Kai Wright / The Nation – 2016-07-09 19:34:43
Black Lives Still Must Matter, Even After Dallas
But the attack is a reminder that no life will be safe and truly valued until we also confront the broader American culture of violence
Kai Wright / The Nation
(July 8, 2016) — Let’s start here: Six more people are dead today, adding to the carnage of yet another week of wrenching American violence. The five police officers among them were shot down while doing their jobs as public servants, and that fact must be stated plainly and roundly decried. As President Obama succinctly put it, “There’s no possible justification for these kinds of attacks.”
There’s also no reason to connect the attacks to the hundreds of people who joined the anti-violence march in Dallas, or in cities around the country this week. The Next Generation Action Network, which organized the march, has already condemned the shootings and called them “cowardly.”
“I was right there when the shooting happened,” Dominique Alexander, the minister who leads the organization, told The New York Times. “They could have shot me.” The group will hold a press conference at 11 am Central time outside Dallas’s City Hall.
We don’t yet know who killed these five officers or why they did it. It was nonetheless a plainly coordinated and planned attack, seemingly targeting public officials. And that fact makes it an attack on the public, too. Police officers work for us, they are our representatives — which is precisely why police violence against black people is uniquely corrosive and must also be roundly decried, even still today.
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Nothing about the horrific events in Dallas last night changes the reality that brought hundreds of people out to march in the first place, any more than the assassination of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in 2014 changed the fact that Eric Garner’s killing was a crime against humanity. It is still sadly necessary to remind the nation and our law enforcement that black lives matter.
It’s a despicable fact that the death toll in the Dallas attack appears to mark the second-largest loss of police life since 9/11. It is nonetheless still a despicable fact that police have killed 566 people in 2016 alone, according to The Guardian’s ongoing tally. It is nonetheless still a despicable fact that police unions, in particular, have worked mightily to stand in the way of transparency and accountability for those deaths.
Here’s the thing: The world is often more complicated than our political discourse accommodates. We are rarely allowed to use the word and in our politics, but it is surely useful this morning. We can and must condemn and organize against violence in all its forms — both violence against public servants and violence that public servants direct at us; acts of terrorism and state-sanctioned acts of war; hate crimes directed at a community of people and personal disputes that turn deadly due to the omnipresence of guns.
What unifies all of this death is the grim reality that America is a horribly violent place. And if Dallas changes anything about the movement for black lives, it is only to remind us that in order to truly ensure black lives are valued, we will have to confront the broader culture of violence that has long gripped this nation.
Why Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Are Dead
We have too much law enforcement, too deeply enmeshed in our lives, and that fact is making us less, not more safe
Kai Wright / The Nation
(July 7, 2016) — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are dead, joining a long roll call of black people killed by officials acting in the name of public safety. And so the nation now begins a process so familiar as to have become rote.
Many of us will want desperately to know more about these men’s lives, not merely their deaths. After each of the many executions we have collectively mourned, I have grasped for those kinds of details — some reminder that black lives do actually matter, to somebody. Alton Sterling seems like he was a nice guy. He clearly had a friend in Abdullah Muflahi, who owned the food mart where he sold CDs and DVDs in the parking lot.
Sandra Sterling, the aunt who raised him, says he was gregarious, perhaps self-consciously so. He used his large frame as a punch line, maybe to put others at ease with his size. “He made everybody laugh because he was chubby,” she told Nola.com. His cousin Krystal says he was a “people person,” which is why he figured selling CDs on the street was a useful way around the fact that he couldn’t get work in the formal labor market, thanks to a conviction for having sex with a minor when he was a 19-year-old himself.
His customers — neighbors, really — seemed to genuinely enjoy him; they called him “Big A.” And he was good at his work. As one woman told The Washington Post, “That’s the most legit bootleg man in Baton Rouge.”
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Castile’s killing is still too fresh for details of his life to begin seeping into the public record. He seems to have had a remarkable girlfriend — someone so clear of mind that she was able to live-stream the immediate aftermath of her boyfriend’s death at the hands of someone who is paid to protect her. Or maybe that was just trauma, how the hell would I know.
But his uncle, Clarence Castile, tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the 32-year-old had worked in a school cafeteria “cooking for the little kids” for 12 to 15 years. So he’d spent his whole adult life feeding people. He had a mother, a sister, a cousin; they’ve all sobbed as the cameras have rolled.
These are just a few snippets of the lives taken in the name of public safety. I cling to them.
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Of course, the ritual of parsing the lives of the dead must also include a consideration of their criminality. It is tradition for news media to report any prior evidence of criminality when covering these cases. A banality of this particular evil is the assumption that people who encounter cops — for that matter, people who have criminal records — have done something, anything meaningfully wrong.
We simply cannot hold the idea that someone selling CDs in a parking lot or driving a car with a busted taillight or walking down the middle of the street or peddling loosies on the sidewalk or playing with a toy in the park is enough infraction to end up dead within minutes of encountering a cop; that would undermine the whole premise of authorizing a force of public safety officers.
The dead must have some modicum of criminality, present some reasonable threat to the public. So news reports must include Castile and Sterling’s records, supplied by the police agencies that killed them, as though anything in those records could possibly explain their deaths.
In this vein, the now rote ritual of black death will also include much debate about the guns. Both Sterling and Castile were armed. Sterling’s friend, the food-mart owner, says he was carrying a gun because he’d been threatened; others say it was a reasonable security precaution given his cash-based business.
Castile’s girlfriend says he was licensed to carry his gun and that he told the officer as much. The details of these guns will be crucial to the debate over accountability for the officers, because the sole legal question is whether the officers reasonably felt themselves or others to be in immediate danger.
The answer in court — if any case makes it that far — is very likely to be yes. The law discourages second-guessing officers’ split-second, potentially life-and-death decisions. So there will not likely be justice in Baton Rouge or St. Paul.
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Nor will there likely be peace, because of a simple fact about law enforcement: There is too much of it, touching too many aspects of daily life, creating too many opportunities for it to inflict violence upon the public it is supposed to serve. This has always been true for black people, in one way or another.
From the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act forward, public-safety officers have been empowered to harass black bodies in the defense of private capital and the pursuit of public revenue. As a result, no generation of black Americans has been spared the macabre tradition of drilling into its children tips for avoiding death at the hands of the state — not during slavery, not during the era of black codes that followed war, not during Jim Crow, not during the indiscriminate war on drugs, and not in the current era of cops functioning as tax collectors on the poor in decimated municipalities.
Debbie Nathan’s moving biography of Sandra Bland in our May 19 issue is a must-read for understanding how this modern version of the 220-year-old system functions to destroy black life. From Illinois to Texas, Bland was stalked by an overzealous police apparatus that hunted vulnerable residents who could be targeted with fines and fees, money that local governments desperately needed to fill the holes created by state and federal austerity — zealotry that begat zealotry that begat death.
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From case to case the details have shifted, but a depressing through line for all of the people whose names have become hashtags over the past two years is the ho-hum way in which their last moments began.
In each case, one can reasonably ask why the encounter involved armed, hyped-up cops at all. Which points to a more fundamental solution than those we most often discuss when we march through the grimly familiar stations of public mourning and debate that will accompany Sterling and Castile’s deaths.
Yes, cameras are a reasonable precaution, both those worn by cops and those that brave citizens wield. Absolutely, better training in the use of non-lethal force and awareness of implicit bias is a must.
Surely creating systems to evaluate law enforcement officials based on the help they provide rather than the arrests they make would improve things. And no doubt prosecutors need to be reined in. But all of these things ease the symptoms rather than treat the disease. We need to start asking why we have so much law enforcement in the first place, and whether much of it is truly needed.
Law-enforcement agencies are among the largest and most powerful bureaucracies in most localities, and they are deeply enmeshed in our daily lives, particularly in communities of color. They are our first responders. They are in our schools. They are our immigration officials.
For the most vulnerable among us, they are often what passes for social workers and mental-health-care providers. And they are armed. At some point, we must question whether all of this law enforcement is necessary, and whether public safety is best served by having much, much less of it.
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