Featured, Race & Politics

The Murder Of Alton Sterling (And Others Like Him) Slowly, Subtly, And Steadily Kills Us Too

The thing about state sanctioned murders of Black Americans — such as the murder of 37-year-old Alton Sterling; a father of five who was shot and killed by a Baton Rouge police officer while two other officers restrained him — is that if you write and think and scream and rage and cry and obsess about enough of them, they will eventually prove you to be a hypocrite.

When Sam Dubose was murdered by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, I wrote that if murders such as these happen to be recorded and that footage happens to be available, we must force ourselves to watch it. Today, however, I’ve yet to watch the footage of Alton Sterling’s murder. And I have no immediate plans to do so. I’m sure I will eventually. Perhaps even accidentally. But right now, at 10:34 am EST, I am making the choice not to witness another state sanctioned murder of a Black American.

When Freddie Gray was murdered by six Baltimore police officers — who detained him, placed him in a police van, and gave him a “rough ride” that eventually severed his spine — I wrote that, although we might be tempted to regurgitate the same feelings felt and thoughts thought when Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd and John Crawford III were also murdered by police officers, it wouldn’t be fair to Freddie Gray to do that.

These are minor details of these people’s lives. But minor doesn’t mean insignificant. They are part of the collection of characteristics and traits distinguishing us from each other. Our humanity exists in this minutiae. And this is what we — the people currently feeling anything about what’s happening in Baltimore — need to remember. And if remembering doesn’t work, make notes to remind ourselves to remind ourselves. Freddie Gray and Michael Brown may have died under similar circumstances. And the images and videos and stories coming out of Baltimore this week might be similar to those that came out of Ferguson last summer. But Freddie Gray is not Michael Brown. He was a human being who lived and loved and died uniquely, and this uniqueness must extend to how we mourn and remember and write about and pray for and march for him.

So cry new tears. Write new words. Craft new prayers. Attend new marches. Channel new anger. Feel it all again. Every bit of it. All the empathy, all the sorrow, all the rage. Don’t fight it. Let it permeate you. Embrace its engulf. Because Freddie Gray deserves it. Baltimore deserves it. You deserve it. Do not allow them to desensitize you to the uniqueness and preciousness of our lives, to the beauty of being alive, and do not permit them to rob you of the agony of them being snatched away. 

Today, however, when thinking about the murder of Alton Sterling, thinking and feeling and doing something new feels wasteful. An intentional wastefulness that veers into vanity. Because who the fuck am I to suggest that we somehow conjure new ways to process what happened, what has been happening, and what will continue to happen? Why would I ask any of us to put that on ourselves?

When I first watched the dashcam footage of the unlawful arrest that led to Sandra Bland’s death, I cried. Right there in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Wharton Square on the South Side. Today, however, when thinking about the murder of Alton Sterling, I don’t feel sad. Or mad. Or…anything. I’m sure I will eventually. Rather, I hope I will. But right now, my prevailing feeling exists somewhere between exhaustion and Groundhog Day. Like I’m playing a game I’m tired of playing but need to continue playing because everyone else at the party is playing and they need me to keep playing to keep the teams even.

It feels hyperbolic, hysterical even, to suggest that murders like the murder of Alton Sterling also kill a part of us each time it happens. But what’s happening here to me — what’s behind my reaction to this, I suspect — is a slow and subtle and steady loss of humanity. The act of reacting to the state sanctioned murders of Black Americans has chipped away at me. So much so that everything I’m saying and doing and thinking about this right now feels rote and perfunctory. Like I’m reading from a script, or going through a pre-game walk-through in a hotel ballroom. I want to feel more about this, but I can’t. It’s just not there. Maybe it’ll come back. Hopefully it’ll come back. But right now it’s either gone or existing in a part of me I haven’t been able to access.

In order for me to preserve some semblance of sanity, America has made me harder. A bit more robotic. A bit less human. A bit less me. And this, more even than the thought of the next 37-year-old Black father murdered by police being me, scares the shit out of me.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Agatha Guilluame

    I don’t know what to say.

  • Cherayla Davis

    beautifully written. I have tears in my eyes reading about Mr. Sterling…and I, too refuse to watch the video. but not because of ‘state sanctioned’ apathy…but TOO MUCH empathy. It hurts so bad — feels like my actual brother. not just a ‘brotha’…tired of being sad & mad but I can’t stop feeling bad. I’m rambling.

  • RewindingtonMaximus

    I wrote about this to you today.

    I didn’t want to watch the video. I’m already numb to this stuff. But I made myself do it at 1am. And I would have just sucked it up after the video was over, if not for the woman who’s viewing the murder with someone else in the car with her. She starts crying as soon as the shots go off.

    Her tears woke me up. Her crying slapped my soul. In that moment I realized she just witnessed the murder of a man in cold blood by a police officer.

    How dare I or anyone else say we can’t do a video when she saw it with her OWN EYES? She didn’t ask for that. She didn’t even know it would happen. She didn’t just shed tears out of fear. She shed tears because another Black life taken away by the hands of a police officer who happens to white adds him to the statistic of #558 in the amount of people killed by police in 2016.

    That’s why I say we have to care. It’s real life. It is happening every single day, and we can’t keep pretending the fake peace of our everyday life affords us the right to ignore that at any given moment, THAT WILL BE US. Notice I did not say CAN. I said WILL.

    Sleep on that.

    • Oluseyi

      This. All of this. Her tears seared my soul. She saw it with her own eyes, live. Who am I to turn away, from the convenience of a computer screen or television?

      • RewindingtonMaximus

        That’s all I’m saying. I can only imagine how that is going to make her feel from here on out, so I can’t sit here and try to protect myself knowing she and the other people with her in the car experienced that.

      • Janelle Doe

        all of this yes, AND she taped it. I told someone today that if they knew what video on phones would do for memorializing the violent taking of Black lives they may have not created it. But they did, so now we can capture what the other cameras “fail” to show.

        • Oluseyi

          I love you for putting “fail” in quotes, because we know they conceal and destroy evidence rampantly. The store owner asked for a warrant before having the surveillance video taken, and said he wanted to be present when it was removed. They seized it anyway—but they didn’t know that both he and another gentleman, a BLM activist, were both recording with their phones. He’s now handed that evidence over to the FBI because he doesn’t trust the cops.

          The scary thing is that even with all the video showing how they murder us, the oppressors spin a narrative of justification by looking for every indication that we are not righteous and thus don’t deserve a right to life. “He shoplifted!” “He has a criminal record!” “He didn’t comply!” Why any of those mean we deserve to be murdered, they can’t explain.

  • RaeNBow

    the pain and sadness and hurt is just too much. my people are being attacked. I am being attacked. and the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming.

  • Skegeeaces

    That says it all. I almost couldn’t react, but upon hearing his child scream and cry for his father during that press conference I got a feeling of deep despair that made me want to scratch my skin off and yell out until I couldn’t anymore.

  • Mika

    I watched the video several times. I still do not know what to say. I wish the woman didn’t turn her camera away, because some how, some way, they will manipulate those few seconds.

    • Oluseyi

      She was stunned by the gunshots. Poor thing. She sounded hysterical. I wish she hadn’t dropped the phone either, but under the circumstances I feel for her.

      • Mika

        I totally understand why she did it. The horror in her voice is chilling.

  • My only request is that we stop passing around the images, sounds, and videos of these killings. There is no reason for these incidents to be for mass consumption.

    If you want to watch these executions, by all means, do so but try to practice some self restraint and refrain from hitting “share”.

    • lilylawyer

      I can’t watch the video. I don’t think my soul can take it. But I do think there is value to sharing the video. Because the basic nature of the police killing a big, dark-skinned black man who was (lawfully) carrying a gun means that there is the assumption that the murder was justified. And even if the police and prosecutors have the video that prove otherwise, it is only public pressure that will make them act. And public pressure only happens with outrage. Watching these videos, as hard as it may be, incites necessary outrage.

      • I disagree. The images that we pass around aren’t needed to incite outrage. The only people that need to see that video are a judge, jurors, and legal teams which might become affiliated with this incident.

        I’m not of the opinion that these videos are in any way helpful to the black community.

      • A woman slit the throat and hands of four of her children this weekend, killing all four. I don’t need an HD quality video of her doing this for me to be upset about it.

        • lilylawyer

          I get your point, but they are not the same. As I said in my post, the nature of the victim and the aggressor are what necessitate circulating the video. My theory in this case is that the police thought they had it covered. Their body cams were conveniently lost in the shuffle and they confiscated the store’s surveillance camera. What they didn’t count on was a bystander recording the whole thing. If the public was not aware of this video, this would end up as another quiet out-of-court settlement at most. The officers might get paid suspension – maybe. Look at the case of Laquan McDonald. That is precisely what was happening, until the tape was released to the public and the public outrage caused action. The aldermen had already approved a settlement on behalf of the police department. The officers involved were still on the payroll. The state’s attorney was still “reviewing the evidence.” It was all a closely held secret…until the tape was released to the public. The case of the woman who killed her babies is unimaginably horrible. But trust, she will be brought to justice. No tape necessary.

          • Why do we need to see a carcass in order for us to want to incite change? I understand that pressure from the public is definitely necessary to light a fire under the a**es of those in power but why can’t we spread this message without the addition of these painful images?

            Why do we HAVE to have this video plastered everywhere?

            • Oluseyi

              Because the video is proof that counters the official narrative.

              In the case of the woman who slit her children’s throats, there are no apparent counter-narratives. Without this video, we would be resigned to whatever the police department that just murdered the man claimed. Citizen video has been a powerful and necessary part of pushing back against characterizations of “resisting arrest” and “belligerence” and “verbally abusive and physically agitated” and all the other euphemisms they use for justifying our murder.

              In addition, citizen video has been a bulwark against the rationalizations of those who always see us as guilty, casting their racism into relief and making their explanations transparently, patently absurd for all to see. For this is not only a war of rights and lives, bullets and blood, but also one of hearts and minds, of broad socio-cultural impressions and default assumptions about black lives, black people, and supposed black criminality. Seeing the video has moved many who otherwise would have supported the police narrative first to cautious challenge, and now open revolt. For better or worse, media is key in the fight for equality in America, and around the globe.

              I, too, wish it wasn’t so. But it is.

              • So who are we to ignore the privacy of these family members because we are so selfish to assume that the bigger picture is more important than the sum of a human life?

                Who am I to drag this man’s body across my social media profiles in order to make a political statement?

                I don’t get to use Mr. Sterling as my personal prop for police brutality

                • Oluseyi

                  I’m not sure that the families of victims of extrajudicial killings are more concerned about the privacy of their loved ones or justice being served. And I fully agree that we did and do not secure permission before beginning to circulate these images, but perhaps the urgency of the situation justifies some exigencies? I get where you are coming from, but I’m just going to have to respectfully say that I disagree, and think there is a place for these public presentations.

                  • I will also agree to disagree.

                    I do not believe that urgency should nullify that this was a person who is no longer with us and some semblance of decency should be maintained in the wake of his passing.

                    • Oluseyi

                      You are right: this was a person, and this person’s dignity is undermined. On this we agree. Where we disagree, is that I think the true indignity is that perpetrated against him by the state, the state that has a legal duty and obligation to protect and serve him. Perhaps I take liberties I shouldn’t, to protest his treatment. I hope he, his family, and you can forgive me, knowing that my heart is in the right place.

                      Thank you for talking.

                    • Not a problem, I’m no stranger to discourse in which I’m not in agreement with whoever it is I’m speaking with. We’re fighting the same fight after all. I hope we all can get through the rest of today and somehow end it on a better note.

                    • Oluseyi

                      Amen.

                • I agree with you. I can’t imagine how it would feel to lose a loved one and then see them plastered all over social media. It’s too much.
                  We know what’s going on. Seeing black death everywhere so often trivializes it. At least it does to me.

    • Oluseyi

      I’m of two minds about this. It’s important that this documentary evidence exist to confront those who wish to deny their occurrence, their brazenness, their total disregard for the dignity of black lives.

      On the other hand, a lady on twitter succinctly observed that there is a long tradition of the display of black bodies as public entertainment that this joins in macabre spectacle.

      • “On the other hand, a lady on twitter succinctly observed that there is a long tradition of the display of black bodies as public entertainment that this joins in macabre spectacle.”

        Again, I am of the opinion that the only eyes that need to view that video should be eyes in whatever court this may get to in the future. The public consumption of executions isn’t “necessary”.

        • Oluseyi

          I certainly won’t argue that it is necessary, and I do fear the desensitizing effects of seeing this sort of footage constantly. I know it’s important that it exists, and that seeing it helps to galvanize action…

          I have no answers.

          • People are already desensitized to these videos and it makes it so much easier to forget that these people have families and friends who are in mourning. We’re sitting behind our computers talking about how “hard” it is to willingly watch someone die.

            I’ve seen enough people die in front of me for me to know that watching someone die from the comfort of your home isn’t hard at all. It’s infuriating to actually see people die in front of me on a weekly basis and watch people spread around an execution and write about how sad they are. Watching someone die on camera is NOT hard.

            • Kylroy

              “Watching someone die on camera is NOT hard.”

              For centuries, people across the world went to executions as public entertainment. We know there is most definitely a point where violence and murder, however graphic, fails to shock or motivate.

          • Lillie Emily

            This reminds me of the first time I saw the pictures of Emmett Till in school. Till this day that image haunts me but it was so important at that time for people around the world to see the brutality of racism in the South. I just thought of the bravery of Till’s mother to have an open casket funeral.

            • Emmit Till wasn’t for public consumption though. Jet ran a picture in their magazine at his mother’s request. No one has given any of us permission to run with this video and use said footage to sate our insatiable appetite for police brutality pr0n.

              • RewindingtonMaximus

                You’re right, this stuff shouldn’t be for public consumption the way it has for the past few years. Yet if they weren’t made, most of the cases they display would never come up for nationwide attention. They’d be kept on a state level with local media, and all of us would be none the wiser.

                It’s a Catch 22. The good goes with the bad unfortunately. However I think being desensitized is a personal issue people need to figure out for themselves instead of blaming the video. It’s basically a cop out to the fact that violence & death occurs every single day, and yet because we live in this country, most of us just have blinders on to it. If we lived in other places where you couldn’t turn your head, we wouldn’t need this conversation.

                • I’ll just be that person who is aggressively against having these videos floating around online and people proclaiming that “the world needs to see”.

                  I do not want any footage of me being executed online for public discourse and dissection.

              • Lillie Emily

                Jet is a magazine, right? If the mother requested for them to run the picture, how is it not for public consumption?

                Please note that my comment only referenced Emmett Till, I did not mention nor advocate for the sharing of Mr. Sterling’s killing.

                • The difference there is that his mother was perfectly fine with them running said picture as she advocated for her sons killers to be called out on their sh*t. The circulation of Sterling’s death is so insensitive as it relates to his family because they have no control over that video and how it is being distributed right now. The man just passed yesterday and we’re so worried about making sure that we let people know what the police are doing to us that we fail to recognize that a family is mourning and may want to do so without this video of their father, son, brother, husband, taking his last breath on our laptop screens as we munch on snacks and wax poetic about how a “change is gone come”.

      • L8Comer

        I think documentary evidence is important so history can’t be re-written. Without the video how can we say that the victim didn’t reach and grab hold of the officers gun and aim it at him? At least this way they can’t sell their narrative to the masses. We get to see the victim’s side of the story (as much as is possible) or read the reports of others who saw if we don’t want to see.

        Remember how outlandish the story they told of Mike Brown was? He was a venom-spitting demon with super human strength that tossed the 6’3″ officer around like a rag doll … He ran away, but then turned back to the officer, grunted, and charged him… okay.

        As far as watching it or not, I say let others do what they want. We’re different people, no one method of processing this is going to work for all of us. For those who don’t want to see it, don’t press play. And most news outlets give you a warning before they play the video.

        • Oluseyi

          I think of the murder of Walter Scott. Unaware that he was being filmed, the police officer attempted to plant his taser in order to support a narrative that Scott had “reached for his weapon” and the officer “feared for his life.”

          Video put paid to that.

          I think of the murder of Samuel Dubose. Again, the officer attempted to spin a narrative that his arm was caught in the vehicle door as Dubose began driving off; video—ironically, in this instance, from the officer’s body and dash cams—proved that to be false.

          So yes, the video is necessary. Painful, ugly, but necessary. And while public consumption is not necessary, it is important that we watch in order to expose lies and ensure that truth carries the day.

          • L8Comer

            Yep, I agree video is necessary.

            I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s necessary that we watch though. Some people can’t take the visual or don’t want to, and that’s fine too. When people say they can’t tolerate something, I tend to believe them.They’ll hear the truth from those that could / did watch.

            • Oluseyi

              When I say that it is important that we watch, I refer to “we” as a collective, not as individuals. No individual has an obligation, or even responsibility, to watch. But some of us must, that we may speak informedly and challenge the fictions that power would otherwise try to sell to us as truth.

              • L8Comer

                I hear you

    • Minx

      It’s all up and down my wall on Facebook wall and this week has already been too much for me.

      • I’ve hidden many of the videos and unfriended a few others who I should’ve unfriended years ago.

    • L8Comer

      I agree with you Ruby. I’m glad that people can see the video and see the injustice if they want to, but ow that I’m watching the news and on social media I can’t avoid that video. I just have to unplug. People should be allowed to see it, but we shouldn’t be bombarded with it. I watched it once. But I did not want to see it again and again and again and I don’t understand what the point is when the news keeps playing it over and over again. It’s grotesque. I think the news can show it (with ample warning) and then after that people can google it if they want to see… idk.

      I also wish people would be considerate with sharing it so much. Even though you don’t have to press play if you don’t want to, u still see that image all over your timeline. People who want to see it will google it. I can’t get the picture out my head now. The least people could do is a give a very space filled warning so you can scroll past it.

  • cakes_and_pies

    I consider this a moderately safe place for discussion, so for the Love of God, PLEASE block a user. Don’t even engage. I don’t want to see a series of dead Black men in the comment section here last week.

    • Same. I just down voted an insensitive comment left here and kept it pushing. No need to engage as you said.

      • Val

        I block them. And poof, they disappear never to be heard from again.

        • I forgot we have that power!

        • cakes_and_pies

          I wanted to. I was amazed how so many people kept engaging him after posting lynching, hitler images, and burnings. I couldn’t look away and I also wondered if anyone moderates here.

        • L8Comer

          the trolls have arrived and figured out how to be unblockable…

  • Okitech623

    My wife told me about Alton Serling’s death this morning while we were getting ready for work. Needless to say the mood was somber in our household as we went about our usual morning routine. Mr. Sterling was about my age and of similar build and skin tone. Heading out of the house holding my 11 month old daughter and listening to the joyous, playful outbursts from my 2 year old son I couldn’t help but wonder will I be the next hashtag?

    • Skegeeaces

      That’s so freakin’ sad, man…Who can live like this?! How can we keep on as normal?

  • Jas

    And already this man’s past history is out for the world to read. One has nothing to do with the other. All of that “training” and police officers cannot properly disarm a person (specifically POC). I don’t know if Alton Sterling had a weapon or not but what’s the point of training if you can’t apply it??? And people are calling for Jesse Williams dismissal from Grey’s Anatomy. Why? Because he spoke the truth? This tragedy unfortunately only proved his points in the speech he gave. So sad.

    • Oluseyi

      When he said “we’ve been […] looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday”—this is like real-time reinforcement.

      Black Lives Matter.

      • Mortal Man

        The situation already was de-escalated. This was an execution.

        • Oluseyi

          Exactly. There was no situation, except the one created by the police themselves.

    • Buster Cannon

      All of that “training” and police officers cannot properly disarm a person (specifically POC). I don’t know if Alton Sterling had a weapon or not but what’s the point of training if you can’t apply it???

      That’s the part that always kills me. ‘Trained’ law enforcement, yet they somehow lack the ability to neutralize a man without shooting him. Compare and contrast to something like this Russian police incident:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekWWwFBvIfc

      Russian officer uses fundamental Krav Maga to take down a dude hand-to-hand. If this took place in America (especially against a POC), he would have been shot as soon as the shovel appeared. There is no reason why the level of force used against Alton Sterling was justified; two officers and they couldn’t have just cuffed him and brought him in? This was an execution, plain and simple.

    • “All of that “training” and police officers cannot properly disarm a person (specifically POC).”

      This! I couldn’t get my eyes to focus on the video too much but they definitely had him pinned down and if he was armed, there was no way he was going to be able to get a shot off. And even if shooting him was the only “logical” step, why not shoot him in the arm that’s going for the alleged gun? I just can’t.

    • Janelle Doe

      Are they also sharing the police officers’ histories? All I saw was how long each had been on the force.

    • E_Deshon

      I just said this very thing to my sister. Media is now starting to shape his narrative so that we forget to have compassion after watching a man executed and his child break down in tears and forget that he has a right to due process regardless of his past. I’m so tired of these videos and the predictable schedule of events and outcome.
      We are all being pacified by the “justice process” in Baltimore……& we are still dying and asking for permission to exist and for our kids to have the right to grow up.

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