Protect and Serve Whom?

philando_viaTonyWebsterI have been pulled over. I have been in accidents. In both cases, I have interacted with the police. Once I was pulled over for speeding at 1am, which I was, because I missed the transition from 55 to 30. I was doing 60 in a 30, and the cop said “you don’t have a record in New Hampshire, so I’m going to give you a ticket for 45mph instead.” I certainly didn’t fear for my safety.

Once I was pulled over for doing 65 in a 45, along with a dozen other cars, because the police had camped out at the speed limit transition just over a hill, and I didn’t slow down fast enough. It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t in danger.

Once I was pulled over for doing 37 in a 25, because it was raining and foggy and I missed the sign. I tried to explain that. The cop was surly, and wrote me a ticket for 40 in a 25 instead, and claimed on the ticket that the weather was “clear and dry,” and was definitely punishing me for doing anything other than meekly agreeing with him. But I wasn’t afraid—just annoyed.

Obviously, I am not black.

The murder of Philando Castille, according to the policeman who killed him, the department that hired and trained that policeman, and a jury of his peers, was not murder. A man, driving his car and obeying the law, was pulled over. He obeyed the officer’s instructions. He was calm, he was not threatening, and he had his partner and daughter with him. He disclosed to the officer, calmly, that he had a legal gun in the vehicle. According to the 2nd amendment, he has that right, and according to the defenders of the 2nd amendment, he should have that right absolutely.

But Philando Castille was black, and so, despite the lack of provocation, illegal activity, or even failure to cooperate, the policeman outside his window drew a gun, pointed it at him, and fired seven rounds into that man’s body, taking his life.

And if you doubt that the officer acted that way because Philando was black, please tell me that an officer would be justified in killing a white man, with his partner and daughter in the car, who cooperated fully and calmly disclosed his possession of a firearm exactly as he should. Tell me honestly that you would not be outraged by that.

At any one of the traffic stops I have experienced, I believe I could have disclosed possession of a firearm and it would have made little or no difference. I would still be here to tell you about it. I have been instructed by officers that a calm disclosure of the presence of a weapon is the right thing to do in that circumstance. It is, for me. At most, I might have been asked to step out of the vehicle and been patted down. I almost certainly would not have been shot and killed.

Thus I ask, to protect and serve whom?

The essence of structural racism is not that any one police officer is “a racist” or “a bad apple.” The level of the individual officer is entirely the wrong level of debate, because in any group there are racists and bad apples who have been given power, and there are good people who make mistakes. The essence of structural racism is that even if the entire police force were made up of good people who make istakes, that system is still tailored to protect people like me, and not people like Philando.

And to put it more finely, it is to protect people like me from people like Philando.

The baseline assumptions of the policing system in America are that white people mean well, and sometimes make mistakes, while black people are criminals unless they prove otherwise. And so the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile did so in fear of his own safety—but not justifiable fear. It was a fear that arose from the starting assumption that Philando was one of the others, one of the people we must be protected from, and not one of the people to whom protection and service is due.

I got pulled over, and the officers saw me as worth protecting even though I had made a mistake.

Philando Castile got pulled over, and the officer saw him as a threat even though he made no mistake.

And then the system we have built to ensure justice did not condemn those assumptions; instead it affirmed them, and a jury of my peers said Philando Castile was a threat for exercising rights afforded him as a citizen, but not afforded him as a black man. Philando, they said, is who we should be protected from.

If Philando’s life is the price of my protection, I don’t want that protection.

If Philando’s death is a justified outcome in our society, our society has no justice.

Some may cry patriotism and insist that American police officers need discretion to act. To them, this cost is acceptable. For my part, whatever the decision of my peers, I will pledge no allegiance to a society that affirms liberty and justice for only some.


Image Credit: Tony Webster

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