Another black body on hot asphalt, heartbeat colliding with bullets in his chest, breathing becoming labored as an executioner in a uniform steals his life from him.
This time, his name was Alton Sterling.
This time, he was 37 years old.
This time, he was a father of five.
This time, he was selling CDs in front of a store.
This time, the Baton Rouge, La., Police Department is responsible for his death.
This time, there will be riots and screams of “Black lives matter” as his state killing plays on a continuous loop and mainstream-media outlets get clicks and ratings over another one of our dead bodies.
We will see Sterling’s family. We will learn the existence and/or extent of his criminal record because, surely, he deserved to die. Surely, the white police officers were just doing their job by killing a black man who dared to live in his own skin on a public street. Surely, they will continue to vilify him by alleging that he had a weapon because, in this country, the Second Amendment was always intended to protect them from us—never to protect us from them. We will remember that the devaluation of black lives is embedded into the very core of this country—a country we’re expected to salute and pledge our allegiance to while black leaders are handpicked for the express purpose of making us believe that proximity to whiteness equals freedom.
It does not.
And it is hard not to hate in times such as these. It is hard to see white privilege wrapped in white skin and not want to exhume the memory of Nat Turner’s revenge and breathe life into it. Because what else is there, really? What else will make sense to the lawmakers in this country, to the politicians in this country, to the wealthy and protected and coddled and pacified in this country, if not the blood of their children and loved ones intermingled with ours on pavements across this country?
If their tears are tempered by guilt-ridden whispers of “Thank God, it wasn’t me or my child”; If they can look into the mirror with gratitude at their white skin, then nothing changes. Pragmatists will continue to call radical black politics dangerously unrealistic while ignoring the dangerous reality that envelops the black and brown people around them until we can’t breathe.
This is what trauma feels like. This is what terror feels like. This is what a war zone feels like.
Do you think Sterling didn’t know that he was a target? Do you think that those who loved him haven’t followed the escalation of documented police violence against black people in this country? Do you think they were unaware that police officers pulled a drive-by on 12-year-old Tamir Rice? Do you think they didn’t know about Kimani and Eric and Rekia and Dontre and Kajeme and Sam and Natasha and Tarika and Aura and Laquan, and too many others to name without the rage and tears flowing free? All of them connected by the blackness of their skin in a country that hates us for our freedom.
I quote Zora Neale Hurston often and do so again here: “If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
No one can say that we enjoy being traumatized on a daily basis. No one but us—the black people who are aware that money won’t save us, degrees won’t save us, good jobs won’t save us, good neighborhoods won’t save us, the right friends won’t save us—knows what it is to wake up, get dressed, put one foot in front of the other until we’re outside our doors, wondering if today will be our last.
No one but us—the black people who understand that we can love our children, raise our children, teach our children and guide our children—knows what it is to see our boys grow long and big and have terror seize our hearts. No one but us knows what it is to see our girls grow curves and become subject to the violent fetishes of police officers who believe that no one will give a damn about black women.
Alton Sterling should not be dead. The next victim of state-sanctioned violence will not deserve to die, and that victim could be me or you or anyone we love. No one is exempt and no one should have to live like this. There are no new words. There are no new thoughts. There are no songs to sing or chants to scream that will make this soul-crushing feeling of inevitability go away.
And it is so hard not to hate those who tell us that change takes time. It is so hard not to hate those who tell us to look how far we’ve come as a country. It is so hard not to hate those who say that we should move forward together.
Facts: There is no “together” as long as black people in this country are not safe. We live and love and laugh and cry and dream through nights of clear and present danger—the stars nothing but bullet holes ripped through black flesh. Lucille Clifton taught us that we should celebrate every day that something tried to kill us and has failed, but we do so knowing that every day, somewhere, that something—often dressed in blue and wearing a badge—has succeeded.
We do this knowing that this joy, this pain, this life in our bones, is all we have. And the moment we stop feeling, the moment we stop raging, the enemy has won.
If history is precedent, there will not be justice for Alton Sterling, but that does not mean that people will not fight for justice in his name. He has been added to the roll, and each time that roll is called, the rage will build. The fear will build. The hatred will build. The love for black people by black people will build. And that is as it should be. That is as it must be.
Langston Hughes warned long ago:
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind
Time’s up, America. Time is up.