Things got so bad in America last week that the Bahamas felt that its nearly all-black citizenry had to be warned. Nations typically give travel advisories that focus on danger caused by military conflict or weather events, but Bahamians coming to the United States are now being told to beware of our cops. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration has taken a note of the recent tensions in some American cities over shootings of young black males by police officers," read a Friday statement. "We wish to advise all Bahamians traveling to the U.S. but especially to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution generally. In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate."
This may be startling to read for some; for others, it's predictable. It felt remedial to me. Black folks born here learned this a long time ago. From childhood, we're trained in respectability politics to improve our odds of survival. If this were a class, learning how to make sure a police officer doesn't kill us would be something we'd be instructed in the first week. The reason why we're taught this is because we are made to understand, from a very young age, that there is rarely ever any penalty for cops who kill us.
Like most African-Americans, Philando Castile knew to not be confrontational and to cooperate. The morning after the 34-year-old school cafeteria worker was shot to death by a police officer outside Minneapolis, his mother, Valerie, told CNN that she'd talked with him repeatedly about how to behave around cops. "The key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police, is to comply," she said. "Whatever they ask you to do, do it. Don't say nothing. Just do whatever they want you to do," she said.
It seems Castile was doing just that last Wednesday when he was shot, according to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was seated next to him and live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook. She told viewers that Castile, after being asked for his license and registration, had informed the officer that he was carrying a licensed firearm. He'd done everything right, according to the rules we learn as young black people, the rules his mother had taught him — and, I'd add, he was also within the rule of actual law. But not only did he get murdered anyway — he was killed as he was complying. The training didn't help Castile survive so much as it put off his death for more than 50 traffic stops.
A similar situation confronted Alton Sterling the previous day in Baton Rouge, although he clearly resisted arrest. He had a gun on him, for protection. A friend told the New York Daily News that Sterling, a former felon who was selling CDs in front of a convenience store the night he died, had bought the gun hours before he was killed, in an effort to protect himself in a dangerous neighborhood. Whether borne of fear or misbegotten masculinity, guns are something more and more black folks are convinced we need to survive in America. But Sterling ended up in a fight with two Baton Rouge officers who were responding to a 911 call. The bystander videos show the police discovering his gun during the scuffle, and it seems that gave them all the excuse they needed to draw their weapons and fire. The very weapon he'd bought to protect himself ended up being a catalyst for his own murder.
Guns spurred everything that happened last week, including the Thursday murders of five police officers by a former Army Reserve veteran after a peaceful Dallas protest. But we can't ignore the fact that the two police killings that preceded it show how the very things that black Americans are taught will protect us — being armed and being respectful — can fail us. Last week showed us that our childhood training can't save us.
Police violence, like sexual assault, is a crime for which the victims are typically blamed. I tremble to think of how much time was wasted last week, by the media and the public alike, discussing what Sterling and Castile could have done differently. How about the officers who killed them? We don't talk enough about the consequences for them because we already know the drill: paid leave, some local/state/federal investigation, then a lack of charges. Or, even if there is an indictment, no conviction. We've been here too many times. When will the rest of America learn that this is deliberate, historical, and often targeted?
This is one of the many ingenious mind fucks of white supremacy. By convincing us — with ample evidence — that there will be no justice in America for us when we are choked, shot, beaten, and starved to death by cops, law enforcement becomes free to perpetuate injustice. It works because we're trained to expect it.
The deaths of Sterling and Castile should serve as final notice that this needs to change. Despite steps by the Obama administration to enhance community policing and promote deescalation techniques, the heart of the problem remains a lack of police accountability. Baltimore is having trouble with this right now, as prosecutors struggle to convict any of the officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. The officers who killed Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, and many others have all escaped without charges.
If cops were not only indicted but regularly went to prison for murdering black CD salesmen or motorists or children at play in parks or guys selling loosies in Staten Island, perhaps we wouldn't see other countries issuing travel warnings to their black populations not about how dangerous our criminals are, but to watch out for our law enforcement. Perhaps Valerie Castile wouldn't have had to issue heartbreaking instructions to her son about how to make sure that an officer didn't kill him, only to see it all go for naught. After all, it's clear that it is the police, not their victims, who need to be trained on how to behave.