4 Questions Raised by the Deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

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Police Officer Fatally Shoots Black Man During Traffic Stop Near St. Paul
A pastor listens to a press conference on the killing of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota.Photo: Stephen Maturen

Since the beginning of this year, at least 561 Americans have been killed by police officers who had sworn to protect them. This week, a 37-year-old resident of Baton Rouge named Alton Sterling and a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Philando Castile were added to that tally. Like many others on the list, Castile and Sterling were African-American men; unlike most, their deaths were immortalized in viral videos, which have placed America’s astounding rate of police violence back in the media spotlight.

There is still much to learn about the specific circumstances of each of these tragedies. But the initial details have already inspired renewed debate on broader questions about race, policing, and the media coverage of both in America. Here are four of those questions — and a few potential answers that commentators have put forward.

1. Does the dissemination of videos showing police killing African-American men serve a productive political purpose? Or do these videos merely dehumanize their subjects, while traumatizing their viewers?

In the Washington Post, April Reign takes the latter position. Reign suggests that the media’s tolerance for wall-to-wall broadcasts of police killing African-American men reflects an unconscious devaluing of black life:

The media is complicit in this morbid voyeurism, when it chooses to be. Horrifying video was shown on morning television of Sterling being killed as a result of state-sanctioned violence. However, when reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward of WDBJ-TV were gunned down on live television, the consensus by the news media was that the video was too graphic to be shown. What distinction was made? Why is the video of white people being killed considered too graphic for replay, but videos of black women, men and children are replayed on a seemingly endless loop to the point of numbness?

Reign goes on to argue that such videos are far more likely to traumatize viewers than to galvanize people to political action.

Sharing a video on social media or the media will not change anyone’s mind. Either it will confirm what one already believed was true, or a person will look for ways to contradict what they have just seen … Think of Sterling’s family. His oldest son is 15 years old. He should not be subjected to video of his father’s death every time he logs into social media.

In the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance begs to differ. LaFrance argues that the proliferation of smart-phone technology has advanced the cause of police reform by forcing white Americans to confront unpleasant realities about law enforcement in their country.

Last year, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst Jay Stanley expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with Truth Out:

For decades, said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, “It’s been the word of uniformed police officers against the word of accused criminals — who are usually poor, Black or other minorities. Judges, prosecutors and the public have historically taken the side of the police.” But videos — usually captured by camera-equipped cell phones — are beginning to change that. “There’s a shift,” Stanley added, “in what people are willing to believe.”

From the standpoint of personal ethics, Roxanne Gay writes in the New York Times that there are ways for one to bear witness to the suffering caused by police violence other than watching videos of the killings themselves.

The video that truly haunts me is from a news conference with Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling’s oldest child, a 15-year-old boy, who sobbed and cried out for his father as his mother read her statement. The grief and the magnitude of loss I heard in that boy’s crying reminds me that we cannot indulge in the luxuries of apathy and resignation.

 If the video of his father’s death feels too familiar, the video of this child’s raw and enormous grief must not. We have to bear witness and resist numbness and help the children of the black people who lose their lives to police brutality shoulder their unnatural burden.

2. Are poor black people dying at the hands of police because rich white people refuse to pay higher taxes?

Philando Castile was killed after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Michael Brown was initially confronted for jaywalking. Eric Garner died for selling loose cigarettes. The discrepancy between the minimal harm caused by these infractions, and the tragedies that ultimately resulted from policing them, raise questions about the necessity of such law enforcement.

One of the key findings of the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department was that the city’s policing practices were directed to maximize revenue rather than public safety. In other words, police officers deliberately “overpoliced” petty crimes in politically disempowered neighborhoods in order to generate enough money from fines to keep the government running.

In Vox, Katherine Hicks notes that this form of policing is pervasive throughout the United States — and that one cost of this method of funding local government is a heightened rate of police violence against African-American men.

When police depend on tickets to make money, it is reasonable to assume they will ticket more people. As Vox’s German Lopez pointed out, there is a racial disparity when it comes to the threat perceived by officers in these situations, which makes routine stops more dangerous for black Americans.

3. Is the answer to police reform less policing?

Even if we disposed of the perverse incentives created by policing for the sake of revenue, would we still want to reduce policing in minority communities?

In The Nation, Kai Wright argues that less policing has to be part of the solution to police violence.

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.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick calls attention to Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff — a Fourth Amendment case that expanded the authority of police officers to make traffic stops — in which the Supreme Court justice spoke in personal terms about how black and brown Americans experience confrontations with the police. Sotomayor wrote:

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

But as Benjamin Wallace-Wells documents in his story on Baltimore after Freddie Gray, published by New York last year, withdrawing law-enforcement resources from minority communities can impose its own costs.

4. Do black Americans have gun rights?

Both Sterling and Castile reportedly had firearms in their possession at the time they were killed. In Salon, Amanda Marcotte argues that the NRA’s disinterest in defending the gun rights of these men points to the way our country’s understanding of the Second Amendment is highly racialized.

In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb sounds a similar note.

The gospel of the gun as a tool of self-protection is directed at middle-class whites, but it is most applicable to precisely the populations among whom they are most heavily prohibited — people who are poor and black … In the wake of the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, Wayne LaPierre, of the National Rifle Association, infamously remarked that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Men like Sterling and Castile were far more likely than most to encounter the former, and consequently died at the hands of those deemed to be the latter.

This list is far from comprehensive. The days and weeks ahead will doubtless bring additional questions to the forefront. And, hopefully, additional answers.