Henderson: We fear. We watch. We shudder. And we wait.

Henderson: Can you ever count on an oppressor to change on his or her own?

The following commentary was written by Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson in the wake of the latest shootings of black men by police officers 


Two days.

Two black men killed by police officers, on camera.

It has become what we expect to see, with more and more frequency in a country where the sins of our racial past are being recalled, vividly, in the lenses of cell phone cameras and other surveillance.

We are seeing what America has sown. We are seeing what America refuses to address, at least in a fundamental way.

Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside a store. He had a legally possessed gun in his pocket but never appeared to threaten police officers. Still, they shot him six times in Baton Rouge, La.

Philando Castile was simply pulled over by officers in Minnesota. When he told them of the gun he was possessing legally, they appeared to just open fire as his girlfriend taped from the passenger seat.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate these killings from the wanton violence black people have suffered at the hands of authority for centuries in this country. And they fall into a long, long line of incidents we’re now witnessing regularly, and waiting for change – big, small, some measure of justice – to reveal itself.

And let’s be clear. The fact that this violence happens under the color of authority is the incisive fact that we’re dealing with. It’s the reason this is especially outrageous, and frightening.

Fourteen people, for instance, were killed over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, a city where bloody drug and turf wars are claiming lives at a pace not seen in decades. That’s disturbing. It’s harrowing.

But that violence is not perpetrated by people we hire, and pay, to keep us safe. It is not the product of somebody’s day at work, which is supposed to be spent protecting citizens from senseless death.

What do I say to my 12-year-old son, brown-skinned and growing into a man, about how he should manage encounters with police who are quick to trigger, and slow to understanding? All the privilege that surrounds his life means nothing on a street corner with an officer. It can so quickly go bad… for no apparent reason…

A good friend of mine said Wednesday, after Sterling’s shooting was all over the news and social media, that the solution here has to come from within law enforcement, that the escalation of routine police encounters to deadly situations has to be addressed by police themselves. They need to ask why this happens so frequently. Their bosses need to insist on training and procedure that makes them a salve for tense situations, not an accelerant.

But waiting for that? It might be like telling the victims of lynching, who suffered years in the south under mob rule that took thousands of lives, to look for their persecutors to turn a new leaf. Can you ever count on an oppressor to change on his or her own?

That’s the question we’re left with, from the White House to the street corner. What’s the turning point here, and whose responsibility is it to initiate the change?

Guarantee, we’ll see more of these horrific incidents before we get answers to those questions.

And so we fear. We watch. We shudder. And we wait.


To hear Henderson read his commentary on Detroit Today, and to hear his conversation with Bossip.com columnist David Dennis, click on the audio player above.

Dennis recently published a column titled, “For My Son, In The Event The Police Leave You Fatherless.” 

Dennis tells Henderson he thinks there’s a chance that these latest incidents will force politicians and officials to take notice and be driven to enact change.

“Hopefully with the video we can finally see some justice,” says Dennis. “But I’m going to be honest, I don’t feel hopeful this morning… This morning I don’t have a lot of hopeful words [or] positive words, I don’t have a sunny outlook right now.”

Views expressed in Stephen Henderson’s commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of WDET, its management or the station licensee, Wayne State University.


  • Stephen Henderson is host of Detroit Today and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is Executive Editor of BridgeDetroit and host of American Black Journal on Detroit Public Television.