Last night, Alton Sterling was killed by police while selling CDs in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, LA. Police were called to the scene after receiving an anonymous tip that someone near the convenience store might have been carrying a firearm. While it is possible that Sterling did have a gun, disturbing video of the shooting makes clear that Sterling was not a threat to the police officers that shot him. Sterling was pinned to ground when an officer shot him at point blank range without warning or cause.
Shootings like this defy adequate words or explanation. It is not enough to simply offer thoughts and prayers to Sterling’s family, nor is enough to chalk up Sterling’s murder to the work of “a few bad apples.” Sterling’s death is yet another stark reminder that we must mobilize and demand comprehensive justice and police reform in the United States, and we must insist on confronting head-on the evil and powerful specter of racism that still exists in the United States today.
As disciples of a God who urges us to love all nations and all people as unconditionally as he loves, yet who also demonstrates special concern for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden, it is our sacred responsibility to confront the evil and sinful factors that led to Sterling’s death.
While it is impossible to know what was in the officer’s heart when he shot Sterling, we know that hundreds of Black men and women die during encounters with the police every year. Disproportionately, Black and Brown victims of police violence are unarmed. In almost all cases, armed or not, police were capable of confronting the situation through non-lethal means but chose not to. While there is a disturbing trend of police violence against all people, Black and white, people of color are more likely to be confronted by police, and police are quicker to use lethal force against a person of color than a white person.
There should be little doubt, therefore, that Sterling’s death is the result of a racist justice system and racist policing practices. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Sterling’s killer was “racist” in the sense that he knowingly and maliciously harbors prejudice against African Americans. It does mean that as a result of implicit biases and ingrown stereotypes supported by media and culture, Sterling’s killer was more willing to pull the trigger on him than a white man. Alton Sterling’s life didn’t matter as much, because of the color of his skin.
No doubt, in the following days, the media will parade a negative narrative against Alton Sterling. The media will make Sterling out to be a “thug,” – a racial codeword that they will no doubt use. They will dig up past criminal accusations against Sterling and bring out acquaintances to say he was violent. They will focus on the gun that might have been in his pocket and speculate about whether there was marijuana in his system.
I’m not going to listen, because it doesn’t matter. Here’s the bottom line: Alton Sterling was a beloved child of God. A person who’s life was just as precious as any of ours.
I can’t pretend to understand how Sterling’s family feels after losing their loved one, nor can I pretend to know the fear and anxiety all people of color must feel when they see the police. I know that I will never be killed by police for selling CDs outside of a convenience store, regardless of what’s in my pocket.
All I can do is insist that my condolences are not enough. If I really grieve for Alton Sterling, if I really believed his life matters, I will do everything I can to see that real, substantive change comes not just to our laws but also to our hearts. Ultimately, I know that the degree to which I believe Alton Sterling matters is the same degree to which I believe God matters.
Emmett Eldred is a senior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.