When the news conference began, he was standing next to his mother. As she spoke to the media about the Baton Rouge police shooting of his father, Alton Sterling, 37, their son had his arm wrapped around her shoulders in the protective gesture of an adult. At 15, Cameron stands taller than his mother, Quinyetta McMillon. He has deep brown skin, a round face, broad shoulders and the physique of a football player. He was also wearing a golf shirt in bold yellow, blue and white stripes. It’s often the preferred dress of men twice his age. And in that moment, Cameron exuded stoic maturity. He had the posture of someone older than his years.
But as his mother spoke, that facade fell away. His body language shifted, and the tears began to flow. In an instant, viewers were reminded of his youth. In an instant, he became a child bawling for his “daddy.” He was no longer looking steadily into the crowd of reporters. He was heaving sobs. He buried his face in the collar of a shirt that now suddenly looked too big. And he leaned into the consoling arms of the black men standing behind him.
In the video that captured that transformation, not only did Cameron’s humanity come pouring forth, so did that of Alton Sterling. This is the video that ultimately matters most.
It tells people that Sterling — this black man — was both loved and needed. And it does so in a way that is more visceral and eloquent than the heartfelt remarks delivered by McMillon. It does not paint Sterling as angelic or monstrous. It simply defines him as knowable, which today seems like such an accomplishment.
Consider the current cover of the New Yorker, which has received much attention. It features Kadir Nelson’s illustration of a black father with his children at the beach. A summer ritual. White puffy clouds against a blue sky are reflected in his sunglasses. He wears red, white and blue swim trunks, and a little boy in green trunks sits on his shoulders. A little girl by his side is eating an ice cream cone. Another child is fiddling with her sunglasses. The depiction is intimate and universal. It is a full dissertation on black men. On knowing them.
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) July 4, 2016
In the Sterling case, most of the attention has been focused on the street-level cellphone videos that captured the fatal police confrontation. Like so many videos before them and after, the images are grainy, a little blurry and somewhat shaky. News outlets edit them. Before they are shown to television viewers, reporters issue warnings: The images are graphic; they are disturbing; brace yourself. But does anyone ever really look away? Does anyone need to? In the confessional of social media, people lament that perhaps they have become inured to the darkness.
The videos of the shooting seem distant and unreal. In the context of a society in which gun violence seems relentless, and popular culture prides itself on grittiness, it is all too easy to disconnect from those videos — to view them as film noir, even though they reveal actual people being killed.
Hollywood has trained audiences to see fictionalized death and mayhem through the lens of jittery hand-held cameras, shadowy cinematography, street-style costuming and a soundtrack of profane astonishment. Reality television and social media has given us sex tapes, gang beat-ins and the confessions of mass killers. Visually, it all becomes a blurry narrative of societal dysfunction. It does not seem as though the culture has lost the ability to distinguish fiction from tragic reality — the impact on the senses seems to have been deadened.
The videos of Sterling and the police tell us something — although not everything — important about what happened. They raise awareness. Although, for the family, the videos must surely be their worst nightmare set on a continuous cable news loop.
But those street videos are fundamentally cold evidence in a criminal investigation. They will be analyzed for what they can tell investigators about this deadly encounter. But they tell the world nothing about Alton Sterling — this black man who died at the hands of a white police officer. The cellphone videos do not, cannot, reveal his humanity as powerfully as did the image of his boy, in his oversize candy-striped shirt, crying for him. That’s the image that leaves one breathless. And it’s the one that should be remembered.