RIP Alton Sterling

by Miles Johnson
Contributor

Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside the Triple S. Food Mart before two Baton Rouge police officers wrestled him to the ground, shot, and killed him. Sterling’s name is added to the long list of black people who have committed the deadly sin of being black and alive.

I do not know each specific detail of Sterling’s killing, nor have I watched the video. Some will scoff at the open admission of ignorance of this shooting’s facts. The rest of us can understand being exhausted, because we scrutinized the minutiae of the killings of Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride, and Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, with such detail they became ingrained in our circadian rhythms. 

Early Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Justice Department announced that its civil rights division would lead an investigation into Sterling’s death. For the first time since I have been mature enough to understand what it means to be black and killed by the police, I asked: why?

From Rodney King to Amadou Diallo to Aiyana Stanley-Jones to Akai Gurley to, now tragically, Alton Sterling, the United States repeatedly proclaims that police officers are always justified in assaulting and killing black people. It would literally require a legal victory of historic proportions for the two officers involved to be indicted and charged. So today I slipped. Today, I made one of many supposed cardinal black sins, and lost hope. I lost hope for the kind of place the world could be if we all adopted a more radical imagination. I lost hope for a place in which antiblackness in all of its misogynistic, transphobic, classist, ableist permutations wilted under its own cancer. I lost the same kind of hope that made my very existence possible. Briefly, I grew ashamed at that loss.

But fuck all that.

To hope is to be human. But so too, is to lose that hope; to love and understand yourself enough to allow your faith to waver. Hope was instrumental in literally every act of black resistance. The Haitian Revolution falls flat without hope, the Underground Railroad crumbles in its absence. But the bravest, most hopeful among us, the Sojourner Truths, Steve Bikos, Ella Bakers, undoubtedly lost hope. They cried until they couldn’t. They cursed their skin. They stared blankly and asked the same questions we all have. Because they, like all of us—like Alton Sterling—were human. 

But to be black and live in a police state is to be robbed of this human emotion. We are not allowed to lose hope, lest we lose ground. We are routinely executed in the street because our only home fears our bodies. To be hopeless under those conditions could very well be just as deadly. So we hang in the balance, suspended between being human and surviving—a sensation that black peoples of the world know too intimately.

Today, I choose to be honest with myself and my hopelessness. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.