This week, in the span of 48 hours, two black men were murdered by police. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, according to the database The Counted, are just two of the 566 people who have been killed by police in the United States in 2016. Sterling and Castile were both gun-carrying black men shot and killed by police for seemingly no reason, their deaths both caught on video. But they differed in one major way: The former was a convicted felon and a registered sex offender. The latter was an “upstanding citizen.” And in the hours and days after the shooting, that difference seemed to matter to some Americans.
As news of Sterling’s death broke, details emerged: An anonymous tipster called police, according to their report, because a black man was participating in illegal activity and brandishing a weapon outside of a convenience store. Within minutes of their arrival, the investigation became a physical altercation. Sterling was shot by police and died at the scene.
Then, the media’s questions: What was Sterling doing there? Selling CDs? What kind of person does that? What kind of person was he? And with that, the even more predictable and repugnant pattern of character assassination, the second death, arises. Where the media combs every detail of the victim’s past for clues that he might be somehow responsible for his violent end. Where instead of photos depicting the victim of a police killing in happier times, editors and producers choose the more sinister or shocking image, one that frames them as a person less than, a person not worthy of empathy, a person deserving of death. In Sterling’s case, it was a mugshot.
Sterling’s life was, by all accounts, a complex and difficult one. He had a rough childhood. He had a criminal record. He was also a friend. A father. He was human. A citizen. If he did commit a crime, it was a misdemeanor at best. He didn’t deserve to die for it.
These are things that we should know and accept and understand but our culture has very little tolerance or patience for nuance and facts, particularly when it comes to police killings, especially when the victims are black. Like many other black women before her, Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling’s son (who stood at her side), spoke at a press conference in the midst of her grief to explain this once again. “The individuals involved in his murder took away a man with children who depended on their daddy on a daily basis,” McMillon said. “You will see with your own eyes how he was handled unjustly and killed without regard for the lives that he helped raise.”
Castile was introduced to the world when his girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, posted a video on Facebook Wednesday evening showing Castile bleeding after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Reynolds says that Castile was reaching for his wallet when he was shot, after informing the officer he was licensed to carry a firearm. Reynolds documented this scene on her cell phone and her four-year-old daughter witnessed it all. Castile died from his injuries.
Again, as the news spread, the usual questions: Why were they stopped? What were they doing wrong? What kind of person was he? But in Castile’s instance, the attempted second murder would not materialize. Castile has no criminal record, a long employment history, and was legally carrying a gun. Without the usual dog whistles, the media had no cause to do a deep dive into Castile’s background or make negative assumptions about how he was raised. Even in the midst of her trauma, Reynolds tells officers, “He’s a good man…he’s never been in jail, anything. He’s not a gang member, anything.” For some, this makes Castile’s fate even more unjust. Whatever narrative media crafted in this case would have to be different.
Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school. He was beloved by students, colleagues and parents. He was a friend. A father. He was human. A citizen. He was a passenger in a car being detained for, by police accounts, a broken tail light. And somehow shots were fired and he was fatally wounded.
Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, spoke of her son during an interview on CNN as a “law-abiding citizen” who “did nothing wrong,” a “laid back, quiet individual that worked hard every day, paid taxes, and came home every day and played video games.” She emphasized that he wasn’t a “gang banger” or a “thug,” that he was “respectable.” This is yet another black mother having to explain that despite indoctrinating her son in a culture of compliance and abidance of the law, this compliance did not save his life. The law took his life. In the words of Valerie Castile: “What’s the difference in complying and you get killed, anyway?”
Sterling and Castile’s deaths have been played ad nauseum for the world to see. The circumstances are shockingly, numbingly similar. Black people encountering police who don’t survive the encounter. But already media depictions have begun where one victim is being presented as seemingly more deserving of empathy than another, the “hustleman” versus the “good guy,” the “felon” versus the “productive citizen.”
In 2012, this same dynamic played out in the media with the depictions of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Both black teens whose murders appeared motivated by racism, much was made of Martin’s upbringing and his divorced parents, and images of him wearing a hoodie were shown repeatedly as evidence of his inherent thuggery. Davis, by contrast, was overwhelmingly depicted as a promising young man, wearing a suit and tie, a good student, and the product of a loving, two-parent home.
A silver lining: In this case, almost immediately non-mugshot images of Sterling began circulating via social media, much in the spirit of the #iftheygunnedmedown tag created by twitter user @CJ_Musick_Lawya following Michael Brown’s slaying by Ferguson, Missouri police to counteract the negative imagery. News outlets were taken to task for their portrayals. Slowly, the narrative restored Sterling’s humanity.
These juxtapositions are the worst kind of respectability politics. When these murders occur and the justifiable outrage ensues, calls for respectability sound off to quell the fire. We must temper the instinct to categorize victims as those deserving of either scorn or empathy. It matters not what Sterling or Castile did for a living, or where they laid their heads to rest at night, or what kind of clothes they wore.
They were murdered by people that are paid to protect and serve them. They mattered.
Adrianne Russell is a museum consultant and co-founder of #museumsrespondtoferguson, a monthly twitter chat examining anti-blackness in the cultural sector. She has written and presented about the intersections of art, race, gender and culture for Temporary Art Review, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Museum Next, and her blog, Cabinet of Curiosities.