“If you fucking move, I swear to God!”
It has been mere hours since Alton Sterling was tackled and shot dead by two police officers. As the East Baton Rouge parish medical examiner’s office completes its work, we as a larger society have already begun to make our own decisions about how he lived and why he died.
We will do that without knowing much of anything about him, other than that he was a 37-year-old father of five, a black man selling bootleg CDs to earn a few dollars. Ultimately, what one believes about what happened last night outside of a convenience mart in a rundown section of Louisiana’s capital city, depends largely on who we are and the America we have encountered. Race and class are unfortunate, yet inextricable factors—for us, for the police and for the dead man.
The incident, captured on cell phone video, comes amid a national conversation about police violence in non-white communities. Each year in the U.S., there are over a thousand deadly shootings by police officers. African Americans make up a disproportionate and overwhelming majority of the dead. We are disproportionately stopped, subjected to search and arrest—disportionately the victims of police violence.
If we dare question that level of violence, we are immediately accused of “playing the race card.” If we dare point to the statistics or call for transparent investigations, we are accused of failing to police morality in our own communities. When we weep and shout the names of our dead, we caution that the victim was “no angel.”
“He should’ve complied,” they’ll say. As if Sterling did not. As if Eric Garner did not, as if John Crawford III or 12-year-old Tamir Rice ever had a chance to.
Police officers allege that their department-issued body cameras fell from their uniforms during the altercation and did not record the incident. It is thanks to a bystander’s video taken from inside of a car that there is little question about what unfolded Tuesday night in Baton Rouge.
Sterling was standing alone, his arms outstretched at his sides, when a Baton Rouge police officer rushed and tackled him to the ground. A second quickly joined and, moments later, Sterling lay bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
He did not fight. He made no threats. He is dead and his young children are fatherless.
The store owner, Abdullah Muflahi, said he had known “the CD man” for six years and allowed him to sell his wares in front of the store. “They told him not to move,” Muflahi said, according to CNN. “He was asking them what he did wrong.”
As Sterling stood in the darkness with his arms outstretched at his sides, Muflahi said he saw an officer slam him onto the hood of a car. Both officers attempted to pin him to the ground. Sterling stumbled, but did not fight back.
“If you fucking move, I swear to God,” one cop was heard saying. One of the officers yelled “gun.” And then, according to Muflahi, there were four to six shots. As Sterling lay dying, an officer reached into Sterling’s pocket and pulled out a gun.
But, Sterling never drew his weapon. He never pointed the gun at the officers.
Kimberly Lang, who knew Sterling, said she purchased CDs from time to time. And he “did not have a reputation for violence.” According to an Associated Press report, Lang contended that “If Sterling did have a gun on him, it was probably because he feared being robbed while peddling his CDs late at night — not because he was interested in threatening anyone.”
“If he's out here at 12:30 at night selling CDs, he ain't rich,” Lang said. “He's hustling. Getting money. Ain’t nothing wrong with hustling.”
It should be noted that Louisiana is an open carry state, just like Ohio where Rice and Crawford were killed. Possession of a firearm without a permit is permissible under state law, by anyone who is at least 17 years of age legally able to possess a firearm under state and federal law.
Shortly after the shooting a crowd of protestors, said to number in the hundreds, gathered outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge.
“We may not be from where Trayvon and Freddie Gray are from, but we bleed the same color,” one woman told the Times-Picayune. “Now they’ve touched our city.”
The officers involved deserve a serious, independent review of the incident. What they don’t deserve is the benefit of the doubt or blanket exoneration simply because they were wearing a badge. They deserve the justice it appears that they could not find it in themselves to afford to Sterling.
Injustice is injustice, no matter who it touches, no matter who the person police killed had been in the years, weeks or moments before injustice slayed them.
If Sterling’s civil liberties do not remain intact, neither do ours.