Politics & Race
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the Illusion of “Good Cops”

By Michael Harriot

When I was 12 years old,  on Wednesdays my school pulled the “gifted and talented” students out of our regular classrooms for extra instruction on subjects not readily available during normal class hours. We studied Greek mythology, mathematical theory, and even the compared history of constitutions from around the world.

But my favorite subjects was the six weeks we studied Herpetology. For a month and a half we examined all forms of reptiles and amphibians. We learned the difference between crocodiles and alligators. I fell in love with the Nile alligator. But of all the information I learned, perhaps the most useful was when a zoologist taught us how to immediately tell the difference between non-poisonous and poisonous snakes.

By now everyone, except me, has seen one of the videos that documents the public lynching of Alton Sterling or the execution of Philando Castile. After the Laquan McDonald video, I made the conscious choice to stop watching assassination footage. For the past 2000 years most of mankind has existed without having seen someone killed in real life. I believe it is poisonous to our soul. I believe it will eventually desensitize us. If you inject a little bit of snake venom directly into your veins every day, you will eventually develop an immunity to poisonous snakebites. The only trade-off is that it might kill your tastebuds. It will give you a permanent headache to which you may one day become accustomed. It will also eventually kill your liver and kidneys. After all, you have poison in your blood.

I don’t want poison in my blood.

For the next few days media outlets will parade police chiefs, politicians, officials and ignoble Black “leaders” in front of microphones and waiting cameras to urge restraint while we wait for the inevitable miscarriage of justice that always follows these incidents. Of all the rehashed neo-proverbs that will be spouted forth and passed around, perhaps the most popular and overused one will be that not all police are bad. They will point at the “good police” who stop by underprivileged neighborhoods to play basketball and the cops who make running man videos for the enjoyment of their constituents. I can never doubt that there are good policemen. I even know a few.

In the last ten years, I have been stopped by four policemen. All were in mostly white suburbs, although I cannot say I was stopped because I was driving while Black. Three of them were without incident, while the third resulted in my car being ransacked, towed and impounded because my tint was too dark and my license plate frame was too wide. At the end of all four of those traffic stops, I was still (obviously) alive.

Also in the last ten years I have seen policemen shoot John Crawford in a Wal Mart because he dared to purchase a BB Gun.

I witnessed police pump bullets into Kajieme Powell for stealing a soda and brandishing a butterknife that wouldn’t scare me.

I have seen Sandra Bland’s body hanging from a jail cell after failing to properly signal.

And Walter Scott

And Tamir Rice

And Akai Gurley

And Rekia Boyd

And Ezell Ford

And Sean Bell

And Tyree Woodson

And Eric Garner

And Jordan Baker

And Melissa Williams

And Timothy Russell

And (insert the next name here)

I also know there are good officers.

But I have seen what the venomous ones do to Black men. I have seen them snuff out life without hesitation or recompense. When cops shot Walter Scott in the back, the police report said he gained control of the officer’s Taser and used it against the officer. If there were no secondhand video to capture the incident, that would have been the official story. The footage of Laquan McDonald’s murder took years, countless investigations and a lawsuit to bring forth the truth. Alton Sterling’s assassins confiscated the surrounding footage and claimed their body cameras had “fallen off.”

I know theirs is a dangerous job, but they are afforded the immunity to protect themselves from the mythology of “resistors” and gun-reachers with deadly force. But when they slay the men with backs turned or reaching for wallets it is because they have been conditioned with an insular suspicion. If we only see the cover-up when a third-party records the truth by happenstance, then why would anyone believe their version of the official record? They are allowed the privilege to mistrust the population to which they are sworn to protect and serve but when the same rationale is used to question their tactics, we are suddenly stamped with the title of “anti-cop.”

It is intellectual dishonesty.

It is contrived propaganda.

it is an insidious means of silencing dissent

I know there are good snakes.

I have studied about them. I even know the rhyme taught to preschoolers to remind them of the difference between a poisonous snake and the non-lethal variety. Just as science and mathematics dictate that it is impossible for all policemen to be righteous and just, logic and learning has informed me which snakes probably won’t kill me.

But just to be safe, I run from snakes. Even when I see a harmless garter snake, I don’t pick it up. I know my fear of a black snake is unjustified, but I have seen men die from snakebites, so I set aside my scientific knowledge for human instinct. I don’t fuck with snakes.

Even the zoologist, when he finished telling us about all the different species of venomous reptiles and amphibians, informed the class that there is an easy way to keep oneself alive:

When dealing with snakes, there is one cardinal rule to which all zoologists adhere:

Treat them all as if they were poisonous.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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