Both were on video, and both cases were very recent. All these videos were and are available to everyone with internet access.
The first was Alton Sterling, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana man shot at point-blank range while pinned to the ground by police officers in a convenience store parking lot. The first video I watched was from a nearby car, which was blurry, but clearly showed the shots being fired. The second video from the same incident, was a clearer image and showed pretty clearly that the man was unarmed, and did not appear to be a threat. This video also showed a massively bleeding chest wound and the victim’s final moments.
The second video was Philando Castile, the driver of a car with a broken tail light. He identified himself as having a concealed carry permit and while he was reaching for his driver’s license in his wallet, the officer fired at him multiple times, again at point-blank range. His girlfriend started a live Facebook video while he was bleeding out in the front seat and the officer’s gun was still drawn. It continued to show the victim lose consciousness, and then the girlfriend being taken out of the car and detained, all while broadcasting live.
I watched the Alton Sterling videos a day after the incident and the Philando Castile live broadcast a very short time after the incident. As a former St. Paul resident, I have many connections in the area. Friends were posting the live video in shock, even before Twitter exploded with the news and long before major news outlets were picking it up. Facebook removed the video this morning, but much of it is still available on other online sites.
These men were not wanted fugitives. There was no evidence of violent crimes. These were not hardened criminals. But yet, they ended up dead at the hands of police after encounters under the most mundane of circumstances. It’s shocking and disheartening.
My perception of the police has varied throughout my life. I grew up in a middle-class, largely white area with a fairly low crime rate. There was a police officer that lived down the block. Things were safe, generally, and I don’t remember a lot of interaction with police. They were available when needed, but mercifully they weren’t often needed.
In my teen years, thefts and break-ins became common in the area, and our house was broken into at one time. I went to a city magnet school outside my neighborhood. The neighborhood, largely African American, had problems with roving gangs that claimed and patrolled the area. At one time, a friend and I stayed late for a musical rehearsal, and we were accosted and mugged by some of these gang members. I had my wallet stolen, losing a bus pass and some cash. My friend was punched in the face and had his glasses broken. The incident was done in a minute and the young men were gone, leaving us unable to get home. I know that I interacted with police on those occasions, but I have little recollection.
After coming out as gay, my perception of the police shifted. In the late eighties, things were starting to get better between gay and lesbian identified people and the police, but only barely. Sodomy and public indecency laws were either being repealed or were rarely used. The habit of police raiding gay bars just because they were gay bars was fading, but the community had those recent memories and it still happened in some parts of the country. Bowers v Hardwick, 1986 had allowed states to have and enforce Sodomy Laws, a decision that was not reversed until Lawrence v Texas in 2003. Besides this, it was well known that many police officers in many places had longstanding anti-gay bias issues.
Assaults against people showing same-sex affection or being particularly flamboyant were subject to the kind of victim-blaming similar to what women experience around sexual assault. The attitude was often that “they were asking for it”, and little sympathy or assistance was given to victims.
But I watched things change. In places where I lived, and in many places throughout the country, police departments changed their cultures to become less homophobic, less anti-gay, and in many cases they were partners and allies with the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. As with so many of these issues of social change around LGBTQ issues, the Trans and Queer inclusivity and acceptance lags behind that for gay and lesbian identities.
I had a turning point on this when I was still living in East Lakeview (nicknamed Boystown, a neighborhood associated with Chicago’s gay community). I don’t recall the exact date, but it was early in the tenure of Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard, who served from 1998 to 2003. There had been a rash of assaults in the area. Hundreds of neighbors, many of whom were openly gay and lesbian, came out to voice support for a police initiative to increase bicycle based patrols. The neighborhood is very congested and car responses were often delayed simply due to traffic congestion. Bicycles had the advantage of quickly navigating sidewalks and narrow alleys to arrive at the scene quickly. Bicycles were rarely used by police in Chicago prior to that time. Much to Superintendant Hillard’s surprise, already accustomed to weathering constant complaints from the public about police, the neighbors were largely supportive of police and very welcoming to partnership with them.
So, I am telling all this because, until recently, I had hope for police forces. I had hope that real cultural change could happen within police departments around the issues of race. It had happened around the issues of sexual identity. I had witnessed it first-hand. They were not an unchanging, monolithic block of hopeless bias.
But the story of police relations around race, particularly around police relations with African Americans, is much more complex and doesn’t seem to be improving. As anyone who is paying even a small amount of attention knows, police continue killing African American citizens after routine and nonviolent interactions. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are the most recent and most visible, but there has been a long string of recent incidents.
Here in Chicago, we had the shocking case of Laquan McDonald, who was repeatedly shot while running away from police. He was acting erratically, but had not done anything violent and was not directly threatening anyone. In that case, unusually, the officer has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial. Most police involved in such shootings never face any legal consequences.
So many of them are really awful, but two of these cases really stick with me and haunt me.
Eric Garner was a forty-something man who was doing something technically illegal (selling loose cigarettes), but not in any way threatening or disruptive. Unfortunately, like many people that I know, he was overweight and had various health problems including asthma and a heart condition. It should not have been that hard to guess that he may have had some health issues – these are all quite common. Police apprehended and physically restrained him with excessive force, using choke holds that look like they are trying to emulate WWE wrestlers. Garner laid gasping for breath, shouting “I can’t breathe”, and it was caught on camera. He was literally dying before their eyes for a crime roughly equivalent to a parking violation. And the police persisted and failed to offer any help. As a forty-something person who is overweight and had a history of childhood asthma, I can’t help but see myself in this poor dying man. And my heart breaks.
Sandra Bland was a smart, articulate woman from Naperville, Illinois who had just taken a job with her sorority in Texas. She was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. There is a witness video of her arrest. The officer had no cause to arrest her. It was a ticketable offense at most. And yet, she was taken to jail and died soon afterward under suspicious circumstances. When I see her and hear her voice on that video and other videos that she made, I recognize her. In her, I hear someone who may have been a high school classmate or co-worker. She seems just a step away from someone who may have been my connection. And I think about what may have happened to her in that cell, with no friends and no hope. And again, my heart breaks.
African Americans are stopped by police at a higher rate than whites and have a far higher likelihood of being killed in police custody. Police bias is clearly a huge factor in this. Why do interactions between police and African American citizens escalate into violent confrontations so quickly and so frequently?
So where do we go from here? Or specifically, how do I react beyond my heartbreak? What can I do?
I will admit that not so long ago, I considered myself a supporter of the police. We had some issues on our block and in my building a few years ago. The adult son of one of the residents in my building (not African American, incidentally) decided to team up with people down the block to deal drugs out of our front yard. It was very intimidating and unwelcoming to walk through this frankly hostile traffic just to enter my own home. It also attracted the attention of rivals from nearby areas and there were numerous instances of shots fired nearby. My neighbors and I called the police frequently. My neighbor with small children was especially furious, and eventually ended up leaving and short-selling their condo at a huge loss just to get away from the situation.
The constant police presence did eventually lead to the drug dealing activity moving somewhere else in the neighborhood, and the neighbors down the block involved did not have their lease renewed due to neighbor complaints. The people involved (dealers, customers, lookouts, etc.) were of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as ages, but many of them were Mexican American, African American and Caribbean American men in their teens and twenties.
I know one of the tactics the police used was stopping people using flimsy excuses in order to underline that the police were watching the area and the open drug dealing needed to go away. To my knowledge, the police did not injure or kill anyone, but they certainly did use some fairly aggressive policing tactics in my name and in the name of my neighbors. If I think about this now, I had some misgivings, but at the time, I was just glad to have this activity out of my front yard.
Of course I have always known that some police officers can be obnoxiously over-reaching and who seem to abuse their positions of power. But I had been lulled into thinking that was a fairly rare case.
I have had to reevaluate my own perception of and relationship to the police. In the past, I did not hesitate to call police in any instance that I thought suspicious. My trust is eroded now, though, particularly in instances where there are African Americans involved. I don’t feel I can trust the police to judge the situation fairly and not escalate it into something violent, even deadly. And frankly, that leaves me feeling a bit adrift.
As a single heading-toward-middle-aged person, I don’t feel like I can confront problem activity that I encounter. If I see a confrontation, evidence of a crime, or a person in distress – I call 911. I don’t have the resources to deal with these problems directly. But if I can’t trust that 911 is going to deal with the situation appropriately, and even make the situation worse, what resources do I have?
I really am at a loss when it comes down to the practical day-to-day reality of it. At the same time, I realize the fact that I felt secure and trusting of the police is an example of my own privilege, and one privilege I have not always felt when I feared the anti-gay attitudes of the police.
Fortunately, I do see some resources for addressing bigger picture questions. I like a lot of the policy suggestions from Campaign Zero. I can get behind these recommendations and engage with my elected officials to push them. I can hope that they get implemented and hope they help. I can try to keep telling myself to hope.
And in the meantime? I am not at the center of this. I am not a typical target of police brutality today, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it or unplug. I can shy away and not watch, but that is shirking responsibility. The police do act in my name – as a citizen, as a voter, as a taxpayer, as a member of the community. They need to be held to a higher standard, and I need to watch and speak out until they live up to it.