"I grew up where them people call them people on us." — Lil Wayne, "Cry Out (Amen)"
I saw X2: X-Men United in a theater on a Friday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the week it came out back in 2003. Afterward, for whatever reason, I really wanted to see it again. So when my dad took me to the barbershop the following Saturday, I wadded up an extra $10 and stuffed it into my pocket. I knew the bootleg DVD man would pass through at some point that afternoon with his storage crate full of pirated wares, and that X2 would be in it. He’d probably be wearing a tank top and a dingy mesh Southern Jaguars visor, too, just like he always did. I wouldn’t say that you could set your watch by his appearance, but it was definitely one of those things you could count on, just like lovebugs clogging up the front grill of your car in the wet season or the Saints letting you down so goddamn always.
The DVD man talked about that a lot. The Saints, I mean. The oppressively humid weather, too. And every time we spoke there was a strong chance — even though he’d seen me countless times before — that he’d remark upon just how much I looked like my dad. "You look like he could’ve just spat you out," he’d say.
I never learned his name, nor he mine, but I counted him as a friend. I didn’t know much about him, but I didn’t really need to: He kept me company while my dad was in the chair; he once gave me some of his frosted animal crackers because "two more in front of you" was too long to wait for the post-haircut McDonald’s I had been promised. For me, those random but cherished acts of kindness were plenty. The guy who sold bootleg DVDs was my friend.
And though we once had a pretty lengthy disagreement about whether $5 was too steep a price for a burned copy of Lil Weezy Ana Volume 1 that my mom was probably going to confiscate anyway, the guy who hustled bootleg CDs back when I was a kid was my friend, too.
"CD Man." That’s what locals knew 37-year-old Alton Sterling as before them people shot him multiple times outside the Triple S Food Mart — a stone’s throw from my childhood home — and left him there to bleed as he stared up into the thick, summer night air with lifeless eyes. "CD Man."
Watching the grainy footage, I couldn’t help but think of how many black youths he must have playfully haggled with, how many acquaintances he’d turned into lifelong friendships. I didn’t know this CD Man, but I wondered whether we would’ve been friends, had I gone to the Triple S for a beverage.
Triple S owner Abdullah Muflahi said Sterling — his friend — had been standing in the parking lot selling CDs that Tuesday morning, same as he’d done for years before. If his patrons couldn’t come up with the money, Sterling would just give the CDs away, free of charge. After all, times are always hard. And then two white police officers responded to a call about someone brandishing a gun, tasered Sterling, tackled him to the ground, dug their knees into his neck, restrained him completely, and then "did what they had to do."
"It was a nightmare," Muflahi said. "I kept expecting to wake up."
What’s left of my heart breaks for Muflahi at the loss of his friend, but this nightmare is our reality. Cameron Sterling soaking his striped polo through with tears for the father who was barbarously ripped away from him. Diamond Reynolds’s daughter suddenly having to be strong for herself and her grieving mother at just 4 years old. Those are real things. And they happen with such exhausting frequency that we’ve partially numbed ourselves to them as a means of survival. To make sense of senseless things, we’ve nearly convinced ourselves that they’re routine.
It’s a tale as old as exceptionalism: A majority-white police force, appallingly out of their depth in a majority-black community, either too skittish or too prejudiced to see black men, women, or children as anything other than imminent threats in varying sizes. From there, the system simply works against people it was never truly meant to protect.
Move, speak, breathe — exist — and they could kill us as easily as they’d swat a fly. In front of our children, in Philando Castile’s case. Then they’ll lie over our dead bodies, and more often than not get away with it. Trayvon Martin fought back. So did Michael Brown. Sandra Bland was being disrespectful. Freddie Gray almost severed his own spine. Eric Garner was "resisting." Tamir Rice’s pop-gun toy looked too real.
And those are just a few of the ones we know of. Muflahi said that in the immediate aftermath, Baton Rouge law enforcement confiscated the surveillance tapes without a warrant. How many more lives have been extrajudicially extinguished without even so much as a whisper? Had Diamond Reynolds not been brave and composed enough in the face of tragedy to livestream her own boyfriend’s snuff film, is there any chance that Philando Castile’s death would’ve been ruled a homicide?
Probably not. There would’ve just been a paragraph-long police statement full of passive verbs with no descriptors or names, and that would’ve been it. No national coverage, no statements given, no songs sung, no marches marched.
Ten years ago, when Louisiana had just begun to rebuild itself post-Katrina, I bugged my CD Man into begrudgingly giving me that copy of Lil Weezy Ana for free. CD Man probably could’ve used the extra buck, but he bent to the will of an annoying kid with no cash who would just die if he couldn’t have it. There was a song called "Amen" on the tape that was sort of about life, but mostly — and unavoidably — about death. The song had been floating around the internet in low quality since I was 15 years old, but the song’s producer, StreetRunner, released a mastered version earlier this year, retitled "Cry Out (Amen)." I desperately wish the lyrics weren’t still so true today.
"Government still quittin’ on us," Wayne rapped. "White folk still spittin’ on us." There are people who repeatedly deny these black men, women, and children their humanity, who immediately reach for priors and to the ends of the very earth to justify their executions. There are those who not-so-subtly suggest that selling loosies and CDs and talking back are all offenses punishable by death. Some treat excuses like causes. Some incessantly, almost willfully confuse focus with exclusion. Some seem to think that my valuing my life, and the life of those who look like me, diminishes the value of theirs. Time and again, some of their number refuse to Say Their Names.
To hell with them. I’m not talking to them.
I’m talking to you.
I don’t know who you are, and may never meet you. We may never get to complain about our respective underachieving home teams to each other. I may never get to share my frosted animal crackers with you. But if I could, I’d want to thank you for taking the time to read this, for at least trying to understand — because that’s more than can be said for many others. I’d want to tell you that you matter deeply to me — that I love you, and that we’ll get through this together. I’d want to tell you that we need each other, you and I. That if we joined hands we could accomplish great things together — that we could make this country great, for once.
I want so badly to tell you those things. I would’ve liked to have kept the memories of Louisiana summers, the barbershop, the DVD Man, and that god-awful X2 movie safe from another makeshift eulogy for another black person killed by police. I want to get out on the other side of this grief for men, women, and children whose names I should’ve never even known; I want to say that things’ll be different this time, to have answers, to be hopeful.
But I can only see things as they are. And at the moment, I don’t feel so hopeful. I don’t have those answers.