This has become ordinary. That's what’s so soul-crushing about the video of Alton Sterling being shot by police — how pedestrian, how banal it seems to me now. I watched the video without feeling anything as appropriate as stunned shock, but with only a distant and familiar sadness. I have not become resigned to the deaths of black people at the hands of police officers, but I have become desensitized to watching videos of these deaths happen. It does not pierce my skin. The pain of watching is instead a blunt object on numbed flesh, or the prodding of scar tissue.
The result is that last night, as I watched Sterling die, I was detached enough to critique the video of his death, classify it, find myself consigning it to genre. I've long passed the point at which watching these videos makes me feel like a helpless bystander — I am another distance removed. At this point, I am a critic of images of men like me, dying. I'm a connoisseur.
Take the deaths of Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, both captured by security cameras. This means that the camera angle is fixed, like a picture frame, and the video is choppy and blurry, the quality constrained by the fact that the camera is always running. We watch Crawford and Rice as a still life, for a few minutes, their motions carefree and unaware. The police enter the frame suddenly, and the deaths are almost as abrupt. In Rice's case, only a few seconds elapse between the appearance of the police and the crumpling of his body. In Crawford's, we do not even see the instrument of his death until after he is dead. In both cases, they die silently. There are no microphones in the security cameras.
The video of Walter Scott's death is also shot from afar. But the positioning of the camera, at eye level, from behind a fence, makes the distance seem voyeuristic rather than objective. This camera is in motion. It bounces around as the man operating it gets into position, but then almost eerily fixes on its subject at the exact moment Scott begins to run from the police officer, panning and zooming out to keep both men in the frame. Watching the cop calmly and unhurriedly measuring his shot as Scott flees, and the composure with which he approaches his fallen body — it reminds me of documentary footage, of a predatory animal pursuing its quarry. The hammer-crack of gunfire cleanly cuts through the amplified ambient sound of wind filling the phone's microphone. The crispness of the image emphasizes the fact that this is all occurring out in the open, drenched in natural light, rendering the whole event surreal. We’d like to believe that such wickedness is consigned to the obscurity of darkness, but it is not.
Alton Sterling was outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he could often be found selling CDs, when he was confronted by police officers responding to a call. He was dead within 15 minutes of their arrival. There are at least five separate videos of Sterling's death: two cell phone videos, footage from the store's surveillance camera, and a video from each of the responding officers' body cameras. Law enforcement personnel confiscated the surveillance camera video, along with the entire video system, and the Baton Rouge police department says that both officers’ body cameras came loose, so footage from those might be unusable. But we have more than enough to watch already.
The first phone video begins with audio over a black screen, a man's voice shouting "Get on the ground!" Then there's a sharp crack, and the camera pans up to show first a car's dashboard, then the view out of a car window. The glare from the fluorescent lighting under the store's awning and the dinginess of the window partially obscure the picture. A short distance away, we can see Sterling in a red shirt, the lower half of his body partially obscured by a gray sedan, standing opposite two police officers.
The closer police officer runs at him, tackles him around the waist, then spins, bouncing them both off of the car's hood and onto the ground. The other police officer gets to his knees, shoving Sterling's head toward the ground with his arm. "He's got a gun!" the first police officer shouts. He is leaning on Sterling's chest with his knee. The other officer reaches for the right side of Sterling's waist, then pulls him up, arm bent and cocked at Sterling's supine body. "If you fucking move, I swear to god!" the second shouts. Then someone yells something incomprehensible, we hear a shot, and the camera dives away as a woman inside the car screams. There is a pause, and with the camera pointed at the floor of the car, we hear more shots in quick succession, each report blending with the echoes of the previous ones.
Watching the video of Sterling's death reminds me of watching that of Oscar Grant, the way it's shot through a window, putting the viewer at a slight remove, even though we are watching at close proximity. The way that the police officer shoots Sterling from point-blank range, as he lies on the ground restrained, also reminds me of Grant's death. It feels like a perfunctory and casual execution. But the manner in which the officers wrestle Sterling's body to the ground before he dies reminds me of the death of Eric Garner. Each report blends with the echoes of the previous ones.
I intended to watch the second video of Sterling's shooting, recorded by the manager of the convenience store, before I started writing. But then, in the thumbnail preview, I saw how close and clear it was.
I could not watch it. I was afraid I would feel something, but what scared me more was the possibility that I wouldn't. And I am too tired.
The postmortem, the part we’re going through now, is also tiring. The videos of the death go viral, everyone talks about how shocking it is, which really means how shocking it would be, in some other reality where this doesn't happen often enough that it isn't accidentally captured on camera several times a year. People will hope, either desperately or naïvely, that this will be the video that rouses America's slumbering conscience, that this time changes will be made, that this time the story is so clear-cut that justice will be undeniable.
What this misses, as many have pointed out, is that for these videos to prick the conscience, that conscience must already value the lives of those who are dying. Otherwise, the videos are simply lurid entertainment, the modern version of the postcard-size images of lynchings that were passed around during the last century. The only real difference is that today people revel in feeling sad, whereas back then people simply reveled. But the upshot is the same: the further dehumanization of black Americans, the further reduction of their lives to bodies on display.
Advocates and activists will try to combat this inertia, try to humanize Sterling, try to remind everyone that he was once more than a corpse. Others will pick over those same details and use them to justify his death. The protests that follow will be peaceful and they will be ignored, until they become violent, at which point they will be televised. Perhaps some outsiders will learn a few things about the systemic issues in Louisiana that have long festered in the dark. We'll all wring our hands and rub our chins. I'll post on social media, I'll go to protests and vigils, I'll call my representatives. I'll finish this piece and publish it.
We'll say "enough is enough" — again. And it won't be. Again.
I know that this all sounds cynical and defeatist, but the truth is that any black person who makes an honest attempt to describe reality sounds this way. And here's another truth: The story of black struggle in this country has always been about fighting battles that seem unwinnable at first. So I certainly plan to keep fighting as long as I can, but I don't think I'm going to watch any more of these goddamned videos.
As I finished writing this piece, another black man was gunned down by an officer of the law, in front of his girlfriend and her child, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. His name was Philando Castile. He was 32.