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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Isn't He Behind You? Thoughts on Philando Castile

The side of the road is covered with flowers and memorials and a small half tent has been erected. A sign asks visitors and passersby: what would Philando want you to learn?

I heard about Philando Castile after driving home from an evening meeting. It was after 10 p.m. and I was looking for weather related news, but my eye fell on a headline about a shooting in Falcon Heights, which is close to my neighborhood.

I watched the video, horrified. What struck me most was the poise and composure of Diamond Reynolds, who loved Philando Castile and  was trying to save him, but whose pleas were being ignored. The other thing that struck me was the policeman who shot him sounded like a panicked soldier in a war zone. Cursing over and over, with no regard for the fact that a four-year-old child was watching him, saying in a tight, hard voice, “I thought he was reaching for his gun.”

"He was reaching for his wallet, sir," Reynolds replied, in a voice completely devoid of malice or dissimulation.

Lest you think in reading this I have any kind of vendetta against the police, I need to share a little more with you. As a child I watched close family friends lose their son, who was arguably one of the best people on the planet, because he was a policeman and was shot in the line of duty. His wife was left to raise three darling little girls without him and I will always treasure his name and the fine memories he left behind.

I understand what police are trying to do and why they are trying to do it. I have had good experiences with police in my neighborhood and truly appreciate the help they've provided. But I am afraid for them when I see videos like the one that records Philando Castile’s death.

I have watched the video several times, and am always struck by the unbridled panic in the policeman’s voice as opposed to the measured response by Reynolds to watching the man she loves  as his life ebbs away. I am astonished that no first aid was administered and 911 was not called; instead, the policeman seems to sound as though he, and not Mr. Castile, had been shot.

Much has been said about this tragedy and other tragedies have followed it, including the shootings of other police and other unarmed African American civilians. I am still unable to stop thinking of this one, because Mr. Castile was shot mere minutes from where I was, driving home; because I see those flowers and signs every day; and because of all the terrible violence in our communities lately, this one seems to vilify a man who was one of the best of us.

It seems he had been pulled over multiple times for various driving infractions and was constantly being fined. This reminds me of a young man named Jo in Dickens’ novel Bleak House, who was exceedingly poor and always being told to “move on” -- until he couldn’t move any more and died. Yet somehow, here in Minnesota where we are supposed to be progressive, this man who had a good job and paid taxes and championed children was persecuted mercilessly by a system that cannot seem to stop itself from grinding down the poor.

Philando Castile, I didn't want to learn about your life because it had been taken from you. Now I am mourning your life without knowing what to do. What is it you would want me to learn?

When I was sixteen, I saw a film by Ingmar Bergman in a park called The Seventh Seal. In it, a disillusioned knight plays chess with Death to try and defeat him during the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. One scene made a particularly strong impression: a young woman being persecuted because she is believed to be a witch. She is tied up, awaiting some awful fate, when the knight stops to talk with her.

The knight asks the woman about accusations that she has consorted with the Devil and she agrees that she has. When asked if the Devil is present, she says he is; and when asked where the Devil might be, the young woman replies, “Isn’t he behind you?”

Of course, that is the most frightening line she could say, because, as a friend once pointed out, we can never truly see what is behind us.

What was the policeman thinking when he saw Philando Castile? Why did he sound as if he was seeing the Devil himself?

But isn’t he behind you? I want to ask. Isn’t he in the rearview when you are rolling down the road? Who was it who made you see demons everywhere, who made you afraid that people were ready to hurt you at every turn? He was not in front of you and Philando was not in front of you because you were not seeing Philando. He was never your enemy.

We have seen news reports of a military-style training called “Bulletproof Warrior” and learned that the policeman who shot Philando Castile received numerous hours of this training. From what I have learned, the training makes it sound like enemies are around every corner, waiting to kill police.

Yet it was Reynolds' four-year-old daughter who watched the policeman kill Philando Castile, a man she loved and relied on. “Mom, the police are bad guys. They killed him and he’s not coming back.”

This is the lesson she will have burned into her brain for the rest of her life. This is the lesson people learned in Salem when they were burned for being witches. This is the lesson we are not learning, so tragedies and unnecessary killings of unarmed civilians and police are happening over and over and over again.

Bulletproof Warrior is doing no policeman on our streets any favors. It is teaching them to shoot first and ask questions later. It is motivating police to kill innocent men and haul their mothers into jail overnight while their children watch, terrified. 

The stones themselves should weep at the thought of it. And yet they do not.

Philando's name still  wakes me at night, graceful as the flowers lining the sidewalk where he was shot. What do we have to do to find justice for him and others who are dying on our streets?

Where is the Devil in all this? Where is the Enemy who lurks, ready to pounce?

Isn’t he behind you, the young girl asks. We must look in the mirror and answer yes today. Yes, yes, he is.