as they venture out into their predominantly white offices and, somehow, maintain their composure.
Then, I Get Really Angry And Cry
By Thursday night, I was exhausted ― physically and emotionally. The next morning, I woke up in tears and, once they started, I couldn’t stop. I sat on my roommate’s floor and cried and screamed and cursed until my nose became so stopped up that I couldn’t breathe.
As tears streamed down my face, my mind fixated on the one thing I don’t believe white people have to consider. And that’s how psychologically taxing it is to be black in a society that says you don’t matter. I thought about how black people can dribble balls, make touchdowns, hit tennis balls and dance on stages for white consumption, yet our lives do not fucking matter.
The vitriol I receive online from some of HuffPost’s readers also came to mind. I am constantly asked to verify data that has already been confirmed as true and to cover these stories in a way that makes white people more comfortable.
None of them ever ask how I’m doing or what it’s like being visible and black. I assume it’s because they don’t care.
Think About How The System Is Stacked Against People Who Look Like Me
Before I find peace, I think about the systemic issues black Americans face and the data that supports it ― like how 124 of the at least 515 people fatally shot by police this year have been black. And how black males between the ages of 15 and 34 are nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic. At the end of 2014, 516,900 black men were in state or federal prison, making up 37 percent of the U.S. male prison population.
Granted, more white people in total have been killed by police in 2016. More white people by number are also imprisoned. But black people only make up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, making our rates very disproportionate. (Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, does a great job of explaining why population must be taken into consideration when crunching these numbers.)
I think about how black people are more likely to be arrested because black communities are more heavily policed. Once arrested, black people are more likely to be convicted. In drug crimes, for example, black people make up 35 percent of those arrested and 46 percent of those convicted.
I also mull over how, whenever black people are released from the prison system, we come home and can’t get jobs or housing because of the felony record. This can cause people to commit crimes in order to feed themselves and their families ― and, eventually, end up back in jail.
And, on top of all of that, black people have to deal with people saying that anti-black racism and racial bias doesn’t exist.
But, In The End, I Keep On Keepin’ On
When the week was finally over, I hopped in a Jeep and took a trip to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland with some friends. We talked about music and our love for dirty Waffle Houses in the South, and cracked jokes on our friend for not putting gas in the car before we left. Once we got to the mountain, we hiked up to the summit and looked out over the western part of the state.
The breeze was cool and the views were beautiful. It was a relaxing and peaceful trip that helped put the previous week ― and why I do this job ― into perspective.
Before the 2014 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the media wasn’t providing much nuanced coverage of police brutality or asking why black communities were outraged with policing. The video footage of police killings ― along with social media and large-scale protests ― is helping these stories make national headlines and get acknowledgement from presidential candidates.
As a black reporter, it is my job to make sure that people continue to be heard whenever someone is unjustly killed by police. It’s a tough job, but it’s the one I signed up for.
As my friends and I stare out over Maryland, I think of a quote from Between the World and Me, a 2015 letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son.
“You must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful ― the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie,” he writes. “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
I had once again made my peace with the chaos.