Rape, Alton Sterling, And The Complexity Of Justice

flickr/Johnny Silvercloud

By now we have all heard about the brutal killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a murder that was followed shortly by the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, both of which have reignited nationwide rallies and demands for justice.

The violence began Tuesday night, when police say they received a call that Sterling was threatening someone with a gun outside of a convenience store. The officers said that he died in their confrontation with him. In the video accounts of this death, Sterling is thrown on the hood of a car before being tackled to the ground. Once on the ground, officers hold him down until someone yells that Sterling has a gun. Officers fire several shots into Sterling, the video leaving confusion as to whether or not he actually had the gun officers claimed he reached for.

The general template for Black people in the age of Black Lives Matter and the hyper-visible nature of our terror under white supremacy now has a familiar arc: Shooting. Police. Video. Outrage. Criminal record. Administrative leave. March. Grieve. Repeat.

Sterling’s death has been no exception. Within hours, #AltonSterling was trending on social media as news outlets rushed to share the gruesome video of his execution. felon status was shared as widely as his death, the story further complicated by one of Sterling’s convictions — “carnal knowledge of a juvenile,” essentially the statutory rape of a minor. In 2000, then 20 years old, he was convicted of the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl whose mother contacted the police when she found out her daughter was pregnant.

His felon status was shared as widely as his death.

This new information is leaving many people conflicted over how to handle the unjustified murder of a Black convicted rapist at the hands of police. Some have chosen to take back their support of Sterling while others continue to support him steadfastly, bringing to a head a critical question within the Black Lives Matter movement: Do indeed all Black lives matter?

To be clear, I do not think survivors of sexual assault — or anyone, for that matter — are required to actively protest the murder of a rapist if they do not feel moved to do so. There are many reasons, particularly for women, that one may refuse. But if we take seriously the call to action of Black Lives Matter, to bring equity and healing to all Black people, we must talk about how we deal with Black people who harm others in our community.

We have seen prominent police murders of people who’d committed economic crimes, like Mike Brown and Eric Garner, but we have yet to deal with the public messiness of the death of a documented Black rapist. In the former instances, and in many others, we have insisted that Black Lives Matter means that ALL Black lives matter regardless of criminal history. This mantra — that Black people do not have to earn their humanity and that crime should not warrant an automatic death sentence — has been central to the power and messaging of Black Lives Matter from the start.

We must talk about how we deal with Black people who harm others in our community.

But another key part of the BLM movement has been the fierce advocacy of Black women and femmes; the belief that there can be no Black unity while Black women and femmes continue to experience gendered violence from those both outside and within the Black community. Black women have made it clear that freedom from white supremacy without freedom from the damage of misogyny is not freedom at all.

So what is a movement, largely run by women and focused on Black murders at the hands of police, to do about the seemingly unjustified killing of a Black rapist?

This is the part of the discourse within BLM that has not yet become mainstream. But as we advocate for the abolition of the police state and of the prison industrial complex, we must also envision new ways to deal with violence in our communities. Knowing the U.S. justice system is built upon foundations of anti-Blackness exploitation of the poor means that we have to come up with entirely new ways to bring about justice. Fighting back against the corrupt criminal justice system in this country doesn’t mean creating a lawless free-for-all, but it does mean we will have to think longer and harder about the kind of justice we want in the world and the best means of attaining it.

Restorative justice is an attempt to get at the heart of why we harm each other.

One option is the prevailing belief in a restorative justice framework. Instead of using systems simply to penalize crime as we do now, we would move towards solutions that provide paths of restitution and restoration to those who offend. This approach is focused on the abuser making tangible, context-based steps toward the healing of their victims. While the work of repairing harm done is on the abuser, the goal of restorative justice is that both the victim and the abuser be healed and find a healthy place in the life of the community. Considering that the current penal system does little to deter crime, restorative justice is an attempt to get at the heart of why we harm each other and how to end cycles of violence.

But a dead person cannot go through a restorative justice process.

We have to decide what to do with the legacy of Black men who harm us, like Alton Sterling, even while we have no earthly means of restitution. We have to decide when and how all Black Lives Matter. We have to consider what it will cost, in the messiness of our intricate ecosystems of violence, to create a world of wholeness and restoration.

Does a rapist deserve support from Black women after his unjust murder?

Were the police justified in killing him because of his past deeds? Are we willing to discard him solely on the basis of a conviction in a justice system we know to be deeply biased and anti-Black?

Are Black women required to both experience violence and fight for the humanity of their abusers even after they are gone? Or can we make space for Black women to wholeheartedly distance themselves from those who have harmed them? How do we protect survivors of sexual violence in a world where so often their abusers get a pass?

Is restoration even possible for those who have committed a crime as horrific as rape? If not, then what do we do with those who have committed such violence? What do we do when these people are family members, community members, friends, or loved ones?

How do we create a world where Black Lives Matter when violence is both systemic and personal? What do you do when “Black” represents both a victim and an abuser?

There are no easy answers to these questions, just like there is no right answer for whether or how Black people should stand up for Alton Sterling against the white supremacist forces that killed him. But this an essential next step in the fight for Black lives — dealing with the full complexities of trying to create a world where all people are free. We have pulled forth the shiny bright images of the perfect victims we imagine ourselves to be and that has not saved us; the next phase in the important work of Black Lives Matter is to examine how broken and complex we are behind the media tropes and the fallen martyrs we march for.

It will not only require standing up for the perfect victims and the ones we empathize with, but will also require considering the humanity of those who have done unspeakable acts. This is necessary to build a world where the survivor, the abuser, and everyone in between can be healed.

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