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Alton Sterling’s death changes the conversation for every black family

Crystal Lewis Brown


Causes & Culture

Crystal Lewis Brown is a parent of two boys, a wife and lifelong writer. She is also SheKnows' director of editorial operations. You can also follow her on twitter at @c_lewisbrown

Black people keep asking 'Can we live?' and society keeps saying 'no'

My young sons were eating breakfast when the oldest started giving his younger brother tips on how to hold his spoon.

"Why don't you just let him live?" I started to say. But I stopped myself. It's a common saying, usually meaning leave him be, let her do her thing, leave him alone. As I looked at the two little black boys eating cereal — two boys who would lose their chubby cheeks and innocent demeanor and become black men in the blink of an eye — I realized the saying had a deeper meaning now.

More: Do we really need to watch the shooting of Alton Sterling?

Because another black man was shot and killed by police yesterday. It's the second time in less than a month that I've seen a smiling black man staring out at me from a website or newspaper in the photo accompanying his death — his killing — at the hands of police. They were still alive then; still human.

If you haven't been on Twitter or CNN or anywhere, really, here's the rundown of yesterday's tragedy. Alton Sterling, 37, was shot during an incident with police officers in Baton Rouge. According to some reports, Sterling had a gun, though that hasn't been confirmed. But what is known is that a video clip shows that officers appeared to pin Sterling to the ground, and one pulled out a gun. Gunshots later rang out as the camera panned away. A man, a father of five, was left dead in the aftermath.

Three weeks ago, the face that stared back at me was a familiar one. Antwun "Ronnie" Shumpert, a family friend whom I hadn't seen in many years, was killed in Mississippi after running from police after being pulled over for reasons that have yet to be explained. He was unarmed. Another dead father. Another dead son.

Now comes the formula we've become accustomed to every time this happens. What was he doing? Why was he out there? What did he do to cause this? Step 2: Now it's time to dig up any criminal record he/she may have had. Because anyone who has committed a crime had it "coming to them." They're less worthy of respect. Less human. At least that's how it seems. Not convinced? Sterling was stopped as he sold CDs outside of a store. And remember when they said Michael Brown was stopped because he was suspected of robbing a convenience store? Or the fact that Eric Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes? I'm cynically waiting for the typical Step 3: where somehow the most "menacing" social media photos surface (this one actually spawned a hashtag).

More: We can grieve black lives and blue lives at the same time

When Jesse Williams gave his impassioned speech at the BET Awards a couple of weeks ago, black people stood up and applauded. This was someone on a national stage describing how we as a community have felt for a while. Describing the frustration, the sadness, the helplessness we feel every time something like this happens.

"Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data, and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is, we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function in ours."

And while the applause from Williams' speech is still ringing in our ears, we find ourselves here again. Mourning more dead black men at the same time they are being demonized.

"Why don't you just let him live?"

More: Philando Castile had a gun permit so where’s the NRA today?

Such a simple phrase that now weighs heavily on me as I watch news clip after news clip of these men. Because for my sons, as for those men — hell, any black man or woman, for that matter — it's more than just a saying. It's a prayer.

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