You could begin yesterday by watching video of a black man in Louisiana killed by police as he lay on the ground. You could end it by watching another black man, this time shot by police in Minnesota, slowly bleed to death in a car as a seven-year-old girl looked on from the back seat, while the man’s girlfriend prayed to God not to take him.
This is the way things are because we – the privileged, safe, and secure public – asked for it. The only difference now is that we can no longer turn a corner on the internet without seeing live footage of what we’ve chosen.
In Baton Rouge, police responded Tuesday to a 911 call about a black man with a gun threatening people outside a convenience store, and found 37-year-old Alton Sterling. Store owner Abdullah Muflahi later denied that Sterling was harassing people, telling a CNN interviewer that Sterling was confused by the police response and that the situation could have been de-escalated if the police had explained why they were there.
Instead, police appear to have tasered Sterling before wrestling him to the ground. According to a video first posted by the Daily Beast, once down, one officer shouted, “He’s got a gun!” One officer shot him twice in the chest; then, after a pause, an officer shot him several more times. “Fuck!” one shouted, followed by Sterling lifting a trembling hand up to his head before dying. His hands were empty. You can watch him die on YouTube.
Then, as if the day’s looping video of Sterling’s 15-year-old son hiding his face in his shirt before burying it in the chest of a loved one and wailing “daddy!” wasn’t enough, the evening brought the live stream of a 32-year-old public-school employee named Philando Castile bleeding out in a car, his girlfriend interrupting her appeals to God to challenge the actions of the officer she claimed put four bullets in Castile. Having witnessed the (then) near-death of the person nearest to her, she astonishingly turned her phone on and refused to let the person still aiming a gun at her boyfriend recede into anonymity, some disembodied avatar of police work.
Quinyetta McMillan, mother of Alton Sterling’s son, says police killed a man whose children depended on him. Watch here.
The girlfriend said Castile was licensed to carry a gun and alerted the officer, who she claimed pulled them over for a broken headlight—echoing the sort of needless investigatory stop that resulted in Walter Scott being shot eight times in the back. It sounds familiar because it is.
Seven days into July, and police in America have already shot 561 people. Three people per day, one person every eight hours, with 2015 data showing young black men nine times more likely to be killed than any other group, and blacks as a whole twice as likely to be killed while unarmed than whites.
It’s tempting to believe that this is an aberration, that we’re nearing some societal breaking point, that an as-yet undetected event unleashed sanctioned violence we would never have countenanced before. But this is the old normal revealed by the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, the enormity of its horror brought home by The Guardian and The Washington Post bothering to track police killings, after decades of nearly everyone and every agency saying We Don’t Want To Know. We ask how this happened, but the hardest answer is that we wanted it to, from the national level down to every neighborhood.
Yes, there are cops who are sadists, armored up like kevlar beetles to crack skulls outside bodegas and unload a full magazines at anything dark, tall, and 175 pounds; and yes, there are cops who see the opportunity to become the power arm for every Chamber of Commerce Buddy Garrity jerkoff. But there are racists and mean, small people in every job. More importantly, cops enforce mandates, not draft them.
And what a mandate we gave them. From Nixon’s racialized post-1960s backlash law-and-order politics, to the Democratic Party tacking so hard toward white resentment that 2016’s “progressive” candidate talked about “superpredators” in the 1990s, both parties figured out just how much of a can’t-lose proposition it was to call for more cops, harsher interdiction and zero tolerance, all while finding new drugs, new addicts and new terms for low-income criminals that broadcast one general image to voters: Bad black people. Add the fire sale of domestic tanks to local police, mandatory minimums and private prisons, and enough technocrats and blue-collar folk saw a virtuous cycle of profit and protection from an Other lurking in our midst.
Even if we’re not conscious of it on a national level, we reinforce it time and again on a local one. Just look at Nextdoor, a social media site that lets you complain to people in your immediate neighborhood. Instead of a community message board, it often becomes a festival of white and middle-class narcissism and paranoia – petty grudges and dog-whistling anxieties from commenters for whom life is an Odyssey of minor inconveniences escalating toward apocalypse – like a microcosm of everything unbearable about America.
Yet we don’t want our own infractions acknowledged. If we complain to the cops, over and over, about kids from other neighborhoods parking on the corners and talking on Friday nights, they send more cars to patrol the streets. Then a week later, there’s a chorus of rage and lamentations about the dozens of citations left on the windshields of neighbors who parallel park too close to stop signs or against the flow of traffic. We want all our privileges granted and our burdens lifted, shunted to some other neighborhood We Don’t Want To Know. Strangers come from there; theft comes from there; harassment comes from there, and all of it can go back.
While our desires for ourselves and neighbors are understandable, our indifference to their effects on others is not. In a local political world where the squeaky wheel gets the grease — where the squeaky wheel is generally defined as simply “anyone who shows up” — what’s heard is our inevitable outrage when something bad happens close to us and our demands that the offenders be locked up in whatever passes for a ghetto wherever we live.
When the poor or minority citizens we target complain, we point to the high arrest rates where they live and blame not the policing we rain down on those neighborhoods, but the people who live in them. (Assholes among us point to how much we pay in property taxes therefore our concerns should take precedent.) We do not ask ourselves how much a shock-and-awe of arrest warrants would pulverize our families if all our kids who got high and fucked around and all our dads who cracked open tallboys on the drive home from work got pulled over and hassled half as much as the “wrong” sorts of people in the wrong sorts of neighborhoods.
And when the cops fuck up, we’re ready to understand. It’s natural. Nobody wants to believe the militarized punishment beast created in their image has gone feral. Besides, we have help. Local and national media furnish every extraneous negative detail of anyone abused or shot, beginning a process of police forgiveness that’s already abetted by our tendency to automatically treat police as Premium Citizens. Just to be sure, sometimes we let them go home for a day to have a hard think about what happened to them.
We’ve weighed the risks, and we truly prefer the bargain we’ve struck, believing it crafted in good faith. We’ve decided that the risk of not having police do their jobs where we live is far too great to question whether they’ve come to interpret “their jobs” to mean regularly and violently intimidating and punishing poor people and minorities for the galling menace of emerging in public.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are collateral damage as real, as silent and implacable as a black-and-white drone video of a Hellfire missile streaking toward a Yemeni wedding party at the same moment some hyena in the CIA is drafting the paper retroactively designating every piece of resultant Muslim hamburger a terrorist.
Philando Castile’s girlfriend describes the incident that led to him being fatally shot. Watch here.
Pull the trigger, exterminate the brutes, and either the press or the department’s internal inquiry will figure out how they were asking for it later. Drive by every few hours in between fighting them over there — across the river, over the tracks, in the bad park, near the cheap shops, wherever — so we don’t have to fight them over here. Just stop them.
This is what we asked for. We don’t get to pretend we didn’t just because, suddenly, everyone has a camera and can play back to us a movie about the world we built.