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Shootings by police near Minneapolis and Baton Rouge reopen old wounds

A crowd gathered at Ferguson police headquarters Wednesday night to stand in solidarity with Alton Sterling's community in Baton Rouge and continue to demand racial equality and police reform.
Lawrence Bryant | The St. Louis American
A crowd gathered at Ferguson police headquarters Wednesday night to stand in solidarity with Alton Sterling's community in Baton Rouge.

Near a Save-A-Lot in south St. Louis, two young men stood on Jefferson Avenue on Thursday, selling DVD’s and discussing two other men who died many miles away.

Ikane Smith, a wiry man who wore a large blue T-shirt and jeans, bounced from foot to foot. Derrek Haggins wore a white button down shirt and a black bowtie.  Both were painfully aware of the thin line separating their lives from the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, died early Tuesday, when a Baton Rouge officer shot him outside of a convenience store where he was selling CDs and DVDs. Hours later, a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., shot and killed Castile, 32, after stopping him for a broken tail light.

In St. Louis, a region still grappling with the August 2014 death of Michael Brown, the latest deaths hit home.

“Police could roll up on us right now, and don’t like what we’re doing, and bam, we’d be another person. If somebody recorded, we’d be another person going on the Facebook stream,” said Smith, referring to the streamed aftermath of Castile’s death.

Sterling and Castile are two of 509 people who have been shot and killed by officers nationwide so far in 2016, according to a Washington Post database. Almost a quarter were black, a disproportionate amount, based on the U.S. population.  Of those who died, 47 percent were white.

Smith and Haggins’ conversation echoed those taking place across St. Louis, as many people take stock of what they say is a nationwide crisis.

The Rev. Spencer Booker of St. Paul AME Church in St. Louis, whose brother Marvin died in the custody of the Denver Sheriff’s Department in 2010, said officers rarely face convictions.

“Somehow, every time a police kill an unarmed black man, they’ve done everything by the book,” Booker said. “Something is wrong with the law. And for them not to have consequences of their actions, America should be very, very troubled and understand it was other families this time, but it’s maybe your family the next time, if we don’t change the law of protecting those polices who kill illegally.”

Booker said he has always obeyed the law and taught others to obey the law, but said there has been a “dissonance” since his brother’s death.

“This is a transformative learning,” he said. “I’m even studying now how and why police are getting away with police killings of unarmed black men, women and children as well.”

For some people in St. Louis, what seems like a never-ending stream of reports is too much to bear.

“There’s definitely a heavy sentiment of being sick and tired. Wondering where the voice from the politicians that are elected,” St. Louis psychologist Marva Robinson said. “Where is the serious overhaul, where is the accountability, what will change what is being done, and not having any tangible evidence to show that there is a genuine interest in protecting, and ensuring that black lives do matter.

In such quick succession, she said, the latest shootings were a one-two-punch.

“When you have such a vivid video, it rips open a wound that at first you were able to start to patch up or heal, or try to process, and then before you’re able to do that there’s another reminder,” Robinson said.

LaShell Eikerenkoetter found herself in the same situation while protesting outside the Ferguson Police Department late Wednesday. She and other activists were there decrying Sterling’s death – “to get our hurt out” – when news broke of Castile’s.

“It’s hurt, it’s frustration, it’s pain. There’s no certain way to act when you see violence in your community, when you see someone with your same skin color do absolutely nothing and be murdered like an animal in the middle of the street,” Eikerenkoetter said. “I’m so tired of black people not being able to live after basic police encounters.”

Eikerenkoetter has been protesting what she calls police brutality and systemic racism since the death of Brown in Ferguson. She said she is “fed up” with seeing no consequences for officers involved in fatal shootings of black men.

“I know that they are going to be able to justify [it],” she said. “All they have to say is, they fear for their life, and you can’t prove that they didn’t. So I know for a fact that they are going to get away with it again and again.”

Eikerenkoetter and other activists cite traffic stops in Missouri, where police pull over a far greater percentage of black drivers than their white counterparts. She said even minor traffic stops can be dangerous for black people, in a way they aren’t for people of other ethnicities, who “somehow…are disarmed and arrested and they survive.”

She points to the video of Castile’s death as evidence. (Though it doesn’t show the shooting, Castile’s distraught girlfriend can be seen telling the officer that Castile was reaching for his wallet to follow the officer’s directions.)

“You can’t reach for your wallet without being shot,” Eikerenkoetter said. “You can’t try not to be Tased without being shot; you can’t walk down a street without not being shot. You can’t turn your back without being shot; you can’t run without being shot. You can’t be respectable and saying, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am’ without being shot. Nothing that you do  - perfection does not matter when it comes to encounters with police.”

That fear is shared by Darrell Hudson, a public health professor at Washington University.

“It feels like no one knows who can be next,” said Hudson, who studies mental health access for African American men.  “It’s in the consciousness of so many different people, especially for black men. You can imagine that the victims had these conversations with their loved ones. I wonder if it could be me. And I think that to myself. I wonder what circumstances would happen, where something like that could happen to me.”

That fear of facing danger because of who you are won’t go away soon, he said.

“We’re beyond the point where something needs to be done,” he said. “It calls into question whether or not people are seeing other people as people.”

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