It has been two weeks since Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty in the death of Philando Castile.
He had been charged with second-degree manslaughter (specifically meaning the defendant caused a death through recklessness) and endangering safety by discharging a firearm.
And I repeat: Yanez was cleared on all charges.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when an officer uses a weapon and it results in somebody’s death, it seems like that somebody’s safety has definitely been ‘endangered’.
We should be enraged at the implication that the court did not even consider Philando a somebody. He worked at a school. People knew him. People loved him. I was teaching in Minnesota when the shooting took place, and some of my kids had had many interactions with him. They lived just blocks from where all this took place.
But this is the thing with black bodies: the state does all it can to avoid recognizing them as human. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was in the car when the officer shot him, and began livestreaming immediately afterwards. You can hear her, sitting next to her boyfriend’s bloody body, saying, “You shot four bullets into him, sir.” She says ‘sir‘. She says ‘sir’ at the end of every one of her sentences. In the midst of this traumatic and horrific moment, Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind to use to term of respect and deference to the man who had just shot her boyfriend. This shows both great strength on her part, and the depth to which people of color know that their survival depends on successful and defused interactions with the police. You find this lesson again and again in black history. To be considered even barely human, people of color must follow all of the rules of white society better than perfectly. At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, black students wore their Sunday best to sit-ins. Women got their hair done each time. And still, for all this ‘civilized’ behavior, they were spit on and attacked and screamed at.
Perhaps Philando had a gun in the car (which, under the 2nd Amendment, mind you, is perfectly legal). Perhaps he had marijuana. These ought to be irrelevant details, because had Philando Castile been white, they would not have gotten him killed. At worst, he would have been fined.
A few months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I remember having a conversation with my mother about the officer, Darren Wilson. He claimed that he had been frightened for his own safety when he shot Brown. We sat in a Panda Express watching him speak on Fox News, and discussed how this murder was racially motivated even while from his own perspective, Wilson was likely telling the absolute truth about being afraid. The stereotype of black men as dangerous and violent is so deep and so ingrained in the American imagination, that when Wilson encountered Michael Brown, all of these unconscious alarms started going off in his head. I do not doubt his fear was real. But its basis is a lie constructed on centuries of oppression. As wrong, as terrible as his actions were, I could follow the logic that had motivated Darren Wilson.
I feel no such empathy now.
There have been too many acquittals, too many repetitions. The precedent is now that police officers that kill people of color face no repercussions. They are overwhelmingly found innocent and sent on their way, and nothing changes, and black people keep dying. They’re often not even charged of murder.
Yanez faced the charge of second-degree manslaughter. Recklessness resulting in death. But keep in mind, Yanez shot Castile not once, not twice, but four times. How can recklessness possibly explain pulling the trigger four times? It can hardly be considered an accident.
I feel no such empathy, because we cannot keep explaining away individual cop’s motivations, their trains of logic. The fact that this keeps happening, despite media coverage, despite protests, despite literal footage of cops shooting African Americans with zero justification, and that they keep getting away with it, is indicative of a far, far, far larger problem systemic in America’s policing and judicial institutions. They are by nature, racially biased.
Philando Castile was guilty of nothing. He was reaching for his wallet, like he was asked by Jeronimo Yanez, like you are supposed to do when you get pulled over by a cop. For that, he was killed, and for that there has been no justice. These are murders, straight up. The longer we deny that, the closer we get each day to court-excused genocide.