The verdict in the Philando Castile case exonerating the cop that killed him while he was belted in the driver’s seat is still reverberating across the country. It’s hanging around in my consciousness daily, like a roiling dark cloud. I can’t even imagine what it’s meant for black Minnesotans, even though I’ve heard from some friends and have an inkling of the psychic damage and the emotional toll it’s taken. New web sites are springing up every day, “Policing the Police” is just the latest, featuring cell phone videos from across the country of cops pulling weapons on black kids playing basketball, terrorizing 12 year olds walking down the street, tackling, beating and cuffing a black man in California for jaywalking, just an endless catalogue of brutality and senseless violence being condoned or at least tolerated by a disinterested white majority culture. I think of the conversations I’ve had with friends and relatives who treat me as an overly sensitive guy who needs to focus his attention somewhere else—people in my life who I love and care for, but who have little interest in speaking out or acting on behalf of people they don’t know or don’t inhabit their world. Fellow Americans, sure, but so what? They don’t read anything by Tim Wise or Chauncey De Vega, they aren’t interested in talking about the problem of imminent death and public execution facing people of color—their fellow citizens—and would much prefer not to even have to hear about any of this.
But I’d like to think–even though I’m well into my 70s– that talking about the problem and acknowledging the problem and facing the problem and voting people into office who are committed to solving the problem will, maybe even before I’m well into my 80s, eventually make racism just an uncomfortable historical teaching point. Like Germany and its facing up to the mass insanity that was Naziism.
We are still a country that refuses to face up to the fact we were born into genocide (the Native American mass extinction), and developed economically as a nation through slavery. And those wounds will never heal until we address them honestly and openly. It can happen, but it won’t as long as we continue to focus our attention somewhere else.
So here’s Chauncey De Vega writing about Philando Castile. It’s a short read, and from the perspective of a black man in America, well worth your time. — Mark
The verdict in the Philando Castile case should in no way come as a surprise. But this fact makes the outcome no less outrageous.
In America, driving while black can be a death sentence.
Last summer Philando Castile was driving his car in the suburb of Falcon Heights, outside St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was stopped by a police officer over a broken taillight — and also because Castile’s big, black, wide nose made him “look like a suspect” in a felony case. Castile calmly and politely answered Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s questions and then volunteered, per the requirements of the law, that he was a registered gun owner and had the weapon in his possession.
Following Yanez’s directives, Castile then tried to show the officer his identification. At that moment, Yanez was apparently overcome by Negrophobia and shot Castile five times. Castile’s girlfriend and child were in the car when this happened. Diamond Reynolds recorded the killing of her boyfriend and father of their child in real time, transmitting the images of his violent death via Facebook Live so millions of people could bear witness to the de facto lynching of another innocent black man by American police. Reynolds was then handcuffed and put in the back of a police patrol car, along with her child.
Where was the National Rifle Association? It does not care if a black gun owner is killed by the police.
Where is the FBI and the Department of Justice? Under Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the police are encouraged and protected in their violence against black and brown people.
Where is the outrage from White America? There is none or at any rate not enough. The police are enforcers of the color line and in that role protect “good” white folks from “bad” black and brown people. If innocent black and brown people are killed in the process, such an outcome is merely an inconvenience. Given America’s bloody history along the color line, it would not be the first time that the suffering and death of black people has been used to pay the psychological and material wages of whiteness.
Where are the bloviators who shouted, “All Lives Matter!” Of course they are silent — if not actually celebrating the killing of Castile and the exoneration of Yanez. “All Lives Matter” was always just an updated and more polite version of saying “White power!” or perhaps “Sieg Heil!”
Where are the “white allies” who oppose racism? There are a few but not enough. As has been true from before the founding of the republic to the present, white people of conscience are rare in America.
Last week a jury found Yanez not guilty for his killing of Castile. Like so many other police officers, Yanez had mastered a simple phrase that almost always exonerates them for killing a person of color. All an officer ever has to say is some version of “I was afraid for my life,” and murder by cop becomes legal.
This grotesque system of American justice was shown to be even more twisted and wrong when a second video recording of Yanez’s encounter with Castile was released to the public on Tuesday. Here, the camera does not lie. Recorded from his police car, Yanez is shown to be a reckless coward who shoots Castile dead about 40 seconds after first speaking with him. In essence, Officer Yanez decided to play the role of the Grim Reaper. After revealing that he was a lawfully armed black man out in public, there was little if anything that Castile could do to avoid being shot dead.
In America, being a black person is an existential condition that provokes and legitimizes violence against you.
In America, a gun is as a magical totem and fetish object that is inseparable from white masculinity, white manhood, white citizenship and a near monopoly by whites on lawful violence, especially against nonwhites. Black Americans are excluded from that compact, virtually by definition.
In America, black people are the walking dead when they encounter a police officer. In his book “Slavery and Social Death,” the sociologist Orlando Patterson observed:
The condition of slavery did not absolve or erase the prospect of death. Slavery was not a pardon; it was, peculiarly, a conditional commutation. The execution was suspended only as long as the slave acquiesced in his powerlessness. The master was essentially a ransomer. What he bought or acquired was the slave’s life, and restraints on the master’s capacity wantonly to destroy his life did not undermine his claim on that life. Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside of his master, he became a social nonperson.
These insights about “persons” and “nonpersons,” power, life and death apply to black people and their interactions with the police in post-civil rights era America as well.
The legal murders of Philando Castile, Sylville Smith, Charleena Lyles, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and so many others by America’s police and their allies is why the slogan “Black Lives Matter!” is both a demand for justice as well as an affirmation of the value of black folks’ lives.
The stress of living in a country where police violence and other types of institutional white supremacy are daily threats to their collective well-being largely explains why black Americans die at such disproportionate rates from diseases like heart disease and strokes. Racial battle fatigue is lethal.
State-sponsored violence against Philando Castile and other black people is why NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was correct to observe that America’s police can trace their origins to the slave patrols of the antebellum United States and too often act in the spirit of that lineage today.
Black Americans are not crazy, deranged, deluded, overly sensitive, lying or confused when they tell white people that the country’s police are racist and that the legal system is unjust and biased. For white Americans to believe otherwise, as recent public opinion surveys suggest they do, requires is willful denial, delusional thinking and cultivated ignorance. Even when confronted by the video and photographic evidence of police thuggery and violence against black and brown people, many millions of white Americans will convince themselves that cops are to be given the “benefit of the doubt.”
Ultimately, why is police thuggery and violence against black and brown Americans so common? On a basic level, this is the system working precisely as designed. White Americans, as a group, more or less go along with it. The verdict in the Philando Castile case should in no way come as a surprise. But this fact makes the outcome no less outrageous.
Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.