“Can we all get along?”
– Rodney King, Los Angeles riots of 1992
Last week was one hell of a week. We began with the Fourth of July, fireworks and cookouts and family and friends. I watched fireworks at Roseville’s Central Park with my husband, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, our friends, my son’s friends. We sat next to a graduate student from Saudi Arabia who brought his three little kids to see the fireworks for the first time. He asked me what, specifically, the Fourth of July celebrated. While his little kids played with my granddaughter and her friend, I told him about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and asked him how his time in the United States was going.
“Good,” he said. “People have been very nice.”
I was relieved to hear that, given our current widespread fear and misunderstanding of people who appear Middle Eastern or Muslim. He and his family rented an apartment right near the park. He was a teacher and he would return to Saudi Arabia when he finished his graduate work at the University of Minnesota. Then the fireworks started and all of us had a great time. I thought about him on the way home, hoped that he would continue to have a good experience in this country, that no one would accuse him of being a terrorist because he is Middle Eastern. I hoped his kids would have friends here, that they could see the United States as a good place.
The next day, I was distracted by the big storm that blew through the Twin Cities, knocking down trees in my Roseville/Falcon Heights neighborhood and cutting power to hundreds of homes. A lot of first responders were out that night helping people when power lines came crashing down with the trees. I completely missed the news about Alton Sterling’s shooting outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. Instead, I focused on helping my neighbors when my power was restored before theirs. One neighbor stored food in my refrigerator. Another borrowed a cooler. A few people charged their cell phones at my house. And I thought, yeah, our neighborhood comes together nicely. We help each other out. I love this about us.
And then Philando Castile was fatally shot during a traffic stop gone horribly wrong.
On a warm summer evening in Falcon Heights, a four-year-old girl quietly witnessed her mother’s fiancé get shot by a police officer. When I saw the video Diamond Reynolds live-streamed immediately after the shooting, I was stunned. The sound of the police officer’s voice after he shot Castile struck me as panicked, frantic. The sound of the little girl’s voice near the end was heart-wrenching. What I saw showed no violence or resistance on Reynold’s part, yet she was handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car while her fiancé was dying. While her little girl watched.
As I watched, I realized my own husband had seen the flashing police lights on his way home from a very long day at work at the University of Minnesota; the St. Paul campus borders Larpenteur Avenue close to where Castile was pulled over. He had no idea what was going on; he drove down a different street when he saw Larpenteur blocked off.
Falcon Heights and Roseville border each other. Falcon Heights is home to the Minnesota State Fair and the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. There are farm fields for the agriculture students, garden plots for the horticulture students. Gibbs Farm Museum is on the corner of Cleveland and Roselawn. Falcon Heights is a small community (pop. 5321) without its own police department. Like neighboring Lauderdale, they contract with the Village of St. Anthony for police service. The site of Castile’s shooting is at Larpenteur and Fry, about a mile from my house. A St. Anthony cop pulled over Castile.
Philando Castile, a black man, apparently resembled one of the suspects wanted for recent armed robbery. I listened to the audio from when the officer first called in about Castile. He said Castile had a wide-set nose like one of the suspects. He said he couldn’t see the passenger well enough to know if they also resembled a suspect. He made no mention of the child in the back seat.
It was 103 seconds from the end of that audio until Diamond Reynolds live-streamed her fiancé’s last moments¹. The audio for the scanner report of the shots fired included the panicked voice of the officer who fired the shots. The scanner audio from the fire/EMS dispatch began with a mechanical voice that reminded me of the weather service television channel before it switched to real people sharing information about Castile’s wounds. “Gunshot wound through the left side of the chest,” said one responder².
Diamond Reynolds’ repeated herself on her live-streamed video. “Please don’t tell me that he’s gone.”
But he was.
Her daughter said, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
But it isn’t okay. In the week since the shooting of both Castile and Sterling, the Twin Cities has erupted with protests. The street in front of the governor’s mansion had to be closed off because so many protestors came and stayed. Protestors shut down I-94 on Saturday night. Frustrations boiled over. Violence ensued. Cops had to use smoke bombs and tear gas to clear the freeway. Cops got hurt. Protestors went to jail.
We are luckier than Dallas; at least no one is assassinating Twin Cities officers for revenge. Revenge killing expands this mess into all-out war. Is that what we want? I agree with what Black Lives Matter has said more than once over the past week.
Members of Black Lives Matter have stated they do not condone violence. They have pleaded with protestors to demonstrate peacefully; violence harms what they are trying to accomplish.
The Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball team tried their own approach. They wore warm-up jerseys for their game on Saturday that supported Black Lives Matter and honored Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, as well as the fallen Dallas police officers. They issued a statement supporting change in racial relations between police and black Americans. But, somehow, this caused four off-duty police officers who moonlighted as Lynx security to quit. Why would these off-duty cops quit? The Lynx did a good thing.³
On Sunday, I went to a free community gathering in St. Paul designed to promote peace and healing. Isaac Peterson, of the 10-K Kollective pulled together local musicians including Desdamona, Doomtree, Ipso Facto, and others. Dafina Doty, Diamond Reynolds’ mother, took the stage, thanked everyone for being there, and said of Philando Castile, “…I believe in my heart he’s rejoicing because in his life he made a difference, but in his death he will make a change.” After she spoke, Ipso Facto played John Lennon’s song Blackbird. I stood there wishing that more people had come to this gathering and that Dafina Doty’s words might be true.
But all this is overwhelmingly sad. Why are we such a cruel and fearful species? There is much good out there, but it gets overshadowed and beaten down by violent actions that suck all the air out of the room. Remember all those lessons most of us were taught in childhood about kindness? We heard it over and over in whatever church/temple/mosque we may have attended, around the dinner table, at school: be kind to others. Treat others as you would like to be treated. What you do in the world comes back to you.
And yet, here we are arguing about whether police pull over black American men while they are driving more than others (there is all kinds of data that says this is true), whether guns are necessary in the hands of citizens, whether we have a right to carry an object that can kill another person so quickly and easily while we can’t drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, whether police could do an already difficult job better, whether there is any justification good enough to explain a traffic stop than ends with a 32-year-old gainfully employed and well-liked man dead while a four-year-old child witnesses horror that will shape her entire life. In what way are we treating others as we would like to be treated?
I wonder if that Saudi Arabian grad student I met at the Fourth of July fireworks has changed his opinion of us all during this time. What does he tell his children about this country’s treatment of people this week?
President Obama recently said, “ We’ll have to see each other as equal parts of the American family.” But it’s complicated. The racial divide in America is entangled in so many issues: education, economics, fear, and opportunity. I don’t believe for one minute that we are truly a land of equal opportunity for all. Hard work goes a long way, but our access to opportunity is shaped from the moment we are born. I was born into a lower-middle class white family. That has shaped my entire life, allowed me to glide along without losing hope for myself when I’ve hit bumps in employment or housing. I’m not profiled. I’m not looked at with suspicion as far as I know. I live where we seldom hear gunshots.
But now we have heard them. Four of them. The ones that killed Philando Castile.
What are we going to do about it? Because quietly waiting for this to blow over is not good enough.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
¹”Audio: He looks like ‘our suspect’” by Andy Mannix, Minneapolis Star Tribune front page for Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
²The audio for all three scanners is available at http://www.startribune.com/police-audio-officer-stopped-philando-castile-on-robbery-suspicion/386344001/#1