Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are dead, joining a long roll call of black people killed by officials acting in the name of public safety. And so the nation now begins a process so familiar as to have become rote.
Many of us will want desperately to know more about these men’s lives, not merely their deaths. After each of the many executions we have collectively mourned, I have grasped for those kinds of details—some reminder that black lives do actually matter, to somebody. Alton Sterling seems like he was a nice guy. He clearly had a friend in Abdullah Muflahi, who owned the food mart where he sold CDs and DVDs in the parking lot. Sandra Sterling, the aunt who raised him, says he was gregarious, perhaps self-consciously so. He used his large frame as a punch line, maybe to put others at ease with his size. “He made everybody laugh because he was chubby,” she told Nola.com. His cousin Krystal says he was a “people person,” which is why he figured selling CDs on the street was a useful way around the fact that he couldn’t get work in the formal labor market, thanks to a conviction for having sex with a minor when he was a 19-year-old himself. His customers—neighbors, really—seemed to genuinely enjoy him; they called him “Big A.” And he was good at his work. As one woman told The Washington Post, “That’s the most legit bootleg man in Baton Rouge.”
Castile’s killing is still too fresh for details of his life to begin seeping into the public record. He seems to have had a remarkable girlfriend—someone so clear of mind that she was able to livestream the immediate aftermath of her boyfriend’s death at the hands of someone who is paid to protect her. Or maybe that was just trauma, how the hell would I know. But his uncle, Clarence Castile, tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the 32-year-old had worked in a school cafeteria “cooking for the little kids” for 12 to 15 years. So he’d spent his whole adult life feeding people. He had a mother, a sister, a cousin; they’ve all sobbed as the cameras have rolled.
These are just a few snippets of the lives taken in the name of public safety. I cling to them.
Of course, the ritual of parsing the lives of the dead must also include a consideration of their criminality. It is tradition for news media to report any prior evidence of criminality when covering these cases. A banality of this particular evil is the assumption that people who encounter cops—for that matter, people who have criminal records—have done something, anything meaningfully wrong. We simply cannot hold the idea that someone selling CDs in a parking lot or driving a car with a busted taillight or walking down the middle of the street or peddling loosies on the sidewalk or playing with a toy in the park is enough infraction to end up dead within minutes of encountering a cop; that would undermine the whole premise of authorizing a force of public safety officers. The dead must have some modicum of criminality, present some reasonable threat to the public. So news reports must include Castile and Sterling’s records, supplied by the police agencies that killed them, as though anything in those records could possibly explain their deaths.