When Philando Castile was shot by a Minnesota police officer Wednesday, millions were horrified as the Facebook Live video of the incident went viral.
As it turns out, Castile was a really good guy. But what if he wasn’t?
What if Philando Castile had committed crimes and exhibited violent behavior?
Would he have deserved to be shot?
This seems to be what many are saying when it comes to Alton Sterling, who was gunned down by police Tuesday, as seen by millions in a similar controversial viral video. A second video has since emerged that appears to show Sterling did not have a gun in his hand when one of the officer unloaded multiple bullets into Sterling, killing him.
Awful. A federal investigation is underway.
But some online have done their own investigating—of Alton Sterling.
Rightwing GotNews ran the headline: “CONFIRMED: Bloods Gangbanger, Democrat #AltonSterling Owned Illegal Gun, Had Drug, Assault Weapon Convictions. “Alton Sterling: Thug, Criminal, Dead” read the headline at one “Christian” blog. Some were less explicit, but nonetheless wanted you to know Sterling’s criminal record should be a focus:
Lets say Sterling had an even worse record than all of this—he was double or even triple the criminal his record indicates—does that in any way justify being killed by law enforcement without just cause?
Would the cops killing Philando Castile be more understandable if he had a rap sheet too?
Unfortunately, this is not new.
I wrote the following in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, that occurred while in police custody in Baltimore last year, “On the morning after the Baltimore riots, some began to circulate Freddie Gray’s criminal record on social media. Why would anyone share this? What are they trying to say? Are they suggesting that his crimes excuse his death?”
“Lots of people have criminal records in this country,” I said.
I then began listing celebrities with sordid pasts.
“Actor Will Smith was once charged with aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy in an incident that almost left a man blind.” I noted.
Here’s the National Enquirer portraying a young criminal Will Smith:
If Will Smith were shot dead by law enforcement, would his past somehow make it more excusable? Or would the country be shocked that the police just shot the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? An A-list movie star adored by millions?
We would be horrified because we know him, criminal past or not.
People know Alton Sterling too. He has a family and friends. Criminal record or not.
After many shared Freddie Gray’s record, I observed, “Actor Robert Downey, Jr. was arrested for possessing cocaine, heroin, crack and a pistol. He got three years probation and then was sentenced to six months in prison after violating his parole. Four years after all of this, he was arrested again for cocaine.”
I mean, look at this “thug.” He even looks proud of himself:
Could the police unload on Iron Man, and it be somehow justified?
“Actor Mark Wahlberg was almost charged with murder but was sentenced to two years in prison for assault instead,” I noted. “Former President George W. Bush is said to have been arrested on cocaine charges in the early 1970s and his family connections somehow expunged his record.”
If Smith, Wahlberg, Downey, Jr. and Bush were not famous or rich, got into a tussle with police that resulted in their deaths, one could easily try to undermine their character publicly by advertising their criminal pasts.
But can you imagine if any of these well-known and influential men died while being stopped by police? No one would stand for it.
Similarly, if a non-famous black man with a similar criminal record to Will Smith’s was shot dead under questionable circumstances, some would undoubtedly imply the victim somehow deserved it. If a person selling cigarettes or CDs on the sidewalk was killed by police—and had Robert Downey, Jr.’s criminal past—we can bet that some would try to focus on that record more than the gross injustice staring them in the face.
If Philando Castile had a criminal record, you can bet you’d be hearing about it right now. Not that criminal records shouldn’t be mentioned, but in what moral dimension, after these kinds of incidents, should that be the primary focus?
It sure as hell isn’t an excuse.