Here’s the thing: I’ve been pulled over by the police before, mostly because I’m speeding, but at least once because of a broken tail light. When I’m speeding, I usually know that I’ve been speeding, so when the police officer asks me if I know why I was pulled over, I say “probably because I was speeding. You caught me, write me up.” I do it because I know there’s a good chance he’ll be so tickled by me not even trying to evade the ticket that he’ll just let me off with a warning. One time I was speeding on the freeway, and when the cop pulled me over, I asked if I could speak to him outside the car. He allowed me to get out of the car, and when he did, I leaned in close and said, “the people with me in the car have not stopped arguing since I picked them up. I need a break from them. Write me up, and please, take a long time doing it.” The cop laughed, didn’t write me up, and chatted with me for about five minutes to give me breathing space from the squabbling in the car.
I have never once been afraid of being pulled over by the cops in my car. I have never once been afraid of the cops when they have approached me for anything. It does not occur to me to be afraid of the cops. Why would it? When I have been pulled over by the cops, the worst that will happen to me is that I will be cited for speeding — which is, when it happens, an entirely fair call on the part of the cop, because I usually was speeding. I have literally been pulled over by the cops with an actual skinhead neo-Nazi in my car — and there’s a story for you, long and complicated, and mostly aside from the point at the moment so I’ll skip it for now — and the neo-Nazi was literally biting his tongue so he wouldn’t scream fuck yooooooou, PIIIIIIIIG at the cop at the top of his lungs. I sat there and chatted with the cop about me speeding, and he let me off with a warning and I went on my way, neo-Nazi with bulging neck veins apoplectic in the passenger seat beside me.
So I repeat: I have never once been afraid of being pulled over by the cops in my car. I have never once been afraid of the cops when they have approached me for anything. It does not occur to me to be afraid of the cops.
Nor, I rather strongly suspect, does it occur to anyone who looks like me — white, male, visibly part of the mainstream of American culture — to be afraid of the cops. The only time we are afraid of the cops is when, say, we’ve got a dime bag and the car smells of skunkweed. Or when in fact we’ve had more to drink than we should have. Or we have that unlicensed gun poking out from underneath the passenger seat. Basically, when we are doing something that’s against the law, and we can get in trouble for it, and the cop would be perfectly within their rights to take us to jail for it.
This is why, I suspect, when so many people who look like me, white and/or male, and visibly part of the mainstream of American culture, hear about a black person being gunned down by a cop, in their car or out of it, immediately go to “well, what did they do to deserve it?” Because, in the somewhat unlikely event of one of us being arrested by a cop, much less gunned down by one, we know damn well that dude did something stupid to warrant the cop taking that action. My own lived experience of 47 years, and the lived experience of nearly every other person who looks like me that I know, confirms that fact. I’m not going to get stick from a cop unless I did something to get that stick.
Now, here’s what I know so far about Philando Castile, which is what anyone at this point knows: This 32-year-old guy who worked at an elementary school and who had no police record* was, with his girlfriend, pulled over for a broken tail light, and was in the act of complying with police instructions and volunteered information to the police officer that he had a gun, which he was licensed to carry, when the police officer shot him. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to suppose that the reason Castile told the police officer he had a firearm was so the officer wouldn’t see it, panic, and shoot him. But it didn’t matter, and he was shot anyway, and died. He died, by all indications, despite doing exactly what he was supposed to do — complying with police instructions, and doing what he could to defray any potential problems.
I have been pulled over by the police. I have had a broken tail light. I have complied with police instructions. And while I don’t travel with a firearm in my car on most days, if I had one in the car and was pulled over, you’re damn right I’d let the cop know about it, especially if it was on my person. Why wouldn’t I? I don’t want to give the cop any surprises. And I am just about 99.9% certain, in that situation, if I were doing all those things, I wouldn’t suddenly find myself shot, dying in that car.
But then, I’m white, and Philando Castile wasn’t.
I posted this tweet last night, about the announcement that Philando Castile had died:
And the first comment was from a guy just like me, white, middle-aged, clearly in the mainstream, who responded, “Jumping to conclusions again, John? Maybe we need more time on this one. Guy said he had a gun and reached inside his coat.”
Leaving aside the data point that according Diamond Reynolds, her boyfriend was reaching for his wallet in compliance with officer instructions, and leaving aside the data point that she maintains that Castile was informing the police officer about the gun so he would know it was there and presumably not be alarmed by it, all I said was one simple word: “Jesus.” Shock that Philando Castile died. Nothing else — I didn’t comment on whether I thought the shooting was justified or not. I didn’t comment on the color of Castile or of the police officer. I didn’t make a statement on who was at fault, or of my general feelings about police, or of anything else. Just, “Jesus.”
And the first comment, from a white, middle-aged, mainstream dude, is reaching for a rationalization for the cop for shooting Philando Castile.
The most charitable explanation I can give for that fellow is what I mentioned above: For him, and for me, and for the folks who look like us, the only way we’d get shot is if we were doing something that would get us shot.
But I also know, with high levels of certainty, that someone who looks like me merely informing a cop that we have a gun would be unlikely to get us shot. I mean, hell. Aside from anything else I’ve mentioned here, I live in rural America. You think a non-trivial percentage of people here don’t have guns on them? Even when they’re pulled over by cops? It’s also worth noting, as I say the above, that the racial composition of my county is 98% white. If my neighbors or I get pulled over and inform a cop, in the process of complying with their instructions, that we have guns, we’re very likely to live. Not everyone can say the same.
I’m not saying the fellow who made the comment to my tweet is racist. He’s probably not, any more than I am. But we live in a racist society, and some of that racism gets exhibited in how our police forces deal with us. I have a very different experience of the police than my friends and fellow citizens who don’t look like me. It’s an experience different enough that while I understand intellectually that there are people who are afraid of the police, just as a default setting, and it’s something I see again and again as minority friends of mine vent and rage on social media, I still can’t feel it. I am not afraid of the police. I never have been. I have never had to be. I probably will never have to be. That doesn’t mean that my friends are wrong.
The police officer who shot Philando Castile wouldn’t have known that Castile had no police record, worked in a school and was by all indications well-liked in his community but even that is placing the burden of exculpation on the man who got shot. In the same situation, pulled over with the same broken tail light, telling the cop the same things, with the cop knowing exactly about me as he did about Castile, I still don’t get shot. Of that I feel certain. Nor should I be. Why should I be? Even if you hate the idea of people being able to conceal carry weapons, if someone is following the law, they shouldn’t be shot for carrying that weapon.
The cop made a threat assessment and decided to shoot. A man is dead for it, one who, by all indications, complied with the officer’s instructions and acted to keep the officer aware of his situation, so there would be no surprises. And I know that because the man is dead by the cop’s hand (and by his weapon), there will be people, many of whom will look like me, who will look to find fault with Philando Castile, with what he did or said, something, anything, to justify the shooting. And it’s possible that what we know now is not the complete story, and that Castile did do something, anything, that made the cop in question shoot to kill.
But, two things here. First: would that something, anything, be enough to kill me, if I did it? I would like to bluntly and rather racistly suggest that the standard for policing in this country not be how the police treat black men, but how they treat white men, and specifically, white men like me, me who has no fear of police because he has never had cause to fear the police, and never been made by the police to fear them. By all indications, there was no reason for this police officer to fear Philando Castile any more than he would have to fear me. We know this now. But in the moment, I suggest in the same situation, I would still be alive where Castile is dead, and we need to ask why. The officer who shot Castile may not be racist any more than I or the fellow who commented back to me on Twitter likely is. But we live in a racist society, and the ambient racism steeps into each of us whether we acknowledge it or not.
Second: If you’re one of the folks looking for something, anything to excuse the shooting of Philando Castile, as a matter of intellectual honesty you should consider the possibility that you’re wrong, and that Castile, in fact, did nothing to warrant his death, and that the officer shot him, needlessly. And when you entertain that notion, you should also ask yourself why Castile is dead anyway. If your answer to that question is entirely devoid of anything having to do with the fact that Philando Castile was a black man, you should probably try again.
I am not afraid of the cops. Never have been. Probably will never have to be. That is a luxury and privilege not everyone gets to have. I’m glad I have it. I want more people to have it, too. We’re not there yet. We can’t pretend we are.
* Update: 3:46pm: NBC News is reporting Castile was pulled over numerous times since 2002 for various traffic violations, including speeding and driving without a muffler. They note: “All were for misdemeanors and none were for violent crimes.” Another NBC-affiliated reporter pipes in re: the traffic violations: