Philando Castile was shot to death Wednesday night after being pulled over by police. On the one hand, this comes as yet another tragic death in a long line of shootings by law enforcement that make the news. But then there is one glaring difference, at least for me.
Philando Castile was shot less than half a mile from my house.
He was pulled over right by Fry Street, which is directly west of Stout’s Pub. Many of you have been to Stouts with me before. My family and I go there all the time (the kids eat free on Sundays).
I’ve also met the police officer involved in the shooting. He gave me a speeding ticket a couple years ago (the speed limit drops to 30 going west on Larpenteur, right as you pass the U of M golf course). The St. Anthony Police Department is small. They’re based in St. Anthony Village, right off Silver Lake road, but they serve the smaller bedroom communities of Lauderdale and Falcon Heights. The same patrolmen ride through our neighborhood every day. I’ve met a handful of them before. They’ve come to our block’s annual chili cook-off on the first Saturday of October.
But now all this is just the setting of another heart-wrenching scene that has been playing on repeat in the national media in the past two years: an officer shoots a black man when it appears — as best as we civilians can tell with our limited details of the situation and limited knowledge of law enforcement — to be unnecessary. We don’t have all the information, and we’ll never have all the information, but there is enough here, and enough of an outcry in our cities, to say that something is wrong — and that we have a responsibility.
What is wrong, to be sure, is the brokenness of a fallen world. This place is contaminated with sin through and through. But there are specifics to the darkness, and that’s the part that can be hardest to pinpoint. We should assume that the police officer didn’t want to shoot anybody on Wednesday, July 6. He didn’t get out of bed hoping he’d get a chance to pull his trigger. In fact, police Sgt. Jon Mangseth says he can’t recall the last time there has been an officer-involved shooting by their department. He guesses it hasn’t happened in over 30 years, not in this community, which has been virtually the same size since 1960. This isn’t a shoot-first department.
You can hear it in the officer’s voice when you watch the video. It’s that panicked kind of shrill that is stuck somewhere between fear about what to do next and disbelief about what has already been done. It’s the voice not of a monster, but of a man who, as part of his duty, has found himself in a horrendous situation.
And the question we have to ask is why and what. Why did this happen? Why does this seem to keep happening? Or, at the very least, why is there such a growing narrative of police brutality and black deaths that elicit the kind of public outcry we see in our cities?
I don’t know the full answer. None of us know, not with certainty.
In some way, we have to acknowledge that something is wrong, and we also have to suspend any kind of judgment that glosses over details, or pretends they don’t matter.
In one sense, every shooting of a black man by law enforcement is different, and in another sense, they’re all the same in that a black man is dead because a policeman shot his gun. The events that led to each fatal shot has varied, and whether it is justified or not has varied (and has been disputed), but for many that reality simply does not matter. For many, the world is falling apart, a race is being oppressed, killed in cold blood, and large swaths of people refuse to recognize it as a problem. Chances are your neighbor thinks that. Yesterday when I walked over to the scene of the shooting to grieve, the people who were already standing on Fry Street probably thought that, as some were writing notes, some were weeping, and no one spoke. Last night, when Pastor Nick gave me a ride home after our pastors’ meeting in Longfellow, and the intersection at Larpenteur and Snelling was blocked by protesters, and two men moved a traffic barricade directly in front of Nick’s van and assured us that we weren’t going anywhere, and one of the men told us to go ahead and break the law because nothing would happen to us — he thought that.
One of the protesters came up to my rolled-down window and told me he was tired of it, tired of all this. I didn’t say anything. I just nodded, Nick and I stuck there, two white guys awkwardly sitting in a mini-van. That’s when I realized in a new way the hard situation we’re all in — all of us who don’t line up behind simple slogans, all of us who are stuck in traffic and not part of the protest, whether we’re white or black or whatever. When it comes to these deaths, if we jump ahead too soon and determine things, we are seen by some to be fools. If we sit back in the name of wisdom and wait for more details, we are seen by others to be complicit with racism and injustice.
That is a hard spot. The only harder spot I could imagine is to fear for my life when a policeman pulls me over.
Now to the what, as in, what do we do?
I don’t know.
We need to work toward a solution, but I don’t see a straight line here. There has to be a better solution than simply anger, though anger makes sense. I will not judge the anger. I just mean that protests and signs and hashtags alone won’t fix this thing. They have their place, but they won’t solve anything finally. They haven’t. They won’t.
If real change is going to come, it will have to be from the ground up, not the top down. The race issues and prejudices that is somewhere in this picture has to be confronted on the local level, by our neighbors, by churches likes ours, by you and me.
There is complex social-science when it comes to this sort of thing, but the reason that a systemic prejudice would exist in the first place is because the local level has frayed. There have been patterns of disharmony and fragmentation among neighbors that have produced a ripple effect, eventually crystallizing into magisterial stereotypes. It starts with the way one person views another, and then treats another, and then reacts to another. Over time this solidifies into an outlook, into a frame of mind, and it gets stuck somewhere up high.
We can’t simply renounce those stereotypes and demand they change. We start with renouncing. We demand change. But we have to reproduce better patterns down here where we live, patterns of harmony and peace and goodness. And this won’t look like much — not right away. In an age of publicized activism and outcry, and often for good reason, we don’t have much patience for seed-sowing. But if we want good fruit, that’s what we’ll have to do, with all the digging and toiling and time it takes — until the harmony and peace and goodness bloom into broader change.
It has to start with us, today — with how we think and feel, with what we say and don’t say, with whom we initiate toward and pursue friendship, and with how we teach our children and model for them how to orient on the world.
That, in part, is what we mean when we say we seek the good of the Cities.