I’d just finished reading Roxane Gay’s note on Alton Sterling and American officers’ proclivity for ending black life when I got a text from a friend who also had the misfortune of being born black: “they real deal out here killin niggas.”
I wrote back and told him how hard it was earlier to watch that video of a seemingly innocent man lying dead in his own blood after being executed at close range, by a cop. But this is funny, then my friend goes, “You heard about the one that just happened, right?”
When you get a message like that, you hope that maybe your friend mistook your horrified response to seeing a black someone’s life end on camera for an instance of another black someone’s life ending on camera. You hope that in the span of two days, another person who looks like you hasn’t really been killed more or less for the fact that they look like you. But hope, like America, is not for black people, and that feeling of inevitability and dread specific to black folk overtook me as I went online to watch Philando Castile die.
Before — when seeing innocent blacks take their last breaths on camera was less common — I tried rationalizing news of their murders. I did that thing some privileged non-black people do, and thought y’know, maybe we don’t have all the facts. When you read news of someone dying for doing little other than being alive and black simultaneously, and you happen to be doing that just that, you hope the murdered did something to deserve their murder; you want to feel like your existence, a relatively benign one, isn’t really just cause for your extermination. You hope the dead’s circumstances were specific to them, and that when you yourself do things like walk down the street, or stand outside a convenience store, you’ll still be alive after the fact.
But then you start seeing replicas of yourself being shot, or choked, until they stop breathing and therefore posing a threat, and you’re forced to accept that your life is cheap; you become legitimately scared to do even the innocuous things that ostensibly make American life so great. Witnessing the lives of Sterling and Castile slowly leave them reinforced the idea that there’s nothing I or anyone can do to rationalize deaths like theirs, and that I too might be killed for having the temerity to speak back to an officer when spoken to.
In Castile’s case, here was a man reportedly doing the right thing by alerting the officer who pulled him over not to be alarmed by the sight of the gun he was legally licensed to carry, and the officer so freaked at the words “gun” leaving black lips that he pulled out his own pistol and shot the man dead in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter.
When Sterling was murdered, he had a gun on his person. According to some, this fact is inextricable from his demise, nevermind that at no point in the video of his death did he appear to reach for the weapon. But for Sterling, owning a gun — which many people value as a basic right in America—while being big and black meant unquestioned guilt. Guns scare the hell out of me. It’s never crossed my mind to own one. But I understand why some people do, and then I sigh when realizing that it doesn’t matter our reasons for owning one or not, that even a black child playing with a toy pistol in broad daylight can be killed.
I used to think if I acted a certain way around cops, that I would perhaps stay alive; if there was a misunderstanding, that maybe I’d get kicked around a little, but I’d live to tell about it. I use really good diction and have nice teeth, and assumed those facts with the added observation of niceties would be enough for me to drive home after something silly like a traffic stop. But it seems as though no matter how polite I am, there’s nothing I can do to appear less of a threat to those conditioned to be threatened by my appearance.
The idea began to take hold three years ago, when my dad called to deliver the sobering news about George Zimmerman’s acquittal: Anyone who takes my presence as a threat now has the right to kill me, he said. I listened to him as I stood outside Treasure Island in Las Vegas with friends. As my dad tried to convince me that my life had less perceived value than others, I laughed him off. Despite growing up in the Atlanta exurbs, I’d graduated high school and college having never experienced overt racism; I had little reason to believe that one death was cause for alarm. Steps away, a different friend’s mom called to tell him to be careful, because who knows how people would react to seeing six young black men walking around with three white girls, and it’s just been confirmed that should someone take offense to that, they can kill you and probably get away with it. He didn’t laugh then, but when he told us what she’d said, we all rolled our eyes.
Even as recently as then, we believed ourselves to be living in a post-racial society; that our parents, old and hardened black folk, were overreacting to an aberrant death. My friends and I sometimes get teased for acting white; for wearing white clothes, and listening to white music (read: country), and dating white people. But the messages I’ve seen from them this week contain genuine fear.
Next week—three years to the week of our first Vegas trip, and Zimmerman’s acquittal—my friends and I are going back to Vegas with the racial bubble most of us grew up under having since been burst. It’s been laid out plainly that even doing outwardly white things can’t protect us; our skin is the foremost object of attention to everyone who sees us, and especially so for the militarized police force that confuses even our mindless tarries down public asphalt as acts of rebellion.
Before last week, our greatest Vegas hopes were to maybe strike it rich at the tables, or to get laid. After this week’s stark reminders, though, the new hope is simply not to draw the attention of a gun-wielding officer, which might then leave us dead on the very strip where, three years ago, our parents implored us to be careful. But then you remember that hope, like a desert oasis, is nothing but a chimera.