Philando Castile is dead because he was black.
And my anger, sadness, and frustration is mixed with shame. Because it wasn’t until a black man, a former high school classmate of mine, was murdered in his car less than a mile from my home, that I finally woke up.
Philando Castile, shot dead by a police officer at the corner of Larpenteur and Fry, in the sleepy not-quite-a-city of Falcon Heights, should be alive today, and would be alive today, if he had been white.
I know, because just a few weeks ago, my own kids (white) were returning from a baseball game, in the car with a friend of ours (white), when he was stopped for having a broken tail light. Everyone got out of that one unscathed, without so much as a traffic ticket, and the kids came home with a roll of police-badge stickers, much to their delight.
Obviously, the details of the situation were different, but it’s not about the specifics of the stop – whether Philando Castile complied with orders or reached for his wallet when he shouldn’t have. And it’s not just about the officer who shot him – whether he was racist or crazy or on drugs.
If we focus on the details, we miss the larger picture: we are living in a system where any of us can be murdered by a police officer, for no reason that can be legitimized by logic or circumstance. And the only thing keeping me from being one of those people whose lives are unjustly taken, is the accident of the color of my skin: white.
My parents immigrated to this country from Argentina in the early 80s, a time when that nation was in the middle of brutal military dictatorship. The narrative I internalized about that period always struck me as paranoid and slightly delusional.
To hear my dad tell it, the city of Buenos Aires, where he lived, was crawling with police and plainclothes para-military operatives, and you could be picked up at any time, for any reason, with little chance of ever seeing your family again. This was especially true, he always told me, if you were Jewish (he is, I am), a political activist, or a leftist.
My dad tells this story: when he was in his twenties, he was getting into his car, fumbling his keys in the lock, when he made eye contact with a hulking, scowling man standing on the curb in a dark suit. The man’s cold glare paralyzed and unnerved him. He didn’t know what to do.
“It’s ok,” my dad apologized nervously, “it’s my car.”
With that, he says, and nothing else, the man swooped in, grabbed him by the arm, stuffed him into an umarked car and drove him away. He survived the ordeal, and immediately resolved to escape Argentina. He was suddenly willing to do almost anything, sacrifice everything, to live in a place where he and his family could be free from that kind of oppression.
Fast forward 40 years. Here, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was born and raised, I am incredibly fortunate not to live in the same kind of police state my dad escaped from. Because never in all my life has it occurred to me that, during an encounter with an officer of the law or an agent of the government, my well-being could be put at risk simply by uttering a wrong word or making an unexpected movement, or for the color of my skin … or for being Jewish.
When I’m stopped by police for a traffic offense – which I have been, many times – it just doesn’t cross my mind that this could be an interaction in which my life is at risk. I know exactly what will happen: I will act calm, I will cooperate, get my ticket or my warning, and be on my way home. And that’s exactly what happens. Every time.
But the truth is, black people don’t live in the same reality as I do. What, for me, is a place of freedom from oppression, for them, is exactly the type of brutal, arbitrary, unjust police state my parents struggled so hard to get away from.
If you are black in this country, the story my dad tells – the one that sounds ridiculous, improbable, fantastical – is a reality you must accept and live within every day. If you look at a police officer the wrong way, you may get arrested, you may get shot. If you make an unexpected movement or say the wrong thing, you may get arrested, or you may get shot.
It sounds so ridiculous to write down! How is that even possible? In the United States of America?
But it’s true. You may get shot, sitting in your own car, legally carrying a firearm, with your girlfriend and daughter mere inches away. And afterward, your girlfriend will be screamed at, made to put her hands in the air, handcuffed, and put in the back of a police car.
Let me ask you a question: if you were Jewish, politically active, or leftist in late 1970s Argentina, what would you do? Would you give up everything and escape to a better place?
And another question: if you are black in current-day America, what should you do? Should you give up everything and escape to a better place, somewhere where your children’s futures don’t include the risk of being gunned down by an agent of the police state?
And here’s one I’m asking myself: if, today, in the United States, simply being Jewish meant that I, and my children, had a much higher chance of being killed by a police officer without any provocation, what would I do to protect myself and my family?
I can tell you: I think I would try to get out. If I were black today, I might seriously consider trying to move my family to a different country.
But I know that’s not the right choice. Instead, it’s the country that needs to move in a different direction. It’s our country that needs to wake up to the reality of police murders (no, I won’t call them “officer-involved shootings”) of black men and women.
So tonight, I’ll be walking with hundreds, hopefully thousands, of others to the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, adding my voice to the chorus of others insisting this has to stop.
I know I’m too late, I know it’s too little, but Philando Castile should not be dead tonight, and I am alive tonight because I’m white, so I’m compelled to speak out.
This country offered hope to my parents and millions of others who have faced oppression. It must face its own demon of systemic oppression if it wants to continue being held up by people worldwide as a symbol of freedom.