Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, which was the first instance of a black man being denied justice that I wrote about professionally. It was odd to me then that Trayvon’s killer walked away, but that was four years ago, and four years is an education. It’s still odd, but the expected kind of odd — the dull ache of inevitability in your gut; the growing sense that you could write the entire story before it even happens.
I’ve been writing for about six years now and my career began around the same time as the mainstream national conversation — insofar as there is one — about police brutality against black men and women had started. Of course, black Americans being killed by law enforcement is a reality as old as this country itself, baked into our very DNA, but the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has made it much harder to ignore. Not impossible, of course. Plenty of people still resist the notion that police brutality is a problem. Some people also deny that the earth is round.
The names change and, indeed, the circumstances become more and more concrete as the goalposts for what constitutes an “unjustifiable killing” move further and further. As a friend said to me once news of Philando Castile’s death hit the news:
“Michael Brown wasn’t on video? Fine. Tamir Rice was.”
“Tamir Rice was carrying a toy gun? Fine. Freddie Gray wasn’t.”
“Freddie Gray committed a crime? Fine. Alton Sterling wasn’t.”
“Alton Sterling was carrying an unlicensed gun? Fine. Philando Castile had a license.” And so on.
The names and circumstances around the deaths change, but what follows does not. The police were scared. The video didn’t show the perfect angle. You weren’t there, so you don’t know. The officer had to make a snap judgment. There wasn’t enough time. There isn’t enough evidence. I’ve written all these sentences dozens of times, and I’m starting to think I’ll be writing them until I switch careers.
I’m hardly alone. Every time something like this happens, beautiful talents write beautiful words that sear the soul, stoke the sense of injustice, and damn this nation. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Roxane Gay. Jamelle Bouie. Ezekiel Kweku. Writers who make me want to give up the pen. And this is to say nothing of the army of vital, indispensable voices for black justice on Twitter, people like DeRay, Brittany Packnett, Johnetta Elzie, Broderick Greer and others who have perfected the art of advocating for justice in new media. And we haven’t even gotten to the musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Janelle Monáe and Beyoncè, whose lyrics preach liberation to earbuds and car speakers, laptops, clubs, bars and, ergo, the world at large.
But English is a finite language, and there are only so many ways to express shock and outrage. There seems to be, however, an endless number of ways to justify the killing of black people who pose no threat. How many ways can you cry out? How many synonyms are there for unjust? Philando Castille was killed less than 24 hours after Alton Sterling, and anything you could possibly say about Sterling could be said about Castile just as easily. The same as it could be said about Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. The same as could be said about Rodney King. The same as could be said about Mary Turner. The same as could be said about black men and women and children whose names have been lost to us. The same as it could be said about black men and women and children who are still alive today. The names change. The emotions burrow deeper and burn hotter. The hope that this time — this time surely — justice will prevail grows dimmer. The beautiful words run out.
Of course, there is more to say. There must be more to say, because the alternative is silence, and silence will not do. But the question of what to say, and how to say it, and how to say it in a way that wakes America from its diabolical slumber, feels more and more insurmountable. We expect a great deal from our black writers and activists. We expected a lot from Diamond Reynolds, who watched her boyfriend Philando gunned down before her very eyes, and proceeded to film and deescalate the situation while police officers panicked as if they were nursing their lover’s gun wounds. We expected a lot from Alton Sterling, whose murder seemed to become slightly more palatable when it was revealed that he had been guilty of crimes in the past. We expect a lot from Coates, Packnett, Beyoncè, DeRay and others who are supposed to be nobly indignant, but not furious; poetic, but not sentimental; somber, but not despairing; and above all, to say something fresh and valuable about each and every murder of a black American, and articulate brilliant, practical solutions.
They and many other writers have done all this and more, meeting impossible expectations. The conversation has been started again and again by a black community that has refused to accept injustice as a way of life and has never let a murder go unanswered. There is nothing left to say, but it must be said anyway. The song remains the same, but it must be sung. The fire is exhausted, but it must be stoked anyway, and the flames must lick the boots of those who have not yet felt its heat. Because when you get right down to it, the problem isn’t that there’s nothing left to say. It’s that there are so many who have yet to listen.