In my life, I’ve never had to worry about anything more than a ticket when a police officer has pulled me over. I’ve never had to worry that a relatively minor infraction or failure to signal a lane change could end in my death. I’ve driven terrible cars for much of my life—hell, I’ve had a broken mirror and missing turn signal on the car I drive now for the past three years. To me, those missing elements serve as a joke about having the worst car at Helena High, not as potentially deadly pretexts for a police stop that ends with my life ending.
I’ve never had to worry. I likely never will. Though I am not armed, I could drive in my car with a gun without fear. When I was younger, I could speed dangerously without fear of anything but a large ticket and the prospect of being yelled at by a highway patrol officer. For me, law enforcement offers little more fear than a temporary inconvenience, and often offers assistance when I need it. The police are not my enemy; more importantly, they don’t see me as theirs. I’m a citizen, not an enemy combatant to be treated with rage and fear.
That’s the privilege I live with. The privilege so many of us live with, often without noting it. Some even seem to believe that their whiteness conveys special burdens and difficulties, but as angry as their ignorant commentary may make us, it’s hardly worth acknowledging their ignorance of the reality that confronts so many in the United States today.
I woke this morning to the news that American police had killed another person of color, this time for “the mistakes” of legally carrying a firearm and reaching for his identification when asked to by the officer. Those mistakes led the officer to shoot his victim, Philando Castile (apologies for earlier auto-correct error), and watch the school cafeteria supervisor die while the officer kept his service weapon trained on the man and screamed obscenities. He didn’t appear to deliver first aid. He didn’t appear to offer an apology. He didn’t show the kind of wild grief a person should when he has killed another human being. He was already constructing his justifications for taking a life.
The video, like so many before it, is harrowing. It shows a woman who has just watched a law enforcement officer shoot her boyfriend remain preternaturally calm in the face of the officer’s rage, no doubt to keep her four-year-old daughter in the back seat of the car safe. It shows the the deadly cocktail of racism, police power, and poor training that have led to police killing almost a thousand people a year in the United States, killings almost always obscured by the comforting verbal haze of “officer-involved shootings.” It shows how quickly the deep-seated racist attitudes of this country end in violence.
It shows a human being, our brother, having his life ended for the crime of being an African-American in the United States.
After her son’s death, when she still had been denied the opportunity to see her body, Valerie Castille told the press:
“He’s not a gang banger. He’s not a thug. He’s very respectable….She said she stressed to her son that if he ever had an encounter with police, he should “comply, comply, comply.We’re … hunted every day. It’s a sign of war against African-American people as a whole,” she said.
In the few times I have been pulled over by law enforcement, I have never had to remind myself to “comply,” never had reason to worry that the encounter would spiral out of control. If something like this were to happen to me, my people would not have to assure the police that I wasn’t “a thug,” because no one would be suggesting it before my body had even cooled.
I’m angry and I’m heartbroken. Where are the calls today from politicians concerned about law enforcement abuses yesterday? Where is the national plan to end police violence, to prosecute perpetrators, and to make our citizens—all of them—feel safe when those who are charged with protecting them encounter them?
What can we do?