Thursday, July 14, 2016

Philando Castile, Dallas, and Blowback

On July 6th, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, local police stopped a car driven by school cook Philando Castile. Castile was a black man. Also in the car was Castile's girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and Reynolds' four year old daughter. According to Reynolds the police demanded that Castile produce his license and registration. Although I'm not sure he was legally required to do so Castile allegedly informed the officers that he was a licensed gun permit holder and had his weapon with him.  An officer, allegedly Jeronimo Yanez, then shot Castile multiple times as Castile reached for his paperwork as directed. The police yell and and freak out as Castile slumps in his seat, dying. Reynolds was prescient and calm enough (with guns pointed at her and her daughter) to livestream the post-shooting events to Facebook. You can watch it here if you want to do so. The police ordered Reynolds out of the car. They handcuffed and detained her. Reynolds broke down later. To literally give the devil his due we don't see the events that occurred before the shooting. But we do know that Castile was legally entitled to have his gun. We don't know when and why the officers unholstered their guns. The lawyer for Yanez stated that the traffic stop was initiated because Castile resembled a robbery suspect because of his "wide nose". Reynolds stated that they were told they were stopped because of a malfunctioning tail light. But that doesn't really matter. Castile is just as dead. His crime? Being black and following instructions. Problematic doesn't even begin to describe this. Because Castile had no felony record the normal post death smears to his reputation won't be as easy to do. However the lowlifes who do things like that are even now poring over Castille's and Reynolds' social media accounts to find something to justify Castille's death. Some mental midgets were stating that Reynolds must have stolen her cigarettes. 

I would love to believe that if I just did A, B and C then I and people who look like me would be safe from police violence. But that's just not the case. You can have a pristine record, be entirely innocent, follow the officer's instructions (legal or not) to the letter and still wind up insulted, brutalized, humiliated or dead. Police initiate negative contact with black people, especially black men, at higher rates than they do with white people. If you are black the officer is more likely to search you or your vehicle, regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Anything other than instantaneous abject compliance can cause the officer to resort to deadly violence. And as Castile and Reynolds found out, even compliance isn't enough. 

These incidents would be bad enough if officers who broke the law or violated departmental regulations were punished when the evidence supports punishment. But generally speaking they aren't. A cop can be caught on video unlawfully beating or killing someone, but it's still a good bet that s/he won't be charged. It's a big deal if an officer even loses his job. Officers are rarely charged and even more rarely convicted of crimes against black citizens. Local district attorneys work with police and greatly value that relationship. The FBI isn't any better because it investigates itself and to my "great surprise" (LOL)  always finds shootings by FBI agents to be justified. Judges are often former district attorneys. Black people are underrepresented in jury pools. Segregated housing tracts and deformed voting registration patterns produce jury pools which are not only whiter on average than the country's population but also may lack first hand experience with police who are not the Officer Friendly stereotype. Officers can, as is their right, avoid jury trials. And if all that fails and against all odds a police officer somehow finds himself on trial he can pull out his ace card and say "I feared for my life." That pretty much trumps everything. Going to prison for murder or manslaughter is not a normal outcome for killer cops.

This is a problem. It's not just that police commit needless violence against black citizens. It's that too many people of all races have come to believe that the justice system won't or can't do anything about it. The reason we have a justice system is so people won't take the law into their own hands. But it appears that police are above justice. So what is the logical next step once you have the firm belief that the justice system can't be fixed or reformed? It's violence. It's what we saw in Dallas on July 7th when an Army Reserve Afghan war veteran, one Micah Xavier Johnson, allegedly murdered five white police officers. Supposedly his rationale for doing that was because, like many other black people he was upset about the cycle of black death at the hands of police. Johnson felt justified in reaching out and sharing this pain. People tend to get very upset when anyone points that out. People say violence is never the answer and so on. Well, let's be real.This country was founded on violent revolution. The Founding Fathers didn't engage in sit-ins, talk about loving and forgiving their enemies or claim that God would make everything ok at some unspecified future date. They started shooting the British. They continued shooting the British until the British decided that keeping the American colonies wasn't worth it. This country expanded via application of superior violence against the indigenous inhabitants. If you live in the US you live in a country that had one of the most successful genocidal conquests in history. Many of the very same people who are demanding we weep for the cops murdered in Dallas will turn around and claim that the elimination of Native Americans is nothing to be ashamed of. Stuff happens, you know. Slavery was only ended via violence. Our movies, books and other entertainment constantly lionize the hero who takes matters into his own hands defeats or kills his enemies. There is a fundamental strain in American politics and culture to dismiss people who can't or won't fight back. It's seen as weakness and viewed with contempt. Very few people in any position of power have any respect for the man who follows Jesus' advice during the Sermon on the Mount to "resist not evil." and "turn the other cheek." Maybe we'd all be better off if we did heed such words but the truth of the matter is that as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) pointed out a long time ago, "Violence is as American as cherry pie". If you won't stand up for yourself in this world no body else will. It's only when Black people turn to violence that the larger society's outrage over violence becomes palpable. We actually have someone suing the President and other black men for inciting racial hatred. Think about this for a moment. People on the right have called the President and his family monkeys and apes and subhuman and everything but a child of God. They have prayed for the President's death, depicted his death and threatened his life. They've claimed that he's not American. They've said nasty things about his mother. Many have it made it crystal clear via vile jokes and plain direct statements that they hate black people. Now some fellow travelers of these yahoos are suing the President for inciting racism. If this wasn't so serious you'd just have to laugh.

I could condemn people who kill innocent police officers and police officers who kill innocent civilians but too often many police in this country refuse to acknowledge that there even is such a thing as an innocent black civilian. There are just blacks they haven't gotten around to frisking or arresting yet. Some police shoot first and ask questions later. While politicians and police are falling over themselves to share their sympathies for the murdered police officers in Dallas, you will never see an outpouring of police support for murdered black citizens. The best you might get is a bland statement about process. Often you'll get callous indifference. At worst you see jokes, glee and even celebration. Politicians, district attorneys and media pundits will sneer that the murdered black citizen's family is only out for money. Some will claim that hey this dead black (wo)man was no angel. 
So if this country in 2016 is still unwilling to charge and convict police officers who kill black citizens then it should prepare itself for more Micah Johnsons. There's only so much that people can take before they finally realize that they aren't the only ones who can bleed. Everybody bleeds. If we want to stop more shooting of police officers then we need to stop police shooting of black civilians. We're at a crossroads in American society. We've tried retraining police, marching, praying, boycotting, begging, pleading etc to no avail. This is not about individual good or bad cops. This is about a systemic institutional framework that views black people, especially black men and boys, as threats to be monitored or eliminated. This is a problem which impacts all black people, regardless of class, wealth, status, sexuality, gender, political stance or other characteristics. Conservative South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, with whom I disagree probably 75% of the time has stories to tell of being racially profiled and harassed, even as an elected official. How do we fix all of this? I don't know. Black people were never supposed to be citizens in this country. But I do know that we can't have any more Tamir Rices or Aiyana Stanley-Jones. I have loved ones in New York and other cities with aggressive combative police. If something happened to them and a police officer walked free I would be hard pressed to sing kumbyah. I love my kin just as much as the family members of the slain officers in Dallas loved theirs.

This is not 1920s America. You'd be foolish to believe that. I don't live in the same world my great-grandparents inhabited. But there's still too much today that would be bitterly familiar to them in terms of police behavior and the larger society's refusal to hold police accountable. Typically, conservatives have sought to blame the messenger, though there are a few conservatives who recognize that there's a problem and have some ideas about what to do next. As NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick wrote, "This is what lynchings look like in 2016".  Either we rebuild the system to reduce the possibility of police violence and punish unlawful police violence as severely as we do that of other citizens or we all get guns and start shooting back. No one wins but black people won't be bleeding alone.
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