The video filled my Facebook feed Thursday, but I didn’t watch it. And then stills from Diamond Sterling’s live stream were published at the top of The New York Times tossed on our front walk yesterday morning. I sat outside and read all I could and sobbed. I watched my neighborhood wake up and tried to greet people as though it were just another morning.
I wondered how I could meet a black person’s eyes without crying and apologizing. I cringed internally at that mental picture — how white and blubbery that would be, how pathetic and unwelcome that would be. But maybe that is part of what is necessary. I don’t know.
My husband Patrick and I had gone to our church’s vigil the night before and sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was lovely. It gathered many people in. The picture on the front page of our local paper showed a group holding our big yellow “Black Lives Matter” banner, chatting and smiling. Confronted with the image of Philando Castile bloodied in the passenger seat of his car, his eyes open but vacant, I found myself wishing our vigil had been more solemn and resolute.
And then we heard about Dallas, about the five police officers shot and killed during a peaceful protest of the police killings of Castile and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. If we lived in Dallas, that’s where we would have been, I thought, as I listened to a witness describe how Shetamia Taylor pushed her 15-year-old son to the ground and lay on top of him to shield him from sniper fire. She was shot in the leg, one of two civilians wounded. Taylor was at the march with her four sons, ages 12-17, to peacefully express their outrage. I read about how police officers continued to do their jobs under fire, protecting people using their training to safeguard the innocent even as their colleagues were killed in cold blood.
As I tried to absorb this new wave of horror and carnage, I kept thinking about Diamond’s video. “I don’t need to see it,” I thought. I was pulled over by a police officer a few weeks ago. I was going too fast — 85, the officer told me. Patrick rooted around in multiple tote bags before producing my wallet. My hands were shaking just a little when I pulled out my ID. Our kids were asleep in the back seat. The officer, an older white man, came back a few minutes later, gave me a warning: “Slow down, ma’am.”
“I will, officer, I am sorry. Thank you, sir.”
We pulled off, and I was so relieved. It was the first time I had used the word “sir” in seriousness in a long time.
I gritted my teeth and watched the video. “People live this,” I told myself. When I was pulled over, I was worried about getting a ticket: full stop. Nothing else. For Philando Castile, a busted taillight was a death sentence. Reynolds had the self possession to press record in the midst of this harrowing experience. I needed to see it. Diamond uses the word “sir” at least a dozen times in her 10 minute video. It is a talisman or evidence of good home training, a reminder to the officer screaming “Fuck” in the background of shared humanity, a handle to pull herself back into “normality,” a signal to her daughter that it’s going to be OK (even though it will never be OK again). Diamond Sterling’s little girl sits in the backseat as gun blasts fill the car, and then separated from her mother during this indelible episode. Heartbreak. Hot anger. She is just a little older than my son Seamus. She is only in the video for a few seconds, her eyes serious and her ear translucent against the Minnesota sky. I hear her voice, her plaintive and then soothing invocation of the word “Mommy.”
At intervals throughout the video you can hear someone screaming “Fuck” in the distance. The voice seems to belong to the officer who killed Philando Castile. His freakout is at such odds with Diamond Reynolds’ preternatural calm. As I watched the video, I thought: Whoever thinks guns are cool needs to hear the sounds a human being makes when they kill another human being. It is the kind of aftermath of killing that is never celebrated in the movies or police procedurals. It sounded real.
Fear is toxic, and armed fear is lethal. So, how do we get out of it? Where does it end? Without the guns, it is just fear and hatred and racism. Without the guns, we have a chance to listen, to change. As long as there are guns there is killing. Again and again and again. How many people have been killed in the United States since that night in the middle of June when Latin techno was interrupted by gunfire and screams — when 49 people were killed and another 50 injured at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando? I found the Gun Violence Archive and I started counting. Working backwards, I reached 300 by the first of this month. Orlando happened on June 12. I could not keep counting. We are not at war. Not here, right? We are told all the time that we are fighting terrorists “over there” so we don’t have to fight them “here.”
In this country we have a lot of ways to push this uncomfortable, brutal truth away: We point out the tragedy of black-on-black violence, we discredit and smear the victims, we nimby it out of existence by moving further and further into segregated enclaves, and we use the language of war. It didn’t take long after Dallas for the language of war to obviate racism, dull nuance and ennoble every clumsy effort. The other effect of casting these events as a war — between Black Lives Matter and “real America,” between blacks and whites, between Obama and police officers — is that it allows for lots of reckless escalation and massive collateral damage.
But, my head went there too. Someone who lived through the Dallas demonstration and sniping called the experience a “little war.” How can that be? Ask the people of Dallas who were out to say “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop the killing” if it felt like a war. Ask black people just about anywhere in this country if they feel like they are under siege. Micah Johnson, the man taking aim at the police officers on that hot night, was an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He was killed by an armed robot. He was at war.
The same day Philando Castile was killed reaching for his wallet (as directed by a police officer), another 36 people (by my count) were also killed by guns across this nation. After Orlando, Congressional representatives staged a sit in at the Capitol. They were gripped by the need to do something about guns. Today, to honor the five police officers killed in Dallas, to honor Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, let’s disarm the combatants and start the peace process. It’s time — past time — to give up the guns.
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