“This is NOT okay.” ~ That’s the kind of stuff we would say as we shared the video footage police released a few days after the Not Guilty verdict was announced. When the verdict was initially handed down, there wasn’t a whole lot of outrage–At least not coming from white people like me. We assumed there was a reason he got shot… We had heard there was some marijuana involved… And we can’t be expected to spend all of our time being pissed off every time some officer somewhere in the country gets off for killing a black man who posed no actual threat to him–We wouldn’t have any time for anything else! Right? We only have so much outrage–We have to spend it wisely…
THEN, when they released the video of the dash cam footage, EVERYTHING CHANGED… For a couple of days.
But you can’t blame us, really. There were a lot of other things going on! There was a terrorist attack in London where some man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims outside of a Mosque… There was the special election in Georgia… There was more of the Russia investigation… There was the GOP trying to take away healthcare from poor people because the super-rich folks who get them elected want even MORE money… And there were any number of embarrassing, sexist, confusing, enraging, horribly shameful and dehumanizing things tweeted by the current president of the United States of America. That’s a lot of stuff to worry about. With all of that happening, we can’t be expected to remember every injustice… Even ones that are so unmistakably clear that they shook the very foundations of what remains of our trust in the American justice system. It’s easy to forget about.
But you know who DIDN’T forget? People of Color–That’s who. Well… I’m assuming. I really don’t know. What the hell do I know? Nothing. I mean, I ASSUME people of color think about it every time they’re in their cars and see red and blue lights. And now the video that got us all so upset (for a short while) is just another graphic, terrifying cautionary tale within communities of color–“It’s not enough to be polite. It’s not enough to follow directions and be respectful. It’s not enough to inform an officer that you have a license to carry, and that you are currently carrying. It’s not enough to tell him that you aren’t pulling out your gun… that you’re getting the license he asked you to show him. If you’re a black man and you get pulled over–even for something as simple as a broken taillight–you need to keep your hands where they can be seen at ALL TIMES. Ask for PERMISSION to move. When you move, make sure you move with EXAGGERATED SLOWNESS. Because if you fail to follow these rules, you can not only very easily, very quickly end up with seven shots fired at you from close range by a man whose only cause for fear is the color of your skin, but that same fear will be all the justification he needs to ensure that he isn’t held responsible for killing you.”
But as a white man, these are rules I DON’T have to follow. As a parent of white kids, I don’t have to teach these rule to my kids. I don’t see police lights behind me and think, “My life might be in danger right now.” I have the privilege to not watch video. If it’s too much for me to deal with the reality that Black Lives DON’T currently Matter, I can decide to not watch it. I can say, “It’s too hard to watch.” Because it IS hard to watch. After he watched it, the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said, “I won’t lie to you–When I watched this video, it broke me. Like, it… It just… It broke me.” If you still haven’t seen it, you can watch his reaction to the video below.
So yeah… Maybe you’re like me. Maybe after seeing the video, you were rightly outraged. Maybe you shared the video on your page. Maybe you wrote “#JusticeForPhilando” next to the thing you posted. Maybe you clicked an angry face on an article someone else shared. But if having to deal with the graphicness of the video is too hard, and if having to deal with the reality of systemic racism in America is too much, don’t worry… Within a couple of days, there will be something else for you to get pissed off about. There will be some other story. There will be some other hashtag. There will be some other reason to get you so riled up that you click the “Angry Face” button on the screen. And then you’ll forget about it…
We might not have even HEARD about it if it hadn’t been for Diamond Reynolds pulling out her phone and doing Facebook live while her boyfriend was slumped over in his chair, dying. I mean, what else is she going to do–CALL THE POLICE? But if it hadn’t been for that video, it might have gotten lost… Mixed up with all the others. And the thing is, they didn’t even try him for murder. They charged him with 2nd Degree Manslaughter (which is committed when the defendant “recklessly causes someone else’s death”), and two counts of Dangerous Discharge of a Firearm (as if there’s any other kind). And the mostly white jury acquitted the officer of all charges. Recently, the judge in the case wrote a letter to the jurors in support of their decision. Here is an excerpt:
“The criticism of the jury’s decision of which I am aware has focused primarily on a reaction to the squad-cam video and on consideration of issues you as jurors were never asked to address. You were simply asked to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether a crime had been committed… You were never asked to decide whether racism continues to exist, whether certain members of our community are disproportionately affected by police tactics, or whether police training is ineffective.”
A lot of people will look at a clear injustice like the killing of Philando Castile, and they will say, “The system is broken.” But the system is not broken… It is working exactly as it was designed to work. I have been on a jury before in a civil case. We were given directions, we were told the law, and we have to come to a decision within those laws. And when police officers kill people whose blackness makes them look like a threat, those same laws are rigged in order to protect police officers. The law requires officers to only have a “reasonable belief” that they were in danger. They don’t have to be in actual danger… If they say they BELIEVED they were in danger, that is really all it takes. It’s like the “Stand Your Ground” laws… They are DESIGNED to make it legal to kill people. All you have to do is say you were scared for your life. And for Jeronimo Yanez, the man who ended Philando Castile’s life while his girlfriend and her four year old daughter sat watching him politely call him “Sir,” I have no doubt he WAS scared for his life. The sight of a black man reaching for his wallet can be terrifying.
So what can be done? All of this happens within the backdrop of our country having an Attorney General (who Coretta Scott King called too racist to be a judge) calling for the Department of Justice to “pull back” on police department Civil Rights Lawsuits. All of this happens within the backdrop of our country having elected a man who retweets white supremacists, while staying completely silent on the injustice that resulted in a man being killed twice–Once by a man who believed in weaponized blackness, and again by a justice system that looked the other way. And the president is joined in that silence by the NRA, who has nothing to say about a man being killed simply for letting an officer know he was carrying a legal gun, and reaching for his license. I doubt very much that they would have remained silent if the person killed for carrying a legal gun was someone with a lighter complexion.
I don’t know what to do about all of this. I don’t want this post to be just another thing that people share, or “like,” or click an angry face on… Just to feel like they have “done their part,” and then forget about it two days later when our national embarrassment tweets something ELSE that makes us all ashamed. Or concerned. Or afraid that we are starting a military conflict with and unstable nuclear power. I don’t know if this makes any difference whatsoever. All I know is that–after writing this–I am more sure than ever of the following things:
Black Lives Matter. Just freaking say it. And keep saying it. And keep saying it. And keep saying it… Until you actually believe it. Be willing to stick your neck out when you hear someone drop an “All lives matter.” Have awkward conversations. When you encounter racism, shut it down. Stay hopeful, even when you don’t see any reason for it. And stay brave, even when you find yourself pretending to be hopeful.
White Privilege is VERY REAL. Anyone who can’t understand this is either blind or trying very hard not to see. When I, as a white man, see the video of Philando getting killed, I think, “That’s not right.” When a black man sees that same video, he thinks, “Damn… That could have totally been me.” When our justice system says “Black Lives Don’t Matter,” I think, “That’s not right.” When people of color hear that message, they think, “That’s MY life they are talking about.” As a white person, I can’t hope to understand the weight of that difference…
White People Have Got To Be More Involved. If anything is going to change, we HAVE GOT TO SHOW UP. This is not a black problem… It’s a HUMAN problem. And when there are rallies and marches and protests for civil rights and racial equity, we can’t have nearly all of the faces at rallies supporting those causes be people with dark skin.
It Matters Who Governs. Elections matter. The people we elect have very real effects on the justice people in this country experience… Or DON’T experience. We have to elect more people of color as leaders at the national AND local level, and we have to get rid of the people who are clinging to white supremacy with the white-knuckled death grip of people who feel their privilege slipping away. The laws need to change… And in order for that to happen, the lawmakers need to change.
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