After hearing of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a moment of anguish, I wrote as follows:
“Alton Sterling joins the legions of black folks killed by law enforcement in circumstances that raise questions about unreasonable force. The fact that he apparently had a gun does not justify his death.
“I am not a gun rights person, but in a society in which the Constitution is interpreted to protect an individual’s right to bear arm, and in a society that worships gun culture and advocates the right to carry weapons, it cannot be that the fact that an individual has a gun automatically justifies shooting him. The question has to be whether he was attempting to use the gun, and whether the police officers were reasonably and justifiably in fear for their lives.
“No right-minded person would contest a police officer’s right to use deadly force to stop deadly force. But in the Sterling case, if the video and the witnesses who say the gun never came out of his pocket (assuming it was his) are good evidence, then that was not what happened here.
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“Whether Sterling had a permit was not even a consideration at the moment of his death. The police didn’t ask and, under the circumstances, couldn’t ask. The confrontation was too quick. The video seems to show that he was being contained, and if it is as it appears, his death was unnecessary and unjustifiable.
“As a lawyer I am trained to wait on the facts, and I will. But we are so tired of our people being killed by law enforcement, over and over and over again. My heart breaks for Sterling’s 15-year-old son. He is a child whose life is forever shattered, as are those of his siblings.
“What has to happen to stop this madness? We weep and we despair because it happens again and again, and we know where this will, in all likelihood, go. And when we cry out in anguish that “Black lives matter!” we are chastised with the reminder that “All lives matter!” They do, but all lives are not in danger of death at the hands of those who are sworn to protect us. Enough! Black people are not crazy! This is madness.”
That was before I awakened to the news that yet another black man, Philando Castile, had been shot to death by a police officer in Minnesota. There was no question that Castile had a gun. After being pulled over for a broken tail light, he reportedly told the police officer that he had a permit to carry a gun that was in his possession. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said that Castile was complying with the officer’s command when he was reached for his wallet and was shot multiple times. In the Facebook posting of the interaction, Reynolds demonstrated extraordinary composure as she recorded a police officer who appeared to be out of control.
In a Second Amendment culture, a gun cannot and does not automatically justify law enforcement’s use of deadly force, or any force at all. Castile seems to have done everything he was supposed to do, yet he is dead.
It seems that there is a powerful fear of, and antipathy toward, black people that, unconsciously or not, informs the actions of some law enforcement officials. I do not question the fear or apprehension of the police officers involved in these two killings, but I and many others note instances in which white individuals have been involved in shootings and were not killed or shot: “Man charged with shooting Durham officer at jail after arrest,” March 21; “(White) Woman shoots up Hixson neighborhood,” Dec. 28, 2014.
The point is not that we want equal opportunity deaths at the hands of law enforcement; the point is that it seems that black people with guns, whether legally or not, whether used or not, rarely survive interactions with police. And many black people, unarmed, also die at the hands of the police.
As a civil rights lawyer and one who teaches constitutional law, I struggle against despair and nihilism. I believe in the rule of law, if only because the alternative is unthinkable. With each death of a black innocent, however, it becomes more difficult to answer the questions of those who have given up on justice. We who work for racial justice must not be abandoned in our quest to end these deaths. All people, regardless of race, need to own these issues, to demand reform and to end this madness.
Theodore M. Shaw is the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC Law School and the director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.