When I first read the name: Alton Sterling, I was scrolling down my Facebook feed at 11 pm after having worked an 8 hr shift. My first unbidden thought was: “Lord, why?” If this makes me sound religious, it shouldn’t, it is simply the result of cultural conditioning, itself conditioned by 400 years of being at the mercy of an unspeakably brutal power. Religious or not, one feels the urge to yell up into the sky, whether one expects an answer or not. I didn’t watch the video then, at the ripe old age of 25 I’ve finally learned to conserve my energy. I once thought I could absorb anti-Blackness with no emotional effect, I thought I could coldly contemplate, video after video, story after story. I once decided to follow-up every tale of police brutality which came across my line of sight and in barely a week I began to feel my grip on sanity slip away. I stopped. Lesson learned, yet in this case, simply reading the headline and some preliminary reactions had been enough to trigger my over-full well of rage, this mingled with the guilt I felt for not watching the execution led me to to charge furiously into the comment sections of any story relating to racism, attacking the beast’s tentacles instead of the heart, before finally deciding that my night had to be over.
I watched Mr. Sterling’s execution the next morning. The footage was grainy, as usual, but I saw a large Black man in a red shirt being thrown on the ground, his hands behind his back. In any context which made sense, the situation would have begun to de-escalate at that point, instead, one hears the surprisingly dull sound of gunshots. The sequence of events is so bizarre, that one relies on the narrator/filmers, now screaming and crying, to understand what has happened. Even though racism has become a central part of how I interpret my place in society, even though I started the video expecting to see an execution; the transition from a man being pinned on the ground by “law officers” to six murderous gunshots was too much of an interpretive leap for my mind to make, even as I heard the bullets fire. The woman behind the camera screaming “Oh my God” pierces the soul, she is the interpreter, the human funeral dirge, the voice crying into the sky. How many lives have ended to this fearful refrain through the centuries?
Grief and fear are Black America’s national past times. Utter powerlessness has come to characterize our collective approach to life. As has summoning the courage to resist that powerlessness. Though we front bravely for the world, strutting even, these perennial executions are ever present to remind us of the terms under which we exist, here. I watched the video of Alton Sterling’s family addressing the media. Sterling’s eldest son broke down in loud sobs as the boy’s mother, determined to speak her words, choked back tears and read her eloquent testimony: “Now if we could reflect on the measure of a man, it should not be judged on his past. But the mark his life left on lives and his children.” I was recalled to Aiyana Stanley-Jones’s grandmother testifying in court about the police officer that broke into her house and shot her seven year old granddaughter dead. I remembered the way her voice splintered as she said: “They shot my grand baby in the head,” the way her woundedness wounded. I remembered Esaw Garner telling the officer that had murdered her husband what to do with his apologies. I remembered Mamie Till exploding with grief over her son’s butchered, unrecognizable body. I remembered an account I’d read in the Schomburg center of an enslaved Jamaican mother’s reaction when she learned that her twin sons had been sold away from her. Though the teller was a White man and by no means a sympathetic narrator, the woman’s grief jumped through paper, 300 years and thousands of miles, like lightning piercing the ground as she ran through the streets, screaming, crying, tearing her clothes begging the master to bring them back, begging the minister to call upon whatever of God there may be in this world to make the monster bring her children back to her. I’m reminded of the former slave who told the WPA of seeing his mother beaten to death by a slaver when he was but a boy. I was reminded of dozens of scenes of Black grief through the ages and they all met in my head and became one. A scene acted out in millions of tear stung eyes. This litany is why I’m angered whenever I hear a repentant racist say that his turning point came upon realizing that Black people love their families as much as he loves his. Why should this be a revelation? We’ve never hidden it. In fact, we’ve worn our love for one another so brazenly on our sleeves that White supremacy has never hesitated to seize and to torment us with it. I remember when my younger brother was applying to colleges, he got a letter from “Southern Mississippi University.” I asked him point blank: “There is no part of you that is considering going here is there?” He responded, seeming to understand my point, simply: “No.” I said: “Good: I don’t want to have to burn the state down.” I have two sisters, one older, one younger, if either of them is found hanging in a jail cell, with God’s luck and strength, I and a pistol at the door of the precinct will know the reason why. Like most people, I suspect, more than my own death, I fear the slow spirit death of absence’s eternal midnight, born when a loved one dies not in life’s natural course, but, as a casualty of senseless, human violence.
“The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe. That would have been the time for him to show some remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life.” – Esaw Garner
Fuck the police. All that I’ve said before goes into these words, the fear, the helplessness, the midnight. Some of you may have police officers in your family, as I do. Some of you may be police officers. All the same, fuck the police. Every time I see a police cruiser nearby, I don’t feel safe under the watchful eye of the state, I feel that wherever I am has become a place of death, and that if I am not careful, I’ll slip from life’s razor edge into destruction. I do not know whether the officer is a sincere public servant who looks upon me as one of the citizens he or she is sworn to protect, or, if he sees a menacing presence which may need to be put down like a dog. I don’t know if he is one of the officers that trades racist memes on the municipal servers that I pay for, I don’t know if he fills his downtime with fantasies of murdering me. I do know that these officers exist, and, that the criminal justice system is racist to its bones, born of racism, maintained by racism, find its greatest strength in enforcing racism. Therefore, I tread lightly. I walk extra straight, I pretend that I am not afraid in the hope that my confidence will convince the man with a gun that I have something behind me which can resist his power, maybe my grandfather is one of the few Black judges in our city, maybe my mother’s a big time lawyer, maybe I’m a law student. None are true, and even if they were, they might not protect me; but, like all of us, I bluff. Some will cite statistics to show how much more likely I am to be killed by another Black man than by the police. I know these stats, I also know that a Black man that kills me will be punished more severely than a White man would for committing the same crime, and, that an officer that murders me stands a good chance of walking free with nothing more than unemployment (if that) to worry about. Moreover, there’s more to fear than statistics. How many of us take subtle precautions because of something we saw on Dateline or America’s Most Wanted? Cars are less safe than planes yet who isn’t more shaken up by turbulence than a car with bad shocks?
Fear is a subjective experience and the fear that I as a law abiding citizen have of being murdered by those who are supposed to protect me, by the state which is supposed to serve me, is nightmarish. Fuck the police.
What can we do besides grieve? We can keep saying his name, and her name, and all the names. We can grieve loudly, openly, violently, vengefully in defiance of the conventions which our brutalizers would impose on us. We can organize. We can plan. We can subvert. I remember a high school friend who was shaken by having watched “Fruitvale Station” the dramatization of Oscar Grant’s last day on earth. He posted a Facebook status in which he rather courageously admitted that he was in need of some form of comfort. (I tend to keep my own counsel, in dark rooms with Blues inflected music, though I can’t claim this is healthy long term). While I could never claim to comfort anybody, including myself; I offered a version of what I tell myself in times such as these (our entire lives), I saved the words because I suspected I would need them: “The closest thing I know to comfort is the stubborn conviction to keep living despite the knowledge that being alive makes you a candidate for unspeakable violence. And I don’t mean merely biological life, but life which crusades and is assured of its own dignity and purpose. Holding a single inch of ground is valiant in a world where retreat is the norm. Knowing this and yet determining to take two inches, and then a mile is how I resist the horror of negation. I can’t claim this works for everybody, and sometimes I do have to let the pain flow before it coagulates into a better weapon and a stronger shield. But sometimes looking at racist death and proclaiming “I and we yet live.” Is a weapon of unspeakable power, a sanctuary of inchoate peace.”
And the ancestors quoth: “O Lord, O my Lord O my Lord, keep me from sinking down.”