Alton Sterling and the trauma of existing
I find myself exhausted by the sheer amount of violence that has become normalized in American society, how casually black lives are taken and black bodies discarded, how little recourse there is in a country with a system dependent on racial segregation and a militarized police state. And so I promised myself that the police drive-by shooting of the twelve-year-old Tamir Rice on a playground would be the last time I watched an execution and participated in the public consumption and normalization of black death as entertainment, like Gladiators dying in a ring. When the graphic video of the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of Baton Rouge police was released last night, I did not watch it for I already knew how the video would end- with yet another innocent black man dead at the hands of the police who have become judge, jury, and executioner in America’s black neighborhoods.
What has become obvious to me is that to be black in America is to internalize a certain level of trauma and rage so routine that non-black people rarely even take notice of it. I recall the night that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy Zimmerman followed and shot as he walked home in the rain. My black friends were all in a state of mourning both on social media and in real life. Martin, an average teenager, approached by a stranger on the street emboldened by his gun, could have been any one of our brothers, cousins, nephews. His murder was more real to us that of the animals (dogs in Lychee, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, Cecil the lion, etc) that always seem to serve as a rallying cry for white activists. My Facebook timeline boasted the disconnect as my black and brown friends eulogized our fallen brother. My white friends? Some of them posted photos smiling happily and playing beer pong, completely unaware of- or perhaps unmoved by- the devastation and terror America continuously reaped upon the rest of us.
When the organizers in Ferguson, MO put out a call asking for people across the nation to join in their struggle to bring the officer that shot Mike Brown to justice, I joined a group of people from DC and drove across the country for #FergusonOctober in 2014. Again, the crime was a black teenage boy walking home and only the killer cop was left alive to tell his version of events.
I still have vivid memories- perhaps “nightmares” is a more accurate word- of Ferguson. I had seen photos and read accounts, but part of me had trouble believing that such blatant violations of civil rights could happen in America with the complicity of our government. Yet nothing, not even living under Mubarak’s military dictatorship in Egypt, had prepared me for when night fell on the small Missouri town.
I stood at an intersection with Netta, DeRay, and other activists, some whom are now well-known for the work they’ve down in Ferguson. We were trailed by a team sent by Amnesty International and a group of legal observers. We were all anxiously observing a peaceful march of about two dozen people take place as a nonviolent rejection of the curfew that had been imposed on the city.
In the air flew police helicopters, drones, and something I could not identify. I asked the veterans what the other flying object was and they informed me that it was a mechanism that emitted a crippling sound that only the human ear could hear. The St. Louis police awaited the approaching marches at the intersection in full riot gear. The police officers were backed by a row of MRAP tanks, gifts leftover from the Department of Defense’s surplus from the Iraq and Afghanistan War. The tanks each boasted an officer positioned atop with their fingers lithely on the trigger of M-16s pointed at the protestors. A row of fortified trucks followed the tanks, I assumed it was to take down anyone who made it through a barrage of bullets from the M-16s.
From one of the tanks came the order for the protesters to disperse.
Silence fell upon the night as the marchers paused to assess the sheer display of military force before them. The police held shields in one hand and beat their batons on the ground with the other in a rhythm reminiscent of a Nazi goose-step. The eerie sound reverberated through the streets as we waited, anticipating bloodshed.
The few minutes that passed felt like an eternity as the leaders of the march conferred, weighing what to do next. A decision was made, the marchers continued to advance to the intersection. Without hesitation, the team from Amnesty, the legal advisors, and a camera crew from a NYC-based independent news channel began to run to protect, advise, and keep record them. We followed behind them. Suddenly, the night was filled with the sound of sirens coming from every direction. Police cruisers and vans from every precinct in the surrounding areas shot down the cross streets. our sprint was cut short as they blocked our passage, shoved the legal advisors into the back of police vans, and slapped the cameraman’s camera to the ground.
The marchers were surrounded from every side.
And, just like that, they scattered and broke out running in every conceivable direction. We ran as well. The helicopter that had been hovering above all night, anticipating this very moment, went into action immediately. It shined its spotlight to show the police where groups of people were hiding. The drones split up to track people down in each direction. The veterans guided us through back alleys and dark passages as we hid from the tanks, drones, and the helicopter, trying to make our way safely back to DeRay’s van. When we finally made it to the van and passed the police barricades, no one spoke. Our thoughts were on those who hadn’t made it out of this war America was waging on its own people.
Months later, when a grand jury decided not to prosecute the cop that killed Mike Brown and the only people who ultimately went to jail were protestors, I vividly recall the rage I had to quell within me when I went to work the next day as one of the few black faces in an otherwise white space. When the streets of Baltimore, only 30 minutes away from our office on the Amtrak, were filled with protests against the death of Freddie Grey at the hands of police, my white colleagues avoided eye contact with me. It was as if we existed in a parallel reality where even sympathy and understanding was nonexistent.
With the dashcam video of Sterling's murder released today, I scrolled through my timeline and again viewed the familiar disconnect as my white friends live in an America where the police serve and protect and my black friends live in one where the police harass, hunt, and kill. Our deaths are not a national tragedy unless its en mass and the killer can be dismissed as an anomaly, not the norm. When it is the state that kills you, however, justification is quickly sought and invented. In the upcoming days, arguments for denying our humanity will come pouring in, as if it's inconceivable in America that the police are not obligated to kill people.
I share the rage of my black friends who know that, despite or well-groomed appearances and fancy degrees, a seemingly routine encounter with police can leave any us lying in the gutter or dead in a jail cell- the next hashtag. That is our America. That is reality.
Facebook provides me with a window into the other America- the carefree America of my white friends, where your skin is not tied to implicit guilt or innocence and, therefore, you have the luxury of being ignorant to the trauma of existing as a Black American. It's an existence so foreign to me that, ultimately, it remains inconceivable.
UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after I wrote this, another young black man, Philando Castile, shot and killed by another cop yesterday during a routine traffic stop. Thus, in the face of the daily terror inflicted on black bodies and the black psyche, I'd like to share some information for self-care.