Four years ago, two deaths sent shockwaves — and outrage — through the United States. On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana outside a store where he was selling CDs. One day later, on July 6, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota while his girlfriend and young child were in the car. There were many similarities between the cases, aside from the dates of their occurrence. Namely, both men were legally carrying guns on them at the time of their deaths, though neither were brandishing their weapons or threatening police with them. And neither of their killers were held accountable.
Four years later, the deaths of Sterling and Castile show why the movement for Black lives is as important now as it was then. But they also reveal a discrepancy in how Black and white gun owners are treated in this country and how, for Black people who choose to arm themselves for protection, they may actually be endangering their own lives in the process.
Sterling, 37, was killed after Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II arrived on the scene at a convenience store, where they had been called after reports that a man was threatening someone with a gun. Sterling was armed with a gun at the time of his death — he had a loaded .38 caliber handgun in his pocket — but video of the shooting shows that Sterling’s hands were empty when he was shot.
The next day, Castile was pulled over because officer Jeronimo Yanez said he looked like the suspect in a robbery, according to the Chicago Tribune. Castile was in the car with his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. Video of the shooting shows that Yanez shot Castile within seconds of Castile informing the officer that he had a gun on him and was going to reach for his wallet. First responders reported that Castile’s gun fell out of his front pocket when he was removed from the car after being shot.
The officers responsible for Sterling’s death were never charged; Yanez was found not guilty on all charges related to Castile’s death.
In the aftermath of the deaths, there were calls for the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights advocates to put out a statement expressing outrage at Castile’s killing; he was a registered gun owner who disclosed the fact that he was carrying a weapon. Similarly, Sterling was in Louisiana, which is an open-carry state, and was not violating any laws by having a weapon on him.
And their deaths are not the only two in which open carry laws failed to protect Black people from being shot by police. In 2016, Keith Lamont Scott was killed by police in North Carolina while holding a handgun. In 2014, John Crawford III and Tamir Rice — who was just 12 years old — were killed for holding toy guns in Ohio. North Carolina and Ohio are both open-carry states. Again, silence from the NRA.
The history of Black people arming themselves for protection against the white supremacist state goes back to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and likely further. And yet the discrepancy between how Black and white people carrying guns are perceived has always been clear. When members of the Black Panther Party openly carried guns in the 1960s under open carry laws, the NRA supported gun control legislation in order to disarm the group. In 2016, Charles Goodson, the head of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, told Vox that his predominantly Black group has been harassed by armed police during their open-carry patrols in Texas.
In the current moment, we’ve seen the difference between how angry white men with guns who have protested pandemic-related lockdowns in government buildings have been treated by police — seen as patriots expressing their First and Second Amendment rights — versus groups of largely unarmed protestors supporting the movement for Black lives — met with immense amounts of violence from officers.
Just last week, Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, who has been an outspoken supporter of Second Amendment rights, referred to open carry by Black people as “mob rule” after she was shown pictures of Black men carrying rifles outside the Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police. Georgia is an open-carry state. Meanwhile, the white St. Louis couple who pointed guns at protesters peacefully walking by their home, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, claim they were “victim[s] of a mob.”
In the current moment, while Black people are still being brutalized in America simply for existing, some are choosing to arm themselves for protection, feeling they have no other choice. But in a country that perceives Blackness on its own as a threat, adding a gun to the equation can put them in greater danger — even if it is a risk some are willing to take. “Black people, we live in a very violent country, and this country doesn’t give us good options,” Nylah Burton, a writer from Washington, D.C. told the New York Times. But, as she told the Times she was considering buying a gun for protection, she added on Twitter that she knew it was a risk.
“If Black people did start buying guns at higher rates, the government would retaliate,” Burton tweeted, citing the case of Kenneth Walker, the boyfriend of Breonna Taylor. Walker was a registered gun owner in Louisville, Kentucky who fired his weapon at what he thought was an intruder when police entered his apartment in the middle of the night without announcing themselves. Taylor was killed while she slept after police fired more than 20 rounds into their apartment and Walker was arrested, despite Kentucky being a “stand your ground” state.
Can’t imagine a more profound violation of the right to keep and bear arms. Walker defended himself from armed men who broke into his home and killed his girlfriend. For that he was arrested.
Yet the NRA has said what they always say after these raids:
Not a damn thing.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) May 10, 2020
As the uprising for Black liberation continues and we remember Sterling and Castile on the anniversary of their deaths, we can see how little has changed and how far we still have to go to eliminate racist double standards about how Black people and white people are allowed to move through the world.
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