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Their deaths came a day and a thousand miles apart. One was shot down in a tiny little town in Minnesota, the other in Louisiana’s gritty capital city. One was a beloved elementary school cafeteria supervisor. The other was beloved on the streets where he sold CDs.
Philando Castile and Alton Sterling lived and died worlds apart, but they might as well be conjoined twins in the politics of police violence against black men. Their killings — both under questionable circumstances — have revived outrage over recent killings of African Americans by white police.
The climax of this most recent string of violence came another day later in the form of gunfire, when a black Army veteran bent on vengeance for Sterling and Castile used the cover of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest to ambush a group of police officers in Dallas. The gunman, Micah Johnson, killed five officers and wounded seven others as well as two civilians.
The funerals for these men, stretched over four summer days, cap a tumultuous week in America and for race relations that will likely define a new era in policing and the movement to end police violence against black men. After a months-long lull in mass protests over such killings, cities across America once again erupted in fiery protests.
“America for a long time has been a racial powder keg. The material is flammable and of course if you light a match it’s going to explode,” said Pastor Frederick Haynes III, at his Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas this week. “People are hurting and they are angry because they have not been heard. They have had their grievances ignored all of these years and made to feel that they are second class citizens.”
In Baton Rouge, they rallied beneath a mural of Sterling's face as police swept in to subdue protesters. In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, protesters chanted Castile’s name as they shut down a major highway during rush hour. The killings chipped away at the fragile state of police and community relations, as law enforcement responded to protests with riot gear, para-military vehicles and mass arrests.
President Barack Obama, during a gathering of thousands at a memorial service in Dallas, insisted that “we are not as divided as we seem,” lifting the dead officers as selfless heroes while recognizing the unbearable weight hoisted on the shoulders of so many Americans.
“We cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid,” Obama said. “We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and co-workers and fellow church members again and again and again — it hurts.”
On Wednesday, a day after Obama spoke at the memorial for the murdered officers and met with their families, he flew back to Washington where he convened a diverse group of of law enforcement officers, community organizers and other stakeholders to discuss community policing and criminal justice. After the three-hour meeting Obama said that America “is not even close” to resolving issues between police and the communities they serve.
Optimistically, he told reporters, "The conversation that took place around this table is very different than the one that you see on a day-to-day or hourly basis in the media.”
Since last week’s bloodshed, Sterling’s and Castile’s names have been invoked by activists, politicians and celebrities, all calling for an end to police violence against blacks and an acknowledgement of the wide disparities they face in dealing with law enforcement.
During Wednesday night’s airing of the 2016 ESPY Awards, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James came together to deliver a speech in which they called on professional athletes to use their platform to bridge the country’s racial divide and to combat gun violence and injustice.
“The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop,” Wade said.
“Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves,” James said. “Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence…We all have to do better.”
The names of the slain officers have also been used as a means to almost universally condemn the act of their killer, and by some, the movement whose banner he hid behind. Some on the far right, including radio host Rush Limbaugh have labeled the Black Lives Matter movement a terrorist group. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called protesters “hypocrites” from running from the gunfire the night the officers were killed.
Between the two posts, many say are realities that until now too many have shied away from.
“Unfortunately we don’t really like talking honestly about issues of race. But I’ve learned you don’t heal from what you don’t deal with and what you’re not real about,” Pastor Haynes said. “So as long as we don’t honestly confront the fact that racial injustice is structured in the very fabric of America and is going to produce racial division, going to produce racial hostility, all of that is homegrown. Because America doesn’t want to have an honest conversation.”
On Wednesday, three of the officers – Sr. Cpl. Lorne Aherns, Sgt. Michael Smith and transit Officer Brent Thompson— were laid to rest. On Thursday, a horse drawn carriage led a procession of mourners through downtown St. Paul, Minn. to St. Paul Cathedral where Sterling’s family wept and said goodbye. Not long after, Sgt. Michael Smith’s family did the same. On Friday, the funerals of Alton Sterling and Dallas Police Officer Michael Krol are scheduled. Sterling’s funeral will be public and take place on the grounds of Southern University in Baton Rouge, while Krol will be buried in Plano, Texas following a private ceremony.
The last and final funeral in this terrible sequence is scheduled for Saturday, when the loved ones of Officer Patrick Zamarripa will take place in Dallas. While the last funeral for the last man killed in this latest wave of racialized killings in America will happen this weekend, the bones of racism are long from being buried.
“Dallas is every city in this country because every city in this country has the same symptoms from the cancer that has never been dealt with by way of real surgical removal. And that cancer is racial injustice, racism, and the fact that we as a country have not come to grips with the fact that we have structured hate, we have structured imbalance and inequality, and that is going to breed negativity,” said Haynes, who attended the president’s meeting this week. “So I am hoping we don’t have these Kumbaya moments without healing and correct the structure that’s going to create this thing all over again.”