On July 6, 2016, Officer Jeronimo Yanez killed motorist Philando Castile while Castile was belted in the seat of his car, accompanied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter.
On June 16, 2017, Yanez was found not guilty on one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. The 12-person jury was asked to decide if the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Yanez had been culpably negligent.
In a rare post-trial letter of support to jurors, the presiding judge wrote, “You were never asked to decide whether racism continues to exist, whether certain members of the community are disproportionately affected by police tactics or whether police training is ineffective.”
But might justice require the consideration of implicit bias, racial profiling and the ongoing impact of race in our society? The following reflection asks if the larger system of racial privilege that insists on individual responsibility and the seeming objectivity of colorblindness might itself be culpably negligent, perpetually benefiting some at the expense of others.
Until we grapple with those realities, the scales of justice will continue to be loaded.
HOW WE GET AWAY WITH MURDER: THE CULPABLE NEGLIGENCE OF COLORBLINDNESS
“Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness” (Luke 11:34-35)
You are Black
but we are colorblind.
Your “broad nose” looks like a robber’s
and your brake light is out.
My badge says to pull you over,
to inform … and see what you’re up to.
Will this darkened lamp cause an accident?
If you break, will those behind it see?
You’re with a woman and child.
We feign politeness.
No alarm. Threat level green. We’re in control.
Who is at risk?
Our dash cam watches from behind
but never sees you.
Our mic hears my heart
but your words are dim.
“Your brake light is out.”
“Do you have your license and insurance?”
Do I smell weed?
Threat level yellow disturbs our peace.
You hand me an insurance card.
“Sir, I have to tell you.
I do have a firearm on me.”
Red alert … or black?
“Ok. Don’t reach for it then.”
Our mic hears you, “I’m not pulling it out.”
She echoes, “He’s not pulling it out.”
You reach for something,
but it’s not your license we fear.
My training goes Black.
I shout, “Don’t pull it out!”
One hand reaches in to stop you
as the other draws our gun.
We strike first … seven times –
five break your body, two piercing your heart;
two find a seat beside mother and child.
What happened? A reflex. We were in control!
She cries, “You killed my boyfriend!”
You groan, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
I keep yelling, “Don’t pull it out!”
And “Don’t move,” poised to shoot again.
And “F**k!” on repeat,
horrified by the view
through my new window on the world.
She streams our mess to Facebook,
inviting the world to witness.
Will they see?
Our mic records my panic,
“I didn’t know where the gun was!”
A year later,
the civil sterility of a courtroom.
A safe space for me?
Will I be judged as us or them?
Will his silence testify?
I re-view our fear with the jury.
We know where the gun was –
we see his hand on it.
Or was our terror the trigger?
And my absolution.
No examination of hidden bias.
After all, fear is colorblind.
The jury’s charge:
Was I “culpably negligent”?
Beyond a reasonable doubt.
Did I act alone? Inadmissible.
Twelve senses troubled
wish to review one particular witness.
No, that would be partial.
What do you recall? Weigh it all equitably.
And agree or be hung.
Difference invites innocence, or mistrial.
All this for nothing?
The jury can’t find our guilt.
Legally, our fear of them is reason to kill
My blue life mattered.
Too bad that our law is colorblind.
“Best for all concerned” if I don’t wear a badge.
Our inequity slays one
and sends another outside the camp.
A family compensated
to abandon their troublesome
claims on our humanity.
But can all the wounds be paid?
How do we live with this shame old story?
How will I?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed, by their Creator,
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Dear white folks –
“there’s nothing self-evident about it.”
For Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, and Jeronimo Yanez.
Kevin McMahan works in the Intercultural Development Office at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Photo: Fibonacci Blue, [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons