I don’t know what to think anymore.
Okay, that’s a lie. I believe the reality is I have too many thoughts. Too many worries. My mind rattles with heartbreak and pain, sadness, unbelievable anger and distress.
This week we have seen the loss of life of two African-American men at the hands of police, followed by a gruesomely violent attack on police officers. All bearing the markings of racial motivation.
I have white privilege. As a white person, I can turn off the TV, I can stop looking at Facebook and Twitter, when things become too much. Though some may argue that black individuals have this same ability, and while it is true in the physical sense, they cannot deny or turn a blind eye to the reality that they are being targeted. Statistically speaking, the numbers show the unprecedented way in which black individuals make up 40% of victims from police violence when they only make up 6% of the general population. That is an eye-popping statistic. And it isn’t due to where they live. There is no mathematical correlation between where these events happen and where these individuals reside.
When I walk outside, I do not fear for my life because of my skin color. Or even my religious belief. When I see a police officer, I do not run through the myriad of ways a situation can turn from civil to uncivil, nor do I mentally check off the long list of ways in which I have to step cautiously so as not to be perceived as a threat. My reality is: as a white woman I am looked at differently than a black man (or black woman). I am not perceived as a threat. That is my privilege.
From a young age, many black men are taught to be overly cautious of their behavior around law enforcement. Philando Castile’s mother is quoted as saying she taught her son to always “comply” regardless of the situation. And from all appearances, he did. And it still ended in his bloodshed and death. Some will argue that the video Diamond Reynolds shot is the aftermath, and therefore no clear confirmation if confrontation existed. It throws things into question: did he really do as he was asked? Was there more of a threat than she lets on? Was his behavior somehow a precursor to violent behavior? My opinion is that, no, there was no threat, he really did do what was asked of him. And he still died despite complying. A witness in a parking lot across the street says she heard gun shots before the officer even finished saying, “put your hands up,” meaning Philando most likely did not even have time to respond to the new request before four bullets were shot into his body. And if he was reaching for his license in the immediate moments before, there was quite literally no time to comply before the officer opened fire. It means that if, hypothetically, Philando did not hear the officer’s command, he was shot before he could even ask, “Excuse me?”
A traffic stop. Because of a broken tail light. This minor misdemeanor was the beginning of the end for Philando Castile. Something, undoubtedly, a majority of the population has on their record. Alongside moving violations and late registration tickets.
And that shouldn’t even matter. A record, previous criminal activity, should not be a death warrant in this country.
Alton Sterling served time in jail. He was convicted of having a small amount of marijuana on his person, alongside a firearm, resulting in five years in prison. This meant he wasn’t even supposed to have a gun, but again, that plays no real bearing on the fact that he was shot in the chest and back, multiple times, after an escalated altercation between law enforcement and himself. The videos of the incident show he was being straddled by one police officer, completely blocking off the ability to grab the gun they later pulled from his pocket. There was no way he could have turned the weapon on the police, let alone be able to reach the gun, so why was he shot? Why did the officer un-holster his weapon when the man was on his back, being straddled by another officer, ultimately in a position of lesser power? Why did the officer point his gun at Alton’s chest and threaten him? Is that the behavior of someone who is trained to de-escalate situations in order to avoid unnecessary death? To protect and serve?
There were many other ways to subdue Alton Sterling, if he needed to be subdued further. Tasing him, using pepper spray on him, or perhaps rather than kneeling near his head holding a firearm, using hands and arms to pin his limbs. Some claim Alton was tased. But in the same breath they mention Alton’s jerky movements, his extremities flailing, suggesting somehow it was justification for shooting him in the chest at point-blank range.
When a human body is tased, it is contending with electrical currents, meaning a natural reaction would be to jerk or flail. One of the officers tackled Alton, throwing him across the hood of a parked car, and then pounced on him, physically straddling him. Perhaps Alton couldn’t breathe, the wind having been knocked out of him with the force of the movements and the added pressure of a 100 plus pound body sitting on his stomach. Maybe his arm coming up was to hold his chest. Or check his head after being thrown so violently to the ground. Regardless of the motivations for his movements, they were not acts that should have predetermined use of deadly force when he was already in a position of lesser power.
My heart bleeds for the Dallas officers that were killed, and for those that were wounded. The sniper wanted to kill white cops (he told negotiators this), said he was not affiliated with BLM – Black Lives Matter – and actually expressed anger at them (again, told to negotiators), and that his motivation was an emotional reaction to the spate of killings this week (again, told to negotiators). This is not justification for their murder, and they are definitely not justified deaths. But neither are the killings of the many black men and women at the hands of police officers.
I am utterly heartbroken by this situation. But denying or turning a blind eye to the racial tensions that exist is not going to promote peace and well-being. Recognizing them for what they are and then working, side by side, to overcome these systemic issues is the only way, at least in my opinion. Willing empathy, putting ourselves, as best we can, into the others shoes and not denying their experience because of our own skewed perceptions and misconceptions. Black lives and officers alike. I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different race, but I can appreciate their struggle and offer my open mind. I don’t know what it’s like to be an officer contending with the myriad of individuals, from peaceful and calm to belligerent and angry, but I can listen to their stories and offer my open mind. But ultimately, it means coming together despite our differences and being WILLING to open our hearts and minds.