It happened again. This time, outside a slummy Baton Rouge liquor store in the early morning hours on the day after America celebrated it’s freedom from oppression and tyranny. Police officers tasered, tackled, and fatally shot a black man – 37 year old Alton Sterling – several times in the chest and in the back.
The only fortunate thing was that bystanders recorded this startling example of “Southern Justice” on video:
WARNING: This footage contains graphic content. Viewer discretion advised.
There have been calls, and rightly so, from Civil Rights advocates (including myself, for full disclosure) for the FBI and DOJ to immediately investigate this latest example police brutality. In a matter of seconds, all who watch the video will witness “peace” officers become the judge, jury, and executioners of a young Black man who wasn’t robbing a store, peddling dope, or assaulting anybody.
Most troubling of all was that the killing appeared almost routine. Stop, drop, and shoot. A cavalier and methodical slaying, performed by individuals who should be immediately identified and subsequently relieved of any community policing duties and all weapons they have access to.
The culture of the acceptable murdering of black citizens by police is not new. But I fear, and a even a cursory review of similar incidents and their outcomes will prove, that law enforcement officers nation-wide have been emboldened to continue to commit such heinous acts because the recourse of the afflicted has been circumvented by the racist inner-workings of a failed American justice system.
The effects of acquittals and technical or “policy” exonerations in the cases of Freddie Gray, Michelle Cusseaux, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and a myriad of others are playing out in vivid and painful cellphone footage as police continue to violate the civil rights and extinguish the lives of Black people going about their routine activities.
For cops, there is no fear of investigations. There is no pause for concern of incurring any disciplinary measures. There is nothing in place, with respect to state laws or federal response, to stay the hands of patrolmen from grasping prematurely and unashamedly at their side-arms. It is open season on the Black buck and his female counterpart. An officer need only, “fear for his or her life”, and the wanton killing can begin.
The videoed shooting death of Alton Sterling leaves no question about the validity of concerns about the continued use of lethal force by lawmen in black communities in every jurisdiction in the land. Overkill is not a fitting word to describe what occurred on Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 in Baton Rouge. Though there are several others that apply: Thuggery, Barbarianism, Callousness, Dehumanization, and on and on.
Protests are in order and have already begun. What happens next should be the application of appropriate levels of political pressure on the Louisiana and federal powers that be. That is what must be different about the situation. Organization, a clear articulation of demands, and unity of mainstream black leadership must appear in Baton Rouge where it has failed to appear elsewhere. Justice, with respect to criminal charges, can be brought about. This is a battle on two fronts. The local crime – a murder committed by municipal police – and the national civil rights issues of inexcusably stalled reforms of policing and the reversal of related weaponized trends.
Only successful action on both matters will result in any meaningful verdicts and change. That means a return for the black community to what has always been our most powerful weapon of revolution: a non-violent, civil disobedience focused, church supported campaign. Like Birmingham and Selma before, the civil rights movement is uniquely positioned to achieve a victory against police brutality and misconduct that has remained illusive in the north and other parts of the country: substantive convictions of the officers involved and the vigorous enforcement, expansion, and protection of our civil rights (with respect to policing) by the federal government.
This time, after our experiences of falling into and climbing out of the pitfalls of our democracy in Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York, Ferguson, Phoenix, Chicago, the Bay Area, and beyond – we need to be ready. The moral and social stakes could not be higher. The emerging legacy of Alton Sterling’s martyrdom must be about changing hearts, minds, and policy. There is an attitude amongst police that must be addressed head on. The shocking recording of his unjustifiable death at the hands of police must be used to combat entrenched law enforcement leadership around the country who feel that the outcome of situations like this are acceptable.
Black activists must challenge the assertion that Black Lives Don’t Matter. We must challenge the institutional and system racism that defines the killing of non-dangerous Black citizens as some sort of sick right of passage or a “hazard of the job” that is a normal part of what being a 21st Century cop is all about. The video of Sterling’s shooting will be described in coming days as “normal” or “acceptable” and it is incumbent upon all people of good conscience and character to decry and denounce this racial violence abnormal and unacceptable. This fight, the struggle to regain power in our communities and over our very lives from morally bankrupt policing agencies, will play out in marches, rallies, and in the courtroom. But it cannot stop there. The fight must be elevated to include civic engagement/empowerment and direct dialogue with non-Blacks about the realities of racism in modern America. We must vote our way out of and protest against what has become a comfortable dilemma for white Americans.
What happens to the officers involved in Alton Sterling’s murder and what reforms result from it has a direct correlation to black voter’s participation in elections at every level. Our votes can and must determine who the prosecutors and judges will be that decide what Justice will look like in this and other cases throughout the Union. Police respond to their leadership and the responsibility for the climate of hate that protects the nature of the type of murder that claimed the life Alton Sterling can rightfully and righteously be laid at the feet of elected officials in Louisiana. As it can and should also be laid at the feet of elected public servants from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters and everywhere in between.
Unjustified Black deaths at the hands of police will continue. They are far from over because the political, social, and cultural forces that promote them have yet to be disturbed. Passion cannot blind us to this truth. Don’t get mad, get organized. The blood of Alton Sterling and the innumerable list of his fellow victims of present day American policing scream out to us from the gutters, stairwells, fields, streets and backs of patty wagons where they were cut down or left to die. We must take it upon ourselves to adjust the attitudes of the police and the atmosphere of state sanctioned violence if we are going to stop the trend and end the culture of casualness and flippancy that pervades police departments in every Black community with respect to the questioned or blatantly ignored value of our lives and the ease in committing and consequence-free reaction to police brutality, excessive force, and resulting executions.
The Rev. Jarrett B. Maupin, Jr. is a Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and political activist. Follow him on Twitter @ReverendMaupin