WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
July is apparently a popular month for police brutality so I will warn you, this is just 1 of the 3 stories this month about police officers killing black men unnecessarily.
On July 5, 2016, a 37-year-old black man named Alton Sterling was shot dead by 2 members of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana. Police were responding to a call that a man in a red shirt selling CDs had used a gun to threaten a man. The man who called the police claimed that Alton was not the one causing trouble when he called.
The shooting lead to protests across Baton Rouge, and though the Department of Justice investigated, charges were never brought against the officers. It was determined that they had acted in a "reasonable and justifiable manner", despite various bystanders recording the altercation and subsequent shooting.
Alton Sterling, born June 14, 1979, was known around town as "CD Man" because he sold CDs outside of the same convenience store for years. Though he did have a criminal record, including violent offenses, the responding officers were not aware of this when they arrived on the scene. (1)
He had been carrying a gun in recent days, because other CD sellers had been robbed. (1)
On the Wikipedia page, his prior criminal record, and his toxicology report that indicated he had drugs and alcohol in his body are the only things listed about him. Alton Sterling was also a father of 5. During the family's press conference, his 15-year-old sobbed that he wanted his daddy. Alton's son's mother, Quinyetta McMillon, asked that he not be judged on his past, and instead, focus on adequate punishment for the officers involved. (2)
He lived in a shelter home, and he loved to cook. He would always make enough for everybody when he was making delicious food. (3)
The 2 responding officers were Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni, with 3 and 4 years of policing experience, respectively. (4)
Blane Salamoni was the officer who fired the fatal shot at point blank range, ending Alton Sterling's life. A review of his pre-employment psychological evaluation was "so damning", indicating that his shooting of Alton may not have been an isolated incident. Salamoni was initially fired in March of 2018, but his firing was undid, allowing him to resign instead. (4)
Based on an internal affairs investigation, it was determined that Salamoni "violated policies on use of force and command of temper". (4)
Howie Lake II was only cited for failure to command his temper, and was suspended rather than fired. (His suspension was 3 days long in 2018, 2 years after the shooting.) He had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. Where Salamoni's interactions violated policies, Lake "handled the situation more appropriately". (5)
But, it may come as a shock to no one that the 2 cops had previous complaints lodged against them. The officers had 4 "use of force" complains, 3 from black men and 1 from a black child. One of them was shot and the other 3 were injured while interacting with Lake and Salamoni. Salamoni had other complaints for his involvement in a preventable car crash and damaging department equipment. Lake had excessive force complaints that he was exonerated of. (6)
Despite this, both officers had been awarded a "life saving" award in 2015. (6)
Salamoni's connections with law enforcement run deep. His father is a Baton Rouge Police Captain, as was his mother before she retired after 32 years on the force. His wife is a Baton Rouge EMT. His father-in-law claimed that "usually the black people try to make an agenda out of this" in response to his son-in-law's fatal shooting of Alton Sterling. (6)
THE SHOOTING OF ALTON STERLING (1)
On July 5, 2016 just past midnight, an anonymous call came to police that a man was threatening him and waving a gun around while selling CDs outside of Triple S Food Mart. Though the anonymous caller later said that Alton wasn't even the person he had called the police about, he was detained by Salamoni and Lake.
Alton refused to cooperate, and was tasered several times for resisting arrest. He was ultimately pinned to the ground by both of the officers, one kneeling on his chest and the other on his thigh, but they were unable to control his arms.
Salamoni exclaimed, "He's going into his pockets! He's got a gun! Gun!" Lake then pointed his gun at Alton and said, "Hey bro, if you f*cking move, I swear to God." Salamoni was heard again claiming that Alton was going for his gun. Quickly after, 3 shots were fired. The camera panned away when 3 more shots were fired. Alton's body was sprawled out on the ground and Salamoni was still standing there, his gun still pointed at the man who was on the ground with 6 bullets inside of him.
They retrieved a loaded gun from Alton's pocket, and then radioed for Emergency Medical Services.
Now, here's the thing. I understand that, if you genuinely believe a perpetrator has a gun and is willing to kill you, the area gets a little grey. But they weren't in pursuit of a man brandishing a gun. They had him pinned to the ground, unable to move, with their guns pointed at him. If they believed he had a gun in his pocket, they could have removed it themselves as they were literally pinning him down to the ground. I'm sorry, but if while you have your guns drawn at point blank range and 2 people pinning down just 1 person, if him having control of a single arm is a lethal threat to you, I don't really feel like you're protecting anyone.
Multiple bystanders captured the videos of the shooting on cell phones, as well as surveillance cameras and officer body cams. It became clear that Alton never wielded his gun or threatened the officers. It was also revealed that, before the situation escalated while the officers were still just trying to detain Alton, Salamoni pulled his gun out and threatened to shoot him if he moved. That's called escalation, folks.
AFTERMATH AND INVESTIGATIONS (1)
More than 100 protestors demonstrated in Baton Rouge on the night of July 5, blocking off intersections and setting off fireworks. Black Lives Matter held a candlelight vigil in Baton Rouge the following day.
Also the following day was the police shooting of Philando Castile, which you can read about tomorrow. The back-to-back murders of the 2 black men lead Barack Obama to say that "Americans should feel outraged at episodes of police brutality since they're rooted in long-simmering racial discord."
During a July 7 protest in Dallas for both Alton and Philando, at the end of the peaceful day of protesting, Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire and killed 5 police officers and wounding 11 others, including 2 civilians. He was killed. The deaths of Alton and Philando, and the subsequent police killings, resulted in a U.S. travel advisory in a few countries.
Though the video footage was described as "deeply troubling" by Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond, it ultimately did not lead to any charges brought against the offending officers. They were placed on paid administrative leave until March of 2018 when Lake received his 3-day suspension and Salamoni was fired, and then un-fired, and then resigned. They acted in a "reasonable and justifiable manner", reported Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry's office.
Here is the thing: No they didn't. They threatened to shoot him if he moved while simply being detained. They pinned him to the ground, 2 trained police officers holding just 1 man down. They held a gun at him while he retained mobility of just one single body part. And yet, a pocketed gun that had not once been wielded or spoken about was such a lethal threat that a man was shot 6 times in the chest. And then a gun was still held on him as he lay on the ground, dead. There is nothing reasonable about that. In a job that may lead to the split second need to fire your weapon in self defense, this situation was filled with the least amount of imaginable pressure. There is no justification for shooting a man in your custody 6 times while you have him pinned to the ground.
The case of Alton Sterling brings focus to the "perfect victim" trope, and its dangers. Recently, in the last few months, a man named Christian Cooper had the police called on him by one Amy Cooper who lied to the police, on camera, that he had threatened her when in reality, he had just asked her to leash her dog in an area that requires leashes. Luckily, this false accusation didn't lead to a deadly police interaction for Christian, which is certainly could have.
Christian Cooper was an absolutely wonderful man. He was a writer and editor for Marvel, and at the time of the phone call, was an avid birder in Central Park. Videos of him sweetly and wholesomely describing the joy seeing different birds brings him circulated the internet, as people joked that such a genuinely kind man could never been seen as a threat.
But that is kind of the problem. First, he certainly could be seen as a threat. Officers responding to a frantic white woman's fake plea for help wouldn't know that he was a successful, sweet man who liked to watch birds as a hobby. Regardless of his wholesome hobbies or impressive resume, one feature of him could rise to the top: Black.
But secondly, and the primary point of bringing Christian Cooper's story up, is that it perpetuates this idea of a "perfect victim". People were easily able to be outraged by the actions of Amy Cooper because the person she accused was, objectively, a good man. But we cannot only be outraged when racism and brutality happens against "perfect" people. While Christian Cooper's sweet bird video circulated, stories of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery's previous brushes with the law surfaced. We cannot claim Black Lives Matter but only believe they matter if the accused or killed had a clean criminal record.
Alton Sterling wasn't a perfect victim. Honestly, I would argue that he wasn't a good man. His criminal history included impregnating a teenager, theft, domestic abuse, and failing to register as a sex offender. But not being a good man does not make your death at the hands of the police justified. And when we allow ourselves to think that the death of black men at the hands of police are only worth being sad or outraged about when he had a squeaky clean criminal record, then can we really argue that we believe Black Lives Matter? Or only the black lives we deem appropriate?
And it also comes down to this: The police didn't know his criminal record when they arrived. They didn't kill him because he was a sex offender or a domestic abuser. And perhaps if this were an isolated incident, the conversation would be different. But when Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner and George Floyd and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and, and, and, and, are all shot and killed by police, some with criminal records, some without, some who were committing crimes and some who were doing nothing illegal, it becomes hard to argue that the criminal history has something to do with it. There is one thing in common between all of those people.
Alton Sterling may not have been an admirable man, but that does not mean that he should have been shot at point blank range by a police officer while pinned on the ground. This isn't a small, sub-conversation about criminals, but a much wider conversation about police brutality, and the dangerous implicit biases police officers naturally hold against black people.
He was not a "perfect victim", but he was still a victim. And you are allowed to understand how his name falls in line with other similar stories and be outraged by the bigger story it tells without specifically mourning the loss of an imperfect man.
But you must understand that the loss of that imperfect man generates a larger conversation about implicit bias, police brutality, and racism in the United States. And that, you should care about.