The Death of Philando Castile: An Error of Impunity

USA

Here are the facts.

On July 6, 2016, at approximately 9:05 PM CDT, Philando Castile was driving through the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota on his way home from the grocery store when he was pulled over. In the car with him were his girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds, and Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter. An audio recording of the police scanner was released later; in it, Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who pulled Castile over, indicated that he was doing so because Castile and Reynolds “just look like people that were involved in a robbery.”

According to Reynolds, Officer Yanez asked Castile for his license; Castile informed Yanez that his license was in his wallet and that he would need to reach into his pocket for it. Yanez confirmed that Castile should reach into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. Castile also informed Yanez that he was armed, but that the gun was registered and he was permitted to carry it. Yanez told Castile not to reach for his gun; in other words, Castile was to reach into his pocket to pull out his wallet, but not reach for his gun.

It should be noted at this point that Yanez failed to ask Castile where his gun was, which would have allowed Yanez to properly assess whether Castile was reaching for his wallet — which Yanez had ordered Castile to do and which Castile assured him he was doing — or for his gun.

Castile followed proper procedure: he informed Yanez that he had a gun (one he was legally permitted to own) before Yanez saw it; Castile also prefaced reaching for his wallet by announcing his intention to reach for his wallet. None of that mattered. As Castile reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet, he was shot five times by Yanez.

Philando Castile died at Hennepin County Medical Center at 9:37 PM CDT. He was 32 years old.

* * *

On June 16, 2017, a jury acquitted Jeronimo Yanez of second-degree manslaughter charges.

Many have called this verdict a miscarriage of justice. Technically speaking, this is the wrong phrase; the term “miscarriage of justice” is primarily intended to refer to instances where an innocent person is wrongfully convicted of a crime. The proper term for this verdict, one that allowed a clearly guilty party to avoid any legal ramifications for his actions, is an “error of impunity.”

Then again, Philando Castile did nothing wrong. He was legally permitted to own a gun; he followed every directive issued by Yanez; he did not display any aggressive behavior. He was not guilty of anything besides having a broken taillight and vaguely resembling a robbery suspect. And yet, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on a quiet street in a Minnesota suburb. In that sense, the term “miscarriage of justice” is an apt description.

* * *

The common reaction in the wake of a murder at the hands of police has been to dig into the victim’s past, looking for anything damning that might serve as ex post facto justification for their murder or, at the very least, imply shared culpability between the person who was murdered and the person who killed them. Michael Brown was “no angel”; Trayvon Martin was a “thug”; Oscar Grant had a “criminal past”; Freddie Gray “destroyed lives dealing drugs”; Eric Garner was “resisting arrest.”

This is, of course, patently ridiculous.

Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach in handcuffs when he was shot in the back; Michael Brown was unarmed and 30 feet away from his killer when he was shot; Trayvon Martin was unarmed and being followed around a neighborhood by an armed vigilante; Freddie Gray was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police van with no seatbelt; Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes.

Philando Castile had never been accused of a violent crime. (He was twice accused of minor drug offenses; both of them were dismissed.) He worked at a cafeteria in an elementary school, serving children their lunch for more than a decade. He was, by all accounts of those who knew him, a mild-mannered, non-confrontational individual. Not that any of this matters, of course; a prior criminal history or confrontational attitude do not give an officer carte blanche to murder someone who does not actively pose a threat to them. There was also no way for Yanez to know anything about Castile at the time of the shooting — Castile was never given the opportunity to produce identification. But I digress.

That Castile being shot to death by police was not an unexpected outcome — I would imagine Castile himself was acutely aware of the possibility when he was pulled over (for at least the 49th time in 13 years). It is deeply troubling that my initial shock was not related to the shooting itself, but at how statistically remarkable it was that Castile had managed to escape at least 48 other encounters with police physically unharmed.

By the same token, my initial shock with the outcome of Yanez’s trial was not that he was acquitted; frankly, I expected that. What took me by surprise was the overall reaction to the verdict; despite all our differences, the overwhelming majority of the public seems to agree that Philando Castile did everything right, that he did not deserve to die.

The public reaction to the verdict was something of a silver lining, but the cloud it surrounds still exists. The fact is, the lives of black and brown Americans do not appear to be of any great or pressing concern to us as a society. Public outcry is a step in the right direction, but public outcry does not prevent future abuses or murders. Public outcry does not deliver justice to Philando Castile’s family. Public outcry does not change the fact that an innocent black man was murdered, yet evidently nobody is to blame.

* * *

In July 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death in broad daylight by Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The incident was caught on camera; Garner’s death was ruled a homicide; the NYPD confirmed Pantaleo had used a banned chokehold on Garner. Despite a preponderance of evidence that would make a manslaughter conviction all but a certainty, Pantaleo was never even charged.

Following the announcement that Pantaleo would not be charged, Deadspin’s Albert Burneko wrote this:

“The American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does. […]

If the institutions of white American power taking black lives and then exonerating themselves for it is understood as a failure to live out some more authentic American idea, rather than as the expression of that American idea, then your and my and our lives and lifestyles are distinct from those failures. We can stand over here, and shake our heads at the failures over there, and then return to the familiar business, and everything is OK.”

Since Garner’s murder, according to MappingPoliceViolence.org, police have killed 213 unarmed black men. In all but 19 cases, no charges were filed; of those 19 cases, there have only been nine convictions. Put more simply, a police officer who murders a black man or woman has a 96% chance of avoiding any legal repercussions for their actions, and a 91% chance of not even having to potentially face legal repercussions. By this metric, I suppose I should take some solace in the fact that Yanez was charged at all. I don’t.

Despite the growing — and rightful — media attention being paid to these events, there has been no honest attempt to address the underlying issues that contribute to them: institutional racism, unconscious bias, and a legal and political system that treats police officers not only as enforcers of the law, but as existing outside and above the law. The American justice system continues to force innocent people to risk losing their lives at the hands of the very people sworn to protect them. The American justice system continues to bestow positions of authority upon those unfit to hold them; worse, the American justice system continues to permit these authority figures to act recklessly and dangerously, almost completely free from consequence.

Philando Castile was murdered. His killer walks free. The only logical conclusion to be drawn from the ongoing failure to address this problem is that this country does not value the lives of black or brown men and women the same way it does those of white men and women. It never has; in all likelihood, it never will.

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