He had a grin made of gold. Veneers once considered as hip as the compact discs he was selling. Remember the ’90s, when yellow gold was preferable to platinum and the cassette tape had yet to become entirely passé, but if you were still playing those when CDs were all the rage, you were clowned through the halls of your high school? In locker-lined hallway parlance, you were “an impossible herb.” Alton Sterling was in high school in the 90s. I know because we are nearly the same age. He was 37. I will be 37 in mere months.
I still play CDs in my car. It has a six-disc changer. The CDs I play are mostly burned, from the MP3s I listen to everywhere else. I do not purchase them, neither in stores or in the street.
For me, these are the details — the gilded teeth, the compact discs — that stand in starkest relief. They feel like relics: the former a trend I wish would fully fade, the latter a medium I thought already had.
Time tends to forget cities like Baton Rouge. Like Ferguson. Like Charleston. Cities adjacent to larger, more tourist-friendly ones, cities that, no matter how large or small, still seem to function as sleepy and insular towns, cities where blight may be easy to cover with natural beauty, by simply directing a driver three miles to the left or the right.
To those who live without, cities like these seem quaint, kitschy, preserved in the amber of time bygone. Until a massacre. Until the body of a teenage black boy is left dead in the street for four hours. Until someone videotapes one of the scores of police confrontations that happen to the town’s black residents every day — and until one of those videos happens to be of a brutal, unjustified murder.
We are jarred into recollection then. Time isn’t what forgets cities where trends seem to linger for decades past their prime, where hustle men still sell CDs in a largely disc-less society. It’s the rest of us who forget, the rest of us who rarely have occasion to consider the gross neglect of a slow-ambling city’s black schools or their lead testing or their water supply or their police force. Sufficient unto every hometown, after all, is the evil thereof. We are too busy reckoning with the corruption next door. We have not considered the mostly silent, daily terrors stalking other towns.
By the time the national press gets involved, by the time they see something salacious enough to remind us, we are awestruck, woebegone, looking for the logical ties between Baton Rouge and Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Los Angeles, Baton Rouge and the Bronx. They are not so unlike us, we say of the town’s time “forgets.” We should fight for their basic human rights as fiercely as we try to protect our own. And we do, as long as the news cycle lasts. We do, until the next tragedy of large scale takes precedence, until the little things — gold teeth, compact discs — are all we can still bear to remember.
He served tater tots and rectangles of spongy pizza to students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota for over a decade. I imagine it was work that he enjoyed. The scent of school cafeterias is pungent. It is not an odor everyone can stomach. Cafeteria workers are not always respected as they should be. It is not a profession whose thanklessness everyone can stomach. Philando Castile was younger than Alton and I by five years. He was 32, and he was driving, a privilege only appreciated by those who have not always been able to feel its benefits. The ability to regularly transport one’s family in a car is no small accomplishment, no minor blessing.
We can assume that Philando knew well that privilege, his girlfriend in the passenger seat, her daughter in the back. We can also assume he knew his rights, owner as he was of a legally registered gun, the presence of which he reportedly notified the police, while reaching for his driver’s license and registration. The gun was in the glove compartment, where it could be retrieved in case of danger, where it was concealed from the children in his life, from the family he was chauffeuring through town.
There is no gradation of deservedness in situations like these. There was no more justification for Alton to be executed while already apprehended than for Philando to absorb several bullets in quick succession while reaching for the identification an officer asked for, reaching from within the former comfort of his own car.
They are both dead, regardless of the details, when they should both, by most accounts, still be alive. Alton’s 15-year-old son should not be sobbing for a father who can no longer reach out and envelope him. Philando’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ four-year-old should not need to console her mother. Still so certain of her toddler-body’s invincibility, of her spirit’s ability to heal whatever hurts, she should have no cause to put either superpower to the test.
And the rest of us should not find ourselves debating the psychic, emotional, and ethical merits of viewing and disseminating the recorded details of victims’ murders. It’s a sad state of affairs that we so often bicker over whether or not we should watch the myriad ways that black folks can die.
Minneapolis is not like Baton Rouge. It’s 8.4 percent black, where Baton Rouge is 58.5 percent black. And Minneapolis is like Baton Rouge: it does not do right by its black population. Its police force perceives immediate ill intent in the black residents they’re meant to serve.
There is no city in this country any safer or objectively “better” for a black family than another. This is true for many reasons and racial bias in police forces is just one. But we delude ourselves, don’t we, searching for someplace seemingly more progressive, some place where our breadwinners can find legitimate work — even with a criminal conviction, some home in a community where crime is rare but not so rare that we’ll be mistaken for breaking into our own front doors, should we ever misplace our keys. Some place where we can pull calmly over to receive a broken taillight citation and feel somewhat assured that, if we comply, we will not die.
We have always longed to live, and this country has long been ambivalent about that yearning. But we owe to Alton and Philando, we owe to ourselves and our children, what we have ever been owed: some semblance of life, the inordinate idea that, as long as we draw breath, that life can still improve. Against odds, in spite of history, alongside the omnipresent ache of injustice. We have always longed to live and we only can do so by reaching for one another, through melee and misty eyes, reach though our arms tremble with fear, adrenaline and rage, reach and fill the empty arcs of our own arms.
As in the bowels of ships, as in the segregated front-line trenches, as in the backs of paddywagons, the corners of one-room schoolhouses, along the chain gangs, outside governor’s mansions, on the curb where someone deeply loved was reminded of that love one last time, while bleeding out, reach for what will always find you. Us. All we will ever have for certain in this American life is us.