The Murder Of Alton Sterling (And Others Like Him) Slowly, Subtly, And Steadily Kills Us Too

Sandra Sterling (right), Alton Sterling's aunt, visits his memorial on July 7, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Sandra Sterling (right), Alton Sterling's aunt, visits his memorial on July 7, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

The thing about state sanctioned murders of Black Americans — such as the murder of 37-year-old Alton Sterling; a father of five who was shot and killed by a Baton Rouge police officer while two other officers restrained him — is that if you write and think and scream and rage and cry and obsess about enough of them, they will eventually prove you to be a hypocrite.


When Sam Dubose was murdered by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, I wrote that if murders such as these happen to be recorded and that footage happens to be available, we must force ourselves to watch it. Today, however, I've yet to watch the footage of Alton Sterling's murder. And I have no immediate plans to do so. I'm sure I will eventually. Perhaps even accidentally. But right now, at 10:34 am EST, I am making the choice not to witness another state sanctioned murder of a Black American.

When Freddie Gray was murdered by six Baltimore police officers — who detained him, placed him in a police van, and gave him a "rough ride" that eventually severed his spine — I wrote that, although we might be tempted to regurgitate the same feelings felt and thoughts thought when Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd and John Crawford III were also murdered by police officers, it wouldn't be fair to Freddie Gray to do that.

These are minor details of these people’s lives. But minor doesn’t mean insignificant. They are part of the collection of characteristics and traits distinguishing us from each other. Our humanity exists in this minutiae. And this is what we — the people currently feeling anything about what’s happening in Baltimore — need to remember. And if remembering doesn’t work, make notes to remind ourselves to remind ourselves. Freddie Gray and Michael Brown may have died under similar circumstances. And the images and videos and stories coming out of Baltimore this week might be similar to those that came out of Ferguson last summer. But Freddie Gray is not Michael Brown. He was a human being who lived and loved and died uniquely, and this uniqueness must extend to how we mourn and remember and write about and pray for and march for him.

So cry new tears. Write new words. Craft new prayers. Attend new marches. Channel new anger. Feel it all again. Every bit of it. All the empathy, all the sorrow, all the rage. Don’t fight it. Let it permeate you. Embrace its engulf. Because Freddie Gray deserves it. Baltimore deserves it. You deserve it. Do not allow them to desensitize you to the uniqueness and preciousness of our lives, to the beauty of being alive, and do not permit them to rob you of the agony of them being snatched away.

Today, however, when thinking about the murder of Alton Sterling, thinking and feeling and doing something new feels wasteful. An intentional wastefulness that veers into vanity. Because who the fuck am I to suggest that we somehow conjure new ways to process what happened, what has been happening, and what will continue to happen? Why would I ask any of us to put that on ourselves?

When I first watched the dashcam footage of the unlawful arrest that led to Sandra Bland's death, I cried. Right there in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Wharton Square on the South Side. Today, however, when thinking about the murder of Alton Sterling, I don't feel sad. Or mad. Or…anything. I'm sure I will eventually. Rather, I hope I will. But right now, my prevailing feeling exists somewhere between exhaustion and Groundhog Day. Like I'm playing a game I'm tired of playing but need to continue playing because everyone else at the party is playing and they need me to keep playing to keep the teams even.

It feels hyperbolic, hysterical even, to suggest that murders like the murder of Alton Sterling also kill a part of us each time it happens. But what's happening here to me — what's behind my reaction to this, I suspect — is a slow and subtle and steady loss of humanity. The act of reacting to the state sanctioned murders of Black Americans has chipped away at me. So much so that everything I'm saying and doing and thinking about this right now feels rote and perfunctory. Like I'm reading from a script, or going through a pre-game walk-through in a hotel ballroom. I want to feel more about this, but I can't. It's just not there. Maybe it'll come back. Hopefully it'll come back. But right now it's either gone or existing in a part of me I haven't been able to access.

In order for me to preserve some semblance of sanity, America has made me harder. A bit more robotic. A bit less human. A bit less me. And this, more even than the thought of the next 37-year-old Black father murdered by police being me, scares the shit out of me.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



The opposite is happening to me. Each time the State murders one of us it energizes me. It makes me want to do something. Anything. I refuse to allow this to become just business as usual to me. That's what they want.

That's why they hate BLM so much. They want us to shut up and take whatever they dole out to us. They don't want us to shout and protest. But they've miscalculated, at least with me. They are turning a quiet non-confrontational person like me into someone who wants to do something.

I won't shut up. I won't ignore it. I won't allow myself to get used to this. I don't know what I'm going to do but I'm going to do something. Maybe I'll attend a BLM meeting this week. That's a start.

RIP Alton.