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Why we must watch the video of Alton Sterling’s killing by police

Mamie Till wept as the body of her slain son, Emmett Till, 14, arrived at the Chicago Rail Station. Bettmann Archive

When I heard there was another video of another African-American killed by police under questionable circumstances, my first instinct was to change the channel. In recent years, I had already seen this devastating movie and its unwanted sequels too many times.

Laquan McDonald, Chicago; Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, Staten Island, N.Y.; Tamir Rice, Cleveland; Eric Harris, Tulsa, Okla.; Walter Scott, North Charleston, S.C.; Samuel DuBose, Cincinnati. And now Philando Castile, killed by police Wednesday night in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. There are more dead fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters than a weary memory can hold or an aching heart can bear.


I thought it disrespectful for news stations to put the killing of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old man shot multiple times Tuesday by Baton Rouge police, on what feels like an incessant loop, as if it was the latest viral cat video. Enough with these grainy snuff films, enough with the police-involved deaths of black people played for ratings.

Then I remembered Mamie Till Mobley.

In 1955, she sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, to spend the summer with relatives in Money, Miss. A week after his arrival from Chicago, Till was abducted from his uncle’s home by two white men who beat and mutilated him. His assailants shot him, tied a 70-pound fan around his neck, and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Between his savage murder and the time his body spent submerged, Till was horribly disfigured, unrecognizable as the handsome teenager he had been. Yet when his corpse was returned to Chicago, his mother insisted on a public service with an open casket.

“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see,” Mobley said at the time. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Tens of thousands attended; some were so overcome, they fainted. When photos were published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, both black publications, it ignited the civil rights movement.


So I no longer feel I have the right to turn away. It is my duty to bear witness to the actions of those sworn to protect and serve, and to recoil when yet another black man who could have been my kin lies dead in a pool of his own blood on the wrong side of another police officer’s gun.

Sterling’s aunt, who raised him, can’t turn away. His five children can’t turn away. His friends can’t turn away. Baton Rouge’s African-American community can’t turn away.

I understand those who simply don’t want to see it. More than a shock, watching a person killed seems an abomination. If the birth of a child celebrates the miracle of life, then it must be sacrilegious to view the last harrowing moments of a man’s life ebbing away, as Sterling’s did, in a convenience store parking lot.

We’ve endured too many of these deaths with no great sense that anything has changed. It’ll be two years next week since Garner was choked to death by a white New York City police officer, two years next month since Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparking the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, if not for videos like the Sterling killing, we wouldn’t be having these conversations at all. They amplify what black communities have been shouting for decades about police misconduct. Some recently have denounced actor and activist Jesse Williams’ electrifying speech about race at the BET Awards, but this is to what he alluded: the institutional racism that devalues and endangers black lives. Yes, this video is disturbing, but not so much that it does not merit our attention. Complacency is complicity.


In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley wanted the world to see what was done to her son. More than a half-century later, the world needs to see what was done to Alton Sterling.

Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.