I know what can happen to me if I encounter a cop. I’ve seen the video evidence. I’ve seen police choke Eric Garner to death in the street. I saw police put a gun to Oscar Grant’s head and pull the trigger. I know the dangers of being Black in this country.
I’ve even seen what can happen to you if you encounter a cop. I saw them murder Tamir Rice for playing in the park. I saw Mike Brown’s body lay on the ground for hours after a cop gunned him down in cold blood.
I’ve thought about these things and they keep me up at night. I’ve been exposed to so many videos of police murdering Black people that I can play out the scenarios in my head and wonder when it’ll happen to one of us. But until today, I hadn’t even imagined what would happen if the cops turned you into Cameron Sterling.
Cameron is Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son. Alton Sterling was alive yesterday. He was selling homemade CDs outside of a store before he was confronted by police who got a call about him threatening people with a gun. I don’t know what happened next but I do know that Sterling was pinned down by two officers before he was shot and killed. The video of his execution has surfaced. I watched it, like I watch all of the videos — against my better judgement or care for my mental and emotional well-being. The video hurt me, as they all do. But I’ve seen so many of them that I’ve become familiar with the pain in a way I’ve never expected to before. So I watched the video and used my usual coping devices for self-care: Game Of Thrones, comic books and basketball. It’s a routine the cruelty of this country has forced me to master. I was ready for the rest of the day.
Then I saw Cameron.
Fewer than 24 hours after Alton Sterling was murdered, Cameron’s mom, Quinyetta McMillon, took to a podium. While she tried to talk, Cameron broke down in tears. He couldn’t hold it together as friends and family behind them tried to hold him up. Finally, he broke. I’ll never for get his wails as long as I live. It was the sound of pain that’s so visceral and hopeless. It was the sound of a boy who had just lost his father and he couldn’t quite understand why.
That was the visual I wasn’t prepared for. All I could see was you. I’ve been so accustomed to getting over Black death that I’d ignored the reality of Black survival. Of what it was like to bury a parent as the price paid for inequality. The pain of what it’s like to have to wake up the next day knowing that injustice took mom or dad away. I now have a new fear. One I just watched play out in front of me the same way I’ve seen Black people lose their lives in front of me. That video has shown me what it would be like if you were awakened in the middle of the night and someone told you that police murdered me in cold blood. Cameron’s screams sound like what I imagine your screams would sound like. I see his mother trying to be strong in light of his pain and see your mother doing the same. I see his family trying to console him and think of your sister trying to tell you that everything will be okay knowing that things have never been okay in this country.
I don’t think Cameron will ever understand what happened to his father. I can’t hardly wrap my brain around it. And I’m not sure you’ll ever understand if the same thing happened to me.
But in case the police to take me away from you forever, I want you to know some things. If I encounter police just know that I didn’t reach for their gun. I didn’t try to fight them. I didn’t resist arrest. I wasn’t a clear and present danger. Just know that if I’m approached by police, I’ll be thinking about you and your mother and your sister and how much I want to survive to be home and see you. As soon as the officer approaches me, I’ll wonder if I’ll ever see you again. I’ll want to fight or run but I know that’ll only increase the chances of you sobbing in front of cameras that don’t give a damn about how you’re feeling.
In the immediate days after my death, you will see pictures of me from college in baggy clothes, maybe with a drink in my hand. You will see old tweets where I made an off-color comment. You will see the media portray someone who seems like a complete stranger. Because he is. You know your father. Better than they do. You will know me and the man I am. Remember me as that man and not the one you see in the news reports that are used to make police look justified in their actions.
If the police take me from you, there will be people who will see you cry for me and tell you how to mourn. They will tell you to be angry. They will tell you to forgive. They will judge you for your emotional reactions to your father being murdered. I wish I had an answer for the right way to react. But I have none. I’ve found that as more Black bodies line the streets I’ve been unable to find answers to make you feel better about this world I’ve helped bring you into. The difference is, tonight I can hold you and just tell you everything will be okay — an exercise that sometimes feels like it’s more for my own edification than yours. If the police murder me like they did Alton Sterling, then I won’t be able to tell you things will be better anymore.
But what I can do is continue to raise you to be the best you. The you whose greatness is by definition a revolt against the tyranny of racism that’s lived in America since its inception. I will stay proud of you and keep doing my best to prepare you for the eventual day that I’m not here anymore.
And, sadly — in many ways thanks to the danger of living in a country that allows police to murder Black men and women — I’m always afraid that day will come sooner than it should.
Donate: The Alton Sterling Scholarship Fund (All proceeds go to his children)