Ealier in the day, it appeared that the only video giving rise to outrage would be that of the police killing Alton Sterling. But the day wasn’t yet over. Before it was done, there would be the video of Philando Castile.
The two videos provide a juxtaposition of where, along the threat spectrum that turns on that switch in a cop’s head, there is a sufficiently real threat to justify killing a human being. In Castile’s case, he was a passenger in a car pulled over for having a broken tail light. Unlike the call in Sterling’s case, there was no hint of a weapon, no suggestion of a threat going in. It was a minor equipment violation,
and Castile wasn’t even the person responsible (edited: Castille was the driver and the video was flipped).
In the video, the woman explains that after being pulled over for a broken taillight, her boyfriend was shot several times while reaching for his license. She says that her boyfriend had told officers before the shooting that he had a gun in the car.
Castile had a permit to carry a weapon. He informed the police that he had a weapon, as is the best practice to prevent the cops from seeing a weapon and reacting poorly. And it was, after all, a broken tail light. Nothing to get all crazy about, although it you need an example to demonstrate the profound notion that, before calling for any conduct to be criminalized, decide whether it’s worthy of execution, this makes a damn good one.
Going out of sequence to complete the scenario, the officer’s reaction to the shooting was to give yet another command.
When the officer tells the woman to keep her hands on the wheel, she replies: “I will, sir. No worries. I will.”
The woman, Lavish Reynolds, in stark contrast to the hysterical unspecified* St. Anthony police officer, loosed on the streets of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, conducted herself with exceptional care and self-control. There is a horrific message here, that she was so cognizant of how her life hung by a thread in the face of a cop with a gun that she realized it was safer to be excessively polite than care for her dying boyfriend. That, pathetically, is how afraid people can be of cops.
But what gave rise to the shoot?
In a panicked voice, the officer tries to tell his side of the story.
“Fuck! I told him not to reach for it!” says the officer, his handgun still trained on the bleeding passenger. “I told him to keep his hand open!”
Calmly, the driver says, “You told him to get his ID sir, and his license.”
So many questions in such a brief narrative. Why did the cop have a gun drawn for a broken tail light stop, with no hint of a potential threat beyond the generic “every traffic stop is potentially dangerous”? Why did the cop order the passenger to provide her license? Why did he shoot Castile for doing what he commanded? What could Castile have done to live?
If the knee-jerk shooting sounds familiar, it’s eerily reminiscent of this total cop-botch by South Carolina Highway Patrol Officer Sean Groubert, which cost the trooper his job and earned him a conviction. Not every cop walks away from every shooting free and clear. Not every shooting can be explained away by the hired help.
While the muzzle flash may be the extreme on one end of the threat spectrum, the shooting of someone doing exactly as ordered is the opposite extreme. It finds no support in the law. That’s the first hurdle to surmount. But then there remains the second hurdle, how is a person to survive an interaction with a police officer when compliance results in death as surely as non-compliance?
This can be explained away with some routine rationalizations. Better training. Better hiring. Smarter, tougher, less hysterical cops. Add to this toxic mix the sub rosa concerns, whether a black man with a gun strikes special fear in a fragile teacup with a shield. It may not alter the threat level on a rational basis, but that does a dead man little good. He’s still dead, no matter how much money they pay his family.
And the police reaction to their killing a person reflects their inexplicable hysteria.
At the command of police, she exits the car, asking about the whereabouts of her daughter. A moment later, a child’s voice is heard crying. While the woman’s phone is set on the ground, she is placed in handcuffs.
Why, one may reasonably wonder, did the police place Reynolds in cuffs in the aftermath of a cop killing her boyfriend without any lawful, or rational, reason? Unless they’re going to claim this was their response to the broken tail light, the only alternative is that in the aftermath of their killing a man for nothing, they were running on mindless hysteria.
The woman’s daughter, who was in the back seat, appears several times in the video. Near the end of the 10-minute clip, as the two are sitting in the back of a police car, she comforts her mother, saying, “It’s O.K., Mommy. It’s O.K. I’m right here with you.”
In contrast to these highly trained, professional police officers, a little girl was capable of calm reaction in the face of the killing of Philando Castile, of arrest, of being placed in the back of a police car, of watching her mother react to the murder of her boyfriend, of facing the insanity of a cop who was so afraid that he would kill a man for nothing.
Or to put it more bluntly, these cops were put to shame by Lavisha Reynolds, and her 4–year–old daughter, Diamond. Yet, Philando Castile is dead because the cops had the gun.
*Edit: I had provided the names of two officers here, but was later informed that they were the cops involved in Alton Sterling’s killing, which I mistakenly noted here. The names of the cops who killed Castile remain unknown.