Originally published online by the Austin-American Statesman on July 15th, 2016: http://viewpoints.blog.mystatesman.com/2016/07/15/race-talk-spurred-by-recent-killings-must-be-ongoing-conversation/. For this post, I have added back in the hyperlinks that I took out for the Statesman edition.
I keep hoping that someday I’ll wake up and not read about another Black American being killed by a police officer. Given recent events, that seems less and less likely. On Wednesday, July 5th, Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground by two White officers outside a Baton Rouge convenience store and shot in the chest at point blank range. Just one day later, Philando Castile of Minnesota was fatally shot during a traffic stop while reaching for his identification. Sterling and Castile were murdered. Before we could even begin to mourn, five police officers were killed by a sniper at a peaceful protest in Dallas the following day.
I am physically sickened by the horrific ambush on Dallas police, but I worry about how it will change the conversation. I have to believe that we can honor the sacrifice of police officers while also demanding that police brutality be addressed. Because it’s clear that the criminal justice system in this country is broken. According to Campaign Zero, police in the United States killed 1,100 people in 2014. Black people are killed by police at a rate disproportionate to both their criminal activity and percentage of the population. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner…the list of names grows almost daily now, and it seems like news stories of African Americans shot and killed at the hands of police are on perpetual loop.
I watched Tomi Lahren’s Final Thoughts on Jesse Williams’s BET speech (https://youtu.be/Ctc_Rl_PUq4) and the Alton Sterling killing (https://youtu.be/1ddt-H5twvI). She tells Williams and the Black Lives Matter movement to stop feeling sorry for themselves. That’s pretty easy to say from a position of privilege. After all, Lahren isn’t a member of a community still suffering from the painful legacy of slavery and a long history of discrimination and violence perpetrated against it. She brands them “cop haters,” and I have no doubt the tragedy in Dallas will give her more fuel. She doesn’t understand that being pro-cop and pro-Black Lives Matter aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, we recognize that police officers, due to the nature of their work, wield a great degree of power, so we should hold them accountable when that power is abused.
The double standard is evident to anyone who cares to look. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen to White people. Jesse Williams was right. Police do “manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.” Here’s an image from a Confederate rally in Stone Mountain showing a police officer patiently responding to a man with his hand on his gun (http://media.cmgdigital.com/shared/lt/lt_cache/thumbnail/615/img/photos/2015/08/01/49/23/_2JA1747.JPG). Recently, I watched a video showing a White man resisting arrest and assaulting two police officers (https://youtu.be/6AQ--gTX06U)...he wasn’t shot. In January, armed White men seized government property at the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refugein Oregon. It was 24 days before anyone was arrested (one militant was killed during the confrontation). Take a look at how we treat White criminals as well. Stanford swimmer and RAPIST Brock Turner got only 6 months for sexual assault. White teen Ethan Couch killed four people in a drunk driving accident and got probation (which he later violated) to rehabilitate him for his “affluenza.”
When African Americans are killed by White police officers, some are quick to point out if they were guilty of prior offenses. Frankly, that’s irrelevant. When did we become a society that blames the victims? Women are blamed for their own rapes because they drank alcohol. The murders of transgender people are brushed aside because they are “provocative” targets. Black teenagers who are pulled over should just “get out of the car.” The other argument I keep hearing is “All Lives Matter.” Well, of course they do. But no one has to be told that White lives matter. The Black Lives Matter movement exists because the criminal justice system has made it clear that their lives are less valuable than White lives.
I stand with the fallen police officers and good cops across the country, but I also stand with Alton Sterling and Philando Castille’s family and friends and with Black Lives Matter. Because I am not a member of the Black community, I can never truly understand the depth of their sorrow nor the anger and fear they must feel. Those of us who live under the umbrella of relative security that is Whiteness must speak up and ensure that while we mourn the loss of the Dallas officers, we don’t allow what happened to Sterling and Castile to be swept under the rug. To quote the late Elie Wiesel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”