Fresh from Fourth of July BBQs, family reunions, road trips, beach days and the like, many black people in the U.S. grieve another person, another black man, another father and partner gone too soon after a deadly encounter with police. The facts, opinions, anecdotes, and reports trickle in, including the announcement that the Department of Justice will conduct an investigation. As a culture we know how this tends to play out.
This experience of reeling from situations we would not know about but for the reels of cellular devices, and citizen journalists and good neighbors who use them, has become commonplace.
By now, most people have heard the name Alton Sterling. They know Baton Rouge police killed him in front of a convenience store, a store where he and the owner had cultivated a relationship in which Sterling had permission to sell CDs outside the establishment.
Many have seen continual video loops chronicling Sterling’s demise. Others decided to read the stories, but not watch the video because the collective trauma of state-sanctioned violence against black people has become too much to bear.
Police have killed 558 people this year in the U.S, according the Counted, a database hosted by the Guardian. The Washington Post reported that American police have killed 122 black people in the U.S. this year.
Late last week a Change.org petition was started against activist and actor Jesse Williams. Cyber signees called for Williams’ termination from Grey’s Anatomy after Williams used his humanitarian award speech at the BET Awards to lambast institutional racism. As I type this, more than 19,000 people have signed.
Williams’ speech was an opportunity to, as folks say, make it plain. He said that the award he received was not for him, but was for “the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”
He continued. “It’s kind of basic mathematics – the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.” Williams decried disparate treatment of black people and eerily-yet-predictably foreshadowed Sterling’s death.
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day,” Williams said. “So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
It is frightening to think, and sobering to know, many people so resented Williams’ speech that they wanted his lucrative and prominent position taken. They were more disturbed that he had a safe space to speak at a BET show, a receptive audience, and that he struck a chord with millions than they were invested in uprooting the realities that motivated his speech. They were salty about the message, hating on the messenger and choose to rationalize the personhood politics and policies that keep America facing mounting black bodies.
One must ask whether the immutability of race will continue muting people in power. What of the capacity for justice? Or is it really just us?