Baton Rouge joins the list of many other infamous cities that is associated with yet another unwarranted murder of a black man. Baton Rouge is the latest Cleveland, New York, Baltimore or Ferguson – cities that are forever marred in our memories for the senseless deaths of black men who didn’t have to die, if only the situation were handled differently by law enforcement. Haven’t there been lessons learned from the untimely and unnecessary deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown? When will it end? Thirty-seven year old Baton Rouge native, Alton Sterling, joins the litany of names of black men killed by police officers in our nation. In Baton Rouge, the name Alton Sterling is added to a particular and peculiar list of names that includes the names of Calvin Smith, Kevin Bajoie and Tyris Wilkerson. They have at least four things in common: they were black, they were male, they lived in Baton Rouge and they were killed by police officers in that city in the past three years.
The scenario that culminates in the killing of yet another black man on the streets of urban America has become all-too-familiar and sadly the “new normal” between the African-American community and law enforcement. Tuesday after someone called the police to report that a man selling CDs outside of a convenience store had threatened him with a gun; two white police officers identified as Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II arrived on the scene to apprehend and arrest Mr. Alton Sterling. During an apparent altercation between Sterling and the two officers, one officer used a Taser to subdue him while the second officer tackled him. The officers had him pinned to the ground when at least one of them fatally shot him. There were indications that Mr. Sterling might have had a gun, but officials refused to say definitely whether he was armed. There were witnesses to the killing of Alton B. Sterling and it was videotaped. The officers are on administrative leave and the case has been turned over to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the F.B.I. and the United States Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge for investigation.
African-American men are approximately 25 percent of Baton Rouge’s population and 100 percent of those recently killed by their police officers. This is an American dilemma that transcends Baton Rouge. That city just happened to have the latest videotaped killing of a black man. As has been well documented, the killing of black people by police officers has escalated. We’ve seen what happens next. It could easily be choreographed: protests occur, racial lines are drawn in the proverbial sand, anger and sometimes more violence ensues, rarely if any indictments are handed down, blame is thrown on the victim, our communities become more divided and we wait for the vicious cycle to repeat itself. Different city, different set of circumstances yet the common denominator is inevitably the death of a black person.
There is something else that will occur, like it or not, we will once again hear that incessant and clarion declaration: Black Lives Matter. Why does this mantra infuriate some in the dominant culture? Is it not a prerogative of any ethnic group to affirm their right to exist and not be killed? When people rebuff the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement by insisting, “All lives matters,” they not only miss the point that all lives are not at risk but also further diminish the realities of racism and oppression in our country. The Black Lives Matter Movement challenges traditional norms of social movements. It is decentralized and creative: it has no one single leader; it is innovative with new media, modernize civil disobedience, and maintain political and social pressure in the streets and at the policy table simultaneously. The Black Lives Matter Movement is a movement that shows no signs of fading because in 2015 police killed nearly 1,200 people. Young black men are nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans, despite their demographic only comprising two percent of the population.
Pope Francis has declared, “Racism today is the ultimate evil in the world.” However, many will pretend racism is a mere misunderstanding, and that, if we can just “get along,” there will be racial peace in America. There are those who seek premature paths to promoting peace among the races before committing themselves to the painful acknowledgement of systemic racism in our nation and their unwillingness to take the sometimes long journey towards making the necessary social, economic, political systematic and institutional changes to true and lasting peace. But peace is not a polite conversation between the oppressor and the oppressed. Peace is dismantling the hierarchies of oppression. Peace is redistribution of the economic and social power. Peace does not come from seeking the lowest common denominator, but in seeking radical and universal principles that will be fair to all.
Is it possible to dismantle white privilege? Evil is always incapable of critiquing itself. Evil depends upon disguise and tries to look like virtue. Those of us who are people of faith have to fully cooperate in God’s constant work, spoken so clearly in Mary’s prayer (Luke 1:52), which is always “bringing down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the lowly.” Unfortunately, power never surrenders without a fight. This is why some find the Black Lives Matter movement uncomfortable: if one’s entire life has been to live unquestioned in their position of power – a power that was culturally given to them but they think that they have earned it – there is almost no way they will give it up without suffering, humiliation or defeat.
It is often said that a society should be judged by how it treats “the least of these.” But the fabric of our collective destiny depends on our commitment to eradicate inequity and render inequality irrelevant. If democracy and freedom are inherent values, the current status quo of racism and injustice – which benefits some over others must be banished.
While the conversation of racial justice should and must continue, we must acknowledge the fact that next week the family and friends of Alton Sterling will bury him, a tragic reality that simply didn’t have to happen. When will it end?
Reverend Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R., D.Min. is Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies and Drexel Society Professor of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana