fresh voices from the front lines of change







It happened again this week, as it has happened more than 100 times so far this year. Police in Louisiana and Minnesota shot and killed two more black men.

Police-involved shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minneapolis made headlines this week. But as People’s Action said in a statement today, it’s actually worse than what we see on the national news. Since the beginning of the year, police have killed 136 black people. This week, just two stories gained national and worldwide attention.

Alton Sterling

On Tuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge, La., shot and killed a 37-year-old father of five, Alton Sterling. Officers were responding to a 911 phone call from a homeless man who had repeatedly approached Sterling asking for money. The caller claimed that a man in a red shirt — who may have been Sterling — selling CDs outside a Baton Rouge convenience store, had allegedly threatened him with a gun.

According to convenience store owner Abdullah Muflahi, Sterling was not causing trouble, had been a “welcome presence at the store for years,” and had even adopted the name “CD man.” Muflahi also said that Sterling started carrying a gun for protection only in the last few days, but that Sterling was not the person allegedly threatening his customers with a gun. Louisiana is an open carry and conceal state, meaning that citizens are legally allowed to carry firearms.

Bystander video from a nearby car shows white police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II approaching Sterling. A single pop is heard, which may be the taser Muflahi said police used before shooting Sterling. A police officer is heard yelling, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” One officer appears to tackle Sterling over the hood of a car, and another officer assists him in pinning Sterling to the ground.

One officer pulls Sterling’s left arm down. Sterling’s right arm is not visible. “He’s got a gun!” an officer yells, “Gun!” The second officer points a weapon down at Sterling’s chest. Several shots are heard, and seconds later Sterling is shown with a large blood stain on his chest. Cellphone video recorded by Muflahi, shot within the store and close to the incident, shows that Sterling apparently was not holding a gun or behaving in a threatening manner when police fired at him. Muflahi says he saw an officer remove a gun from Sterling’s right pocket after the shooting.

Additional video of the incident likely exists. Body cameras worn by the police officers fell off during the struggle, and did not capture the moment when one of them shot and killed Sterling, but may have recorded the moments leading up to the incident. Muflahi said police asked for the surveillance footage from his store, but he refused to turn it over without a warrant. “I never received a warrant,” Muflahi said, but police took the video anyway.

Baton Rouge citizens have gathered in peaceful protest of Sterlings death, to call for justice. The president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP is calling on the city’s mayor and police chief to resign. Both the FBI and the Department of Justice are investigating the incident.

Philando Castile

Just a day after Sterling was shot and killed, police officers in Falcon Heights, Minn. — a St. Paul suburb — shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop, while he was in a car with his girlfriend and her seven-year-old daughter.

Police said the incident began when a policeman pulled over a vehicle for what Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds described as a “busted taillight.” Reynold’s said the officer asked to see Castile’s license and registration. Castile informed the officer that he had a gun in the car and was licensed to carry it, then reached for his license and registration to comply with the officer’s request. At some point afterward, the officer opened fire.

Reynolds livestreamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook Live. BBC News published a transcript of the livestream. Castile is seen in the video, with his shirt covered in blood, as the police officer stands outside the car with his gun pointed at Castile. “Stay with me,” Reynolds says, and then addresses the camera, We got pulled over for a busted taillight in the back… …and the police just…he, he’s covered - they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed, he’s licensed to carry.“

As Castile groans loudly, Reynolds describes events before she began filming, ”He was trying to get out his ID in his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was… that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet. And the officer just shot him in his arm. We’re waiting for…"

Reynolds is heard on the video contradicting the officer’s version of events even as she complied with his orders to keep her hands visible, “Yes I will, I’ll keep my hands where they are… Please don’t tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, Sir. He was just getting his licence and registration, Sir.” She continued live streaming even as she and her daughter were detained at the scene. Castile later died of his injuries at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

As of noon on Thursday, the video has been viewed more than 3 million times. News of Castile’s death and the spread of Reynolds’ video sparked protests from citizens and spurred officials to call for action. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton has asked the Department of Justice to begin an immediate federal investigation in to Castile’s killing.

When Black Lives Don’t Matter

When black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike over degrading and even deadly working conditions in 1968, they wore signs bearing a simple declaration: "I am a man." It was a simple and bold statement of what should have been obvious, at a time when black men were not treated as, or even called, men.

Likewise the eponymous hashtag and slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement declares what should be obvious, but is not borne out by the reality of 136 black people killed by police this year. That won’t change until we end the practices and policies that lead to these killings in the first place. We must demand:

● Impartial investigations of the taking of any life by police, and serious consequences when the taking of a life is unjustified. The Justice Department should investigate and prosecute police-involved killings.
●An end to “broken windows” policing, which focuses policing on minor infractions and can often lead to escalation and death. Eric Garner, who was strangled to death by police two years ago on July 17, is a prime example.
● Removal of the profit motive from police, courts and prisons. End private prisons, excessive fees and fines, asset forfeiture and other policies that criminalize whole communities and drive more police contact and aggression.
● Finally, an end to the system of mass incarceration, which aims to solve social problems through a robust police state, extreme sentences and police violence. Tweaking the system isn’t enough, it must be dismantled.

Black lives matter to black Americans, just like Sterling and Castile mattered to their friends, families, loved ones and communities. The problem is they don’t matter to a system that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her recent dissenting opinion in Utah vs. Strieff, to a system that treats us like we “are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

As long as such a system stands, we will see more Alton Sterlings and Philando Castiles.

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