Just over a year ago, a Minnesota police officer named Jeronimo Yanez pulled 32-year-old Philando Castile over on the pretext of a broken brake light. He later explained that he thought Castile resembled a robbery suspect, “just ‘cause of the wide set nose.” Dash-cam footage of the incident showed Officer Yanez asking to see Castile’s licence and registration. We hear Castile calmly informing the officer: “Sir, I have to tell you I do have a firearm on me.” Yanez immediately reaches for his gun, with the words “Don’t pull it out!” While we can’t see the interior of the car, we can hear both Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds reassuring Yanez that Castile isn’t reaching for his gun. Their child was also in the car, sitting at the back. Yanez shoots Castile seven times.
During the trial, he told the court he was in fear for his life.
Last month, the jury found Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of murder.
Not only did the jury determine Yanez wasn’t liable for Philando Castile’s murder, but it also acquitted him on all charges – that means they believed he had committed no wrongdoing whatsoever.
In May, Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was acquitted of the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher. She told the court he refused to put up his hands. She said he was sweating heavily and smelled of the dissociative drug PCP. She said it looked like he was reaching into his SUV for a gun, although no gun was found after Mr Crutcher was killed and his car searched. She said she was in fear for her life.
In June, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant woman who suffered from a history of mental illness, was shot and killed in front of her three children by the police. The officers said she was holding a knife and behaving erratically.
Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher and Charleena Lyles were all black. But you already knew that.
Every time I hear the latest story about another black person being killed by the police, I feel the same overwhelming sadness and frustration and rage – and yet, somehow, ridiculously, I still hope that this will be the time that someone is held accountable. I read news reports to find out what factors could potentially be used to blame the victim this time. Was he high? Was he speeding? Did he have a gun? Did he comply? Did he run? Did he have a record? How dark was his complexion?
Newspapers show us fresh-faced pictures of the officer in their uniform, alongside a mugshot of their victim. Newspapers asked why Eric Garner was illegally selling cigarettes. They asked why Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and why Freddie Gray struggled if he didn’t want to die. With these questions, we are told that these men – and sometimes these boys – brought their deaths on themselves.
In the vast majority of these murders – and that’s what they are, murders- no charges are filed whatsoever.
On the rare occasion that charges are brought, often it is because the murder has become high profile, or because the officer doesn’t have enough friends in high places. Even in these cases, without fail a jury analyses the evidence and reaches the conclusion that no crime has been committed. Not once in this recent spate killings of black people has a police officer been convicted. What’s left is another dead black body on a slab that apparently no-one is responsible for putting there.
Trayvon Martin. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, and Shelly Frey. Their killers, George Zimmerman, Michael Slager, Darren Wilson, the Cleveland police, Deputy Sheriff Daniel Willis and Louis Campbell were all determined to have committed no wrong. Are we stupid for expecting it to be different this time? There’s no mistaking it – there’s nothing a black person can do, even when we behave perfectly, say “yes officer”, “no officer”, keep our hands up and maintain eye contact, to avoid being killed if that police officer has a mind to take our lives. Whether the police pull the trigger because they’re racist and/or because they claim to be fearful, it doesn’t matter because they won’t be punished anyway.
Many Americans, particularly white Americans, have an instinctive trust for the institution of police, and so a white jury will give the police the benefit of the doubt even when footage shows clearly that the victim wasn’t presenting a threat.
It is supposed to be a jury of your peers that decides guilt and innocence- but whose peers? The jury on the Philando Castile trial consisted of 10 white people and two black. At Michael Slager’s trial, the jury were literally shown footage of him not just shooting Walter Scott in the back but also planting evidence next to his body, and this still wasn’t enough to convict.
Philando Castile’s killing was striking because he was “blameless” according to the police’s standards and yet a jury still refused to find the police guilty of any crime whatsoever. Sympathetic stories refer to Mr Castile being a law-abiding cafeteria worker beloved by the kids in his school – as if these are required circumstances in order for his death be regrettable. Personally, I don’t give a fuck whether Philando Castile was a nice person or not.
What I want to know is what a black person has to do to make their life worth preserving in the eyes of white police officers and the white juries that protect them.
Over and over again with these killings, the jury is identifying and empathising with the accused, rather than the victim. Once that officer claims they were “in fear of their life”, it’s game over. The white fear defence works every time because when jury members imagine themselves in that situation, they know they too would be terrified if faced with the scary black man – possibly even terrified enough to shoot. We the jury find him not guilty of murder.
If police officers are so fragile they lose their minds with fear every time they encounter a black man, they have no business being police officers. The overriding message coming from these murders is that there are no circumstances of police shootings where black life will be considered worth enough, because how could black life ever be chosen over white institutions? White Americans can’t acknowledge these are murders because that would mean their country is unjust- and that’s something they just can’t swallow. The fact that there have been zero convictions couldn’t be more telling about the perceived worth of black life in America. They used to call them lynchings – now they call them “police shootings”. Understand that the police are out here getting away with murder. Understand that white jurors are their accomplices. Understand America, as steeped in black blood as it ever was.