This Tweet About Alton Sterling Raises Troubling Questions
The officer-involved shooting death of 37-year-old black man Alton Sterling on Tuesday prompted a social media firestorm. Thousands of users took to Twitter to express their anger, taking aim at the pattern of information that has been released in the case so far, including Sterling's criminal background and the identities of the officers involved in the shooting. One tweet in particular points out an alleged manipulation of information which seems to disadvantage Sterling in the public eye. "It's no coincidence #AltonSterling alleged criminal background was released before the names of officers who killed him or their records," tweeted Samuel Sinyangwe. This seems meant to discredit the victim and place blame on him.
There is already a movement online to deliberately publicize pictures of Sterling with his children so that people will feel more positively toward him before his mugshot is released — but as Sinyangwe's tweet shows, there's also a fear that it won't matter. Some activists on Twitter are suggesting that there are clear patterns in similar cases involving the deaths of black individuals, such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, and that the emphasis placed on Sterling's criminal record is an indication that this will follow a similar pattern.
The Baton Rouge Police Department did not include Sterling's criminal history in its statement on Facebook, but the information is readily available. State records show that Sterling was a sex registered offender, convicted on one count of carnal knowledge of a juvenile in 2000, for which he spent four years in prison.
According to The Advocate, Sterling also pleaded guilty to simple criminal damage to property, aggravated battery, unauthorized entry, and domestic abuse battery going back to 1996. Most recently, he was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute and illegally carrying a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance. It is unclear how this information was obtained by the media, as only the sex offense conviction is available online.
The names of the officers involved in the shooting have not yet been released to the public, although demand is building for those names to be released and convictions to be brought. The officers are currently on administrative leave, according to the department's Facebook statement. Twitter user @bstaton23 claims to have a picture of one of the officers involved in the shooting, but the picture cannot be verified until the identities of the officers are released by the department.
As more information becomes available in this case, a holistic and fair picture of what happened will hopefully be made available to the public and the victim's family. But as that information is released, it's necessary to think critically of the framing around this case. Sinyangwe's tweet makes clear that everything is not always what it seems, and that in high-stakes cases like this, an analytical eye can reveal important intentions and patterns that need to be addressed.