Reginald Jones is a 54-year-old black man; a gray beard conceals most of his face. He’s wearing worn black work boots, Dickies work pants, and a new short-sleeved button-down shirt with an image of a tiger on it. On his head is a light blue visor, also new; the tag is still attached and dangles over his left ear. He’s sitting on a red milk crate, smoking cigarette after cigarette, drinking from a big bottle in a wet paper bag. A red bandanna is across his lap. He tells me I have a body that won’t quit in a drunken, slurry, rocking back and forth way. He mentions something about taking a Viagra. I ask to take his picture.
“That’s a bad-ass shirt, huh?” He’s pretty proud of the shirt. He said he used to clean up the Triple S Food Mart parking lot for Alton and the people who own the store. He’s missing the index finger from his left hand. He’s in proximity, both age-wise and location-wise, to another man who shuffles around at this corner of the parking lot, XX (he asked not to be named). XX is in his fifties also. The younger men in the parking lot at Triple S call them “dem old cats,” and the older men call the younger men “young blood.”
XX keeps calling me over to talk to him, but since he’s loitering along the side of the building where people aren’t, I’m hesitant. It’s dark, it’s late, and I’m the only white girl in a place where racial tensions are at a steady simmer. He eventually comes over to me and says in low tones that he was the one who made the initial call to 911 on the night of July 5.
As you might know, the police didn’t show up to the Triple S Mart on North Foster in Baton Rouge unbidden. Someone called 911 to report a man threatening people with a gun on the premises. The phone call was the tipping point that set subsequent incidents of violence and retaliation into motion.
So why did XX call 911 that night?
It’s been reported that a homeless man pestered Alton Sterling for money, that Sterling refused, and after the man continued to harangue Sterling, he brandished the firearm to get him to buzz off.
There are two questions that lead in two different directions for this discussion to go, as I see it:
1) Why was XX pestering Sterling for money?
2) Why did Sterling have a gun?
The first question leads into questions about equality, poverty, opportunity, decorum, and quality of life in neighborhoods like the one where Triple S is located, i.e., predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods, and about those same elements for middle-aged black men.
The second question leads pointedly into a discussion about gun control, and whether police would have been called, and then used deadly force, against a man who was, respectively, brandishing and in possession of a knife or a baseball bat.
Which question we decide to ask shapes the discussion on how this could have been prevented and how to solve the larger problems that caused such a thing to happen in the first place.
And if you ask both, earnestly? The complications of a system with so many parts becomes clear. I can’t help but wonder which is the question worth tackling more urgently – one of systemic oppression or one of simple safety?