Viewpoints

America says black lives don’t matter

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry approaches the lectern Tuesday to report that his office would file no state criminal charges against Baton Rouge Police Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in the July 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry approaches the lectern Tuesday to report that his office would file no state criminal charges against Baton Rouge Police Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in the July 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man. The Advocate via AP

Black Lives Matter.

I make that statement firmly, because America has told me the opposite.

In one ruling after another, in one jurisdiction after another, in one case after another, America has taken my face in its hands, looked me squarely in the eye, and screamed at the top of its lungs that black lives have no value.

The latest message was delivered Tuesday. That’s when Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced the decision not to indict Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in the 2016 shooting death of a black man named Alton Sterling. Landry’s decision, which he claimed was a difficult one, was the latest indication that black lives have little value in the country of my birth.

However, that wasn’t the only message in Landry’s announcement. The larger and more significant meaning was this: If African-Americans desire equal treatment, we must forever fight to get it.

Solomon Jones

For Alton Sterling, his final fight for respect was against the hood of a car in front of a convenience store where he was selling CDs. A homeless man called 911 to say Sterling had threatened him with a gun. Two officers responded and told Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car. Sterling initially did so, but when he removed his hands, he was wrested to the ground and Tasered.

“I’ll kill you, bitch!” Officer Salamoni yelled, his words captured on cellphone video as he and his partner tussled with Sterling.

Moments later, as Sterling lay on his back, his arms pinned to the ground, Salamoni did just that. He shot three bullets into Sterling’s chest, and as Sterling sat up, Salamoni pumped three more bullets into Sterling’s back.

Police said they recovered a gun from Sterling’s pocket, and Landry, in announcing his decision not to file charges, called the officers’ actions in Sterling’s case “reasonable and justified.”

In an earlier investigation, the U.S. Justice Department, which declined to bring civil rights charges in Sterling’s death, said there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that Sterling’s civil rights were violated.

But the public doesn’t know if that’s true. That’s because we’ve only seen the two cellphone videos that captured the killing, but footage from the nearby convenience store was confiscated by police, who detained the owner in order to get it. And footage from the officers’ body cameras has also been kept from public view.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said Tuesday that “relevant” bodycam footage can be made public after a disciplinary hearing is held for the officers.

But who determines what’s “relevant” in a case like this?

Is it relevant that Salamoni declared his intent to kill Sterling before he did it? Is it relevant that Knight was involved in the shooting of another black man two years before? Is it relevant that Louisiana has a long and sordid history of racial discrimination? Is it relevant that blacks are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police use of force than white men, according to research conducted by Dr. James Buehler of Drexel University?

I’m not sure any longer what’s relevant in the eyes of a criminal justice system that is more likely to arrest, charge, convict and even execute people who look like me. But I do know what I see.

I see a black man named Alton Sterling – who was armed, but hurt no one – shot and killed by police. But I see a white man named James Holmes taken alive after killing 12 and injuring 70 in a movie theater shooting. But I see a white man named Dylann Roof kill nine black parishioners in a church, get arrested by police without incident.

The racial disparities in our law enforcement system are many. They are obvious. They are wrong.

And those disparities are the reason I must now take America’s face in my hands, look my country in the eye, and scream at the top of my lungs that black lives matter.

We cannot sit by in silence while we are unjustly killed by police officers whose salaries we pay. We cannot abandon our expectation of equal justice. We cannot accept America’s false notion that black people are monsters to be feared.

Black lives matter.

It is a fact that we will fight to make you accept. Because we cannot watch another video of a black life extinguished. We cannot watch as another officer is unjustly acquitted. We cannot tell our children that their lives are of little value.

Black lives matter. That is our truth. And it must become America’s truth as well.

Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. He can be contacted at sj@solomonjones.com.

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