Police harassment and violence, and the ways the system facilitate and enable it, are not exceptional to the US. They are part of what makes the US what it is
Father’s Day weekend was a grim occasion to remind black parents that they are continuously hunted down by police in the United States. The weekend was bracketed by two stories of black adults killed by police in front of young, black children.
Before our timelines began to be filled with pictures of smiling dads over the weekend, black folks across the nation were accosted by news that Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Castile, who had been stopped at least 46 times by police in his short 32 years on this Earth, was shot in front his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter – the entire tragedy being streamed on Facebook Live.
In an impassioned and furious speech after the shooter was acquitted, Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, yelled: “This city killed my son, and the murderer gets away,” asking: “What’s it going to take?”
And not 48 hours later, news began to come out that an equally cruel police killing had happened: Charleena Lyles called Seattle police because of an attempted burglary. According to the police, they found her wielding a knife and shot her dead. Outrageously, Seattle police said: “There were several children inside the apartment at the time of the shooting, but they were not injured.” Those children – who family say were ages 11, four and one – were not injured, except for the small matter that they watched police kill their mother.
The particulars of how the police justified the killing of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles are not important. Like Lyles, Castile was killed for a reason his mother summed up a while ago: he was “black in the wrong time and place”.
Lyles may have had a knife, but that’s not a capital offense. Her family says she had mental health problems, which makes people especially vulnerable to police killings. Castile had a gun, which he had a permit to carry and tried to tell the police about before they killed him.
This gun-soaked country is eager for everyone to have guns except for black people – and the system has acquitted the shooters of Tamir Rice (who was playing with a toy gun), John Crawford (who was shopping for a toy gun) and Mike Brown (who did not have a gun at all) alike.
Sandra Bland’s death began when she allegedly didn’t use a turn signal. Trayvon Martin was going to the store for Skittles. Yet in the deaths of all of these black people, no one was found to be culpable – except the deceased themselves.
Over Father’s Day weekend, I found myself wishing I could muster feeling surprised about any of these acquittals, and I felt ashamed I didn’t have the sense of acute outrage these families deserve. But I know that this is how the system works and therefore can’t be surprised.
I’ve been thinking about how the writers Joy James and Joāo Costa Vargas ask: “What happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a black person is killed in the United States, we recognize black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy? What will happen then if instead of demanding justice we recognize (or at least consider) that the very notion of justice” in the US “produces and requires black exclusion and death as normative?”
While tragic, these deaths seem normative in my understanding of American history at large and within my own family. Father’s Day weekend made me think of my own late father, of course, who died when I was 25. And whenever I think of my dad, in addition to the love and drama and laughs we shared in our too few years together, I think about the toll racism had on him – particularly regarding how police hunted him.
Police harassed him when he first met his future wife, and when he drove to night school to get his college degree, and at least one time when I was a kid. The cops stopped him just to mess with his head.
Police harassment and violence, and the ways the system facilitate and enable it, are not exceptional to the US. They are part of what makes the US what it is.
“We are being hunted,” Valerie Castile said before the acquittal even came out. And so it makes sense that there was no redress for her son from a “justice” system that works hand in hand with the police who do the hunting.
Such a system saw fit not to hold accountable a police officer who killed Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend’s four-year-old, on Father’s Day weekend. And it’s unlikely this system will find the killers of a mom in front of her three children guilty of anything, either.