Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were very different people. Sterling was a vendor, selling CDs, games, and movies outside of Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was good at his job because he liked talking to people, and people liked talking to him. Hours after he was pinned to the pavement and shot by two police officers on July 5, a mural appeared on the wall of the convenience store where he made his living.
Philando Castile worked at the J. J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota as a cafeteria supervisor for over 12 years. It was a job that a co-worker described him as being "overqualified" for. Even so, another said “he’d have food and a smile for every child in the morning." His Facebook page said he attended the University of Minnesota. On July 6, Castile's girlfriend livestreamed on Facebook as he died from four gunshot wounds, inflicted by a police officer during a traffic stop, who claimed he was reaching for his pistol. "He's licensed to carry and the I.D.'s in his pocket, he was just trying to let the officer know," she said with a gently breaking voice. Her 4-year-old daughter sat in the backseat.
Alton Sterling had four children, and Philando Castile treated his girlfriend's daughter like his own. These children's tragedies have been fused together by proximity in time and circumstance, even though they are thousands of miles apart. Sterling and Castile have become interchangeable examples of systemic racism to one set of people and criminals to those who call dead men thugs, child rapists, and deadbeats. Those who want change must sharpen the pain of their deaths with fuller pictures of the lives of these men, and be reminded of their distinctions, however tragically similar their deaths may have been.
Police violence is not a nebulous concept, and it wasn't handed to humans along with gravity and the tides. It is entrenched in history and spackled with billions of taxpayer dollars. But its practitioners, victims, advocates, enemies, and benefactors are all people. It is human in practice and sanction, and that's why it can be beaten. Below are just a few ways to channel your feelings of helplessness into change.
1. Donate your money and time to local activist groups.
Your local chapter of the NAACP, the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and countless others will always need financial and practical support. Send cash and participate. Even if you feel like you have no skills, you might be surprised at the valuable role you can play.
2. Pressure elected officials.
Campaign Zero co-ordinates efforts to pressure politicians into passing police reform in the U.S. Since 2014, "5 states (CA, CT, IL, MD, UT) have enacted legislation addressing three or more Campaign Zero policy categories," with 28 states passing new legislation. That's a total of 60 laws in the past two years, with another 58 being considered. You can find contact information for your local representatives by simply plugging in your zip code into their map tool.
3. Check yourself, and read up.
In August of last year, The Washington Post asked a group of activists what white people can do to support Black Lives Matter. Even if you're not white yourself, it's an invaluable checklist of what an asset to the cause looks like. Alternet has a similar list as well on how to be a "real anti-racist ally."
For more in-depth reading on what a world without police would look like and what needs to be done to get there, Mariam Kaba a.k.a. @prisonculture has compiled a huge list.
Ijeoma Oluo posted a series of Tweets outlining steps civilians can take to get informed on police accountability, citizen oversight, and how to get change.
Finally, the Police Union Contract project shows how union contracts for police officers are set up to block accountability for extrajudicial killings and maimings.
4. Run for office, independently if you have to.
Why not? Democrats have lost "11 governorships, 13 U.S. Senate seats, 69 House seats, and 913 state legislative seats and 30 state legislative chambers" since 2008. That's a problem, since they're ostensibly the party closest to reforming gun control and community policing. Two significant causes of this are new voter restrictions that discourage and disenfranchise, and Republican gerrymandering, a process by which district lines are redrawn to make elections more favorable to a given political party. But uninspiring candidates must also bear some of the responsibility.
Instead of hoping you'll be able to vote for someone better in a few years — or worse yet, not voting at all — consider running for office yourself. The Bernie Sanders campaign will send you information on how to get your name on the ballot or volunteer. Considering the success he had in his bid for the Democratic nomination this year, if you share his politics it makes sense to align yourself with the connections and organization of his machine.
But if politics isn't for you, vote. And if you can't vote, keep the pressure on the candidate who says they're going to help you.