By: Adam Strømme
It was with a heavy heart that on Friday, after five days of deliberation, the twelve jurors in the case of Philando Castile came to their verdict: non-guilty. The charges? Second degree manslaughter for the killing of Philando Castile, a much beloved local school cafeteria worker, in his car on July 6th of last year by a police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who alleged that he feared for his life. After engaging with Castile for roughly one minute, Yanez fired into the vehicle seven times.
The details of the case, on face, do not provide much justification for his fears. Defenders of Yanez argue, amongst other things, that Yanez’s fears were bolstered by the similarities between Castile and a suspect at large for armed robbery. They further alleged that Castile’s possession of both marijuana and a firearm further exacerbated tensions, despite the fact that the prosecution countered that Castile had announced the presence of a firearm, for which he had a permit, almost immediately precisely to allay such fears.
Furthermore, the use of marijuana shortly before the incident leans against the likelihood that Castile would have been capable of swiftly producing a firearm, rather than his license as the prosecution intended, but this remains uncertain. Forensics produced after the verdict also appear to support this skepticism. While there exists no visual evidence by which to confirm or deny the fear Officer Yanez claimed when he approached the car, or what exactly happened in the moments before the shooting, for many the result remains eerily familiar: yet another innocent black man was forced to forfeit his life in what should’ve been a routine traffic stop by a police officer.
Anger is both widespread and justified. The situation is abhorrent, and for many the narrative of the officer, suspect. But in order to understand what we as citizens can do to rectify the culture of discrimination and violence which has gained the American police force international notoriety, it is important to place both the drivers leading up to the confrontation in context, as well as to take seriously the most productive avenues of reform available to us in the aftermath.
Yanez’s trial was seen by many as a microcosm for the larger issues surrounding police brutality and discrimination. In particular, there are three major complaints with how law enforcement operates in the United States which merit serious consideration: the discriminatory tendencies of law enforcement against minority groups, particularly African-Americans, the steadily increasing militarization of the American police force, which many argue makes violent escalation more likely, and the legal code around which law enforcement officers are tried. In turning to these wider problems first, we can return to Castile’s case with a better sense of how to meaningfully stop the ongoing problems of police brutality and discrimination.
Of these three, the one which has most regularly been alluded to is the first. Racism has a long and complex history in the United States which few take into account in all its seriousness. Worse still, the more subtle ways in which racism has tended to operate make understanding its pervasiveness all the more difficult. It is a legacy which the United States will have to deal with for untold generations, but it can be combatted with purposeful legislation and provisions to protect the rights of minorities. While a sense of suspicion and hostility racism could’ve subliminally predisposed Officer Yanez to isn’t disprovable, racism alone cannot account for the verdict.
The second major issue raises more policy-ready solutions. The American policy force has undergone an unprecedented militarization over the course of the last fifty years, and this militarization is by no means confined to the spectacle of military-grade hardware which were seen policing the streets of Ferguson. The now-infamous 1033 program alone oversaw over $5,000,000,000 in military-grade weaponry turned over to state and local police, often without the relevant degree of training. Worse, American police officers have historically killed far more civilians than their European counterparts, suggesting that militarized policing attitudes play an important part in producing violent altercations. Although the Castile incident escalated with only a pistol, the devaluation of non-violent means of conflict resolution and training is an undeniable scar on the record of American law enforcement which persists, inexcusably, to this day.
The consequences, almost 1,000 dead and countless more injured last year alone, Castile among them, are devastating.
But it is the final complaint that is the one most directly applicable to Yanez’s case. The legal code surrounding how police officers are tried in the United States all revolve around a strong desire to ensure that officers do not feel as though they will be legally prosecuted as they take whatever measures they deem are necessary to ensure their safety. To quote a police spokesperson who gave the consequences of this emphasis its starkest form elsewhere: “Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second”. As a result, through the combined forces of institutional racism, extraordinary militarization, and effective legal impunity, America has produced for itself a toxic brew which makes cases like Castile’s, and the legal outcome of it, all too common.
In contrast to this reading of the case, some have argued that the fact that the jury was largely white was a significant influence on the verdict. But the idea that it would’ve radically changed the outcome is flatly contradicted by the explanations of jurors after the verdict, many of whom openly expressed regret with the law as it stood, and sent condolences to the family after the verdict. What we have is something worse: a system where law enforcement is held to lower standards of conduct rather than higher ones, a perverse inversion of what we demand of all other public officials.
For this to change, precisely the sort of public awareness and activism that has poured from Minnesota communities needs to continue to take place. Demonstrations like those that took place last night are a constructive first step. Urging legislators to look into revising the law surrounding police conduct is another. But ultimately, the frustration and sympathy which so many feel for the Castile family are not to be resolved in the courtroom.
Right or wrong, it was the task of the jurors was to interpret the law.
It is our task to change it.