Warning of Destruction, The Death of Alton Sterling and Black Hope

Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

-Langston Hughes

I woke up at 6 AM this morning to the video of Alton Sterling’s murder. Watching for the first 18 seconds, you are only in a shock you believed you’ve felt before; then, without hesitation, the officer reaches for his gun and you see death from an uncertain distance, coming towards you at an unknown speed, but you know you see him, and you know he doesn’t make appearances unless he’s here to take someone away.

You see the gun, you see death, you see the caption or the headline, but you’re still imagining different outcomes: he miraculously escapes the grasps of the police, perhaps someone intervenes somehow, or even, maybe, possibly, the officer puts his gun back into it’s holster. None of that happens. All that hope, however naïve, dwindles to the size of a single bullet, vanishing as Sterling’s life is blown away: 6 more seconds is all it took.

6 seconds is all it took for a white officer to decide, after pulling out his gun, to shoot a black man in the back of the head while pinned to a Louisiana road. 6 seconds is the amount of time it used to take to create a full-length Vine, how frantic we used to be while developing a moment in that time, how thoughtful we had to be in order to get it right. But in just 6 seconds an officer drew his gun, placed it at the nape of Alton Sterling’s neck and pulled the trigger.

For another 6 seconds from the first shot you hear 4 other shots as those recording the video run for their lives. That is nearly a shot per second into the head of an immobilized black man in the streets of Baton Rouge. All that is left for the last 9 seconds of the video is a chilling darkness and the cries of the hopeless.

I don’t believe they understand what they’re doing. With each killing, we, the black population of the United States, grow more and more hopeless, and for many hope is all that we have. I don’t believe they understand what happens to people when they lose hope, how dangerous one becomes when there is nothing else to lose. We have been stripped of everything: our materials, our wealth, our worth, even our bodies; and our hope, the backbone of black existence and persistence, has nearly been chipped away.

I will look, again, to the words of James Baldwin from The Fire Next Time — an American jeremiad that’s lived over half a century — to help me explain it to you: “people cannot live without this sense [of worth]; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.” I can tell you that the worth of black people has long been gone, but it’s our hope, in which we place all our dreams of regaining it all, that should be your concern. Break this hope and there will be no more tears, No more water, the fire next time!