This won’t be fun to write.
It’s no fun, of course, to take the side of letting the facts direct our opinions, even if that makes the most sense. You know what’s fun? It’s fun to let our imaginations take over, to theorize and suppose, to fit every square peg of a news story into our round-hole point of view.
To know what happened - and why, of course - without having to really know.
So you and I watch the same 48-second cellphone video of two Baton Rouge, La., police officers wrestling a large black man Tuesday to the pavement outside a convenience store. Our view is not pristine, partly obscured, but this doesn’t look good.
One officer hollers, “Don’t move” at the suspect, 37-year-old Alton Sterling. Then, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” Then, “You (expletive) move, I swear to God . “
Then a gunshot, soon followed by at least four more as the cellphone camera veers away. Sterling was dead, not far from the makeshift stand where he sold CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart.
That’s what we know, what we’ve seen with our own eyes.
First, if you came here to hear a defense of those two officers, sorry. I don’t know enough to say. I do apologize if you’re tired of hearing people say that maybe it might be a good idea to know more before we fire off our thoughts, but there it is.
I missed class the day we decided that not knowing - and not caring that we didn’t know - was some kind of virtue.
To be clear, that video looks bad, very bad, for those two officers. But just as an experiment, ask the question in reverse: Is there anything, known or unknown, that would lead you to believe that this was a justified shooting?
Do we know who precipitated the officer-suspect physical confrontation? What was said between them? What led the officers to take the guy down? What the suspect did or didn’t do as he struggled on the ground? What he said? Where his hands went? Which officer shot him? What those officers claim to have seen?
Yes, considering the facts first might throw a chill on our righteous anger. Or not. But I’d rather reserve my genuine outrage for the day I have more answers.
For all I know, those two white Baton Rouge officers could turn out to be the kleagle and vice kleagle of the local klavern. They could have been lying in wait, cruising the bayou, just waiting for the moment they could blow away some innocent black man for sport - and in front of witnesses.
Or, they could be two officers summoned to investigate an anonymous 911 report of a man in a red shirt who pointed a gun at someone else. Expecting an armed suspect, it would have been reasonable for those officers to be on higher alert. Not an excuse, just real life.
The officers “were really aggressive with him from the start,” said shop owner Abdullah Muflahi, who knew Sterling and let him sell his CDs outside. Muflahi also said he saw police take a gun from Sterling’s pocket after the shooting.
Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, the two officers, are on administrative leave. The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division moved quickly to take command of the investigation, which also will include the U.S. attorney’s office in Baton Rouge, the FBI and state police, Gov. John Bel Edwards said.
These are good things. No one wishes for a shooting like this, but these things sometimes turn out differently than we might have expected, based on our initial rushes to judgment.
Protesters outside the Triple S Food Mart were there to remind me of this. Someone tried to rally the troops with “Hands up, don’t shoot!” That connected the Sterling death, tragic on its own, at least spiritually to that of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed in August 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Ultimately, the Justice Department took over the Ferguson case, too. Justice cleared former Officer Darren Wilson and basically validated his account of the Brown shooting, based on physical evidence.
Found lacking were the witnesses who claimed Wilson effectively executed Brown, as the physical evidence did not agree. Justice investigators found no evidence that Brown’s hands were raised. They did determine that he precipitated his own shooting by attacking Wilson and reaching for the officer’s weapon.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” at least in this case, is a myth.
We learned this in March 2015, after state prosecutors presented similar findings to a grand jury, which declined to indict Wilson. It was roughly seven months after some of us were certain, in the absence of fact, that an unarmed black teen had been shot down in the street for no reason.
That’s not to say the facts will go the officers’ way in Baton Rouge. Or that they won’t. We will know more soon enough, and that’s surely superior to guessing now.