“Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” These were almost the last words of Philando Castile’s life. Castile was driving with his girlfriend and their daughter on the night of 6 July, 2016, when two officers stopped him in a Minnesota suburb due to a broken taillight. After Castile revealed that he was armed (legally, it was later revealed), the confrontation turned from routine to alarming very quickly. Shortly after Castile uttered these words, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him after screaming, “Don’t pull it out!” Castile’s seatbelt was still buckled. His last words recorded on tape were, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
As far as anyone can tell, Phil Castile really wasn’t reaching for his gun. Stoned on marijuana, he was caught between two contradictory impulses: to get his license to comply with the officer’s request, and not making sudden moves or pulling his gun. Unfortunately his movements made Officer Yanez believe that he was trying to pull his gun out slowly. Yanez panicked, fearing for his life, and shot Castile, who died shortly afterwards.
Ten months later, Yanez was acquitted of Manslaughter and two felony charges relating to discharging a firearm in a dangerous situation. After the acquittal on June 17, Black Lives Matter protesters marched through Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the protests were short and perfunctory and could not stifle a growing feeling of pointlessness. After Trayvon Martin, after Tamir Rice, after Eric Garner, would there ever be meaningful change? A BLM activist in Minneapolis, Vannessa Taylor, didn’t hold out much hope: “Philando was everything that people say you’re supposed to be,” Taylor said. “He had a job, he was in a relationship, he helped take care of a child, he worked with kids — but none of that actually means anything or matters.”
None of that actually means anything or matters. This is the nadir of the Black Lives Matter movement; this the moment where it fizzles and dies, where it throws up its hands in exasperation and stops protesting, or when it becomes something altogether more sinister. It will be a battle within the movement, between ennui and anger. I do not support many of the aims and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement–in fact I think this movement fighting racism can be racist itself. But it doesn’t take much of a prophet to say that the more bad cops get acquitted, the more sway Black Lives Matter will have over the narrative around race in this country. That’s not a good thing.
The response from conservatives to the Yanez verdict has been heartening. In a widely-shared article on National Review, David French writes,
Yes, the evidence indicates that Yanez was afraid for his life. He thought he might have been dealing with a robber…and he testified that he smelled marijuana. But Castile was following Yanez’s commands, and It’s simply false that the mere presence of a gun makes the encounter more dangerous for the police. It all depends on who possesses the gun. If he’s a concealed-carry permit-holder, then he’s in one of the most law-abiding demographics in America. [Emphasis mine]
In recent months we’ve seen a number of cases where courts have excused police for shooting citizens even after the police made mistakes — and the citizens were doing nothing wrong — simply because these citizens were exercising their Second Amendment rights. This is unacceptable…
The NRA, which now bills itself as a “Civil Rights organization dedicated to the rights of gun owners,” said at the time of the shooting that the events were “troubling,” but has made no further comment. Why has the NRA been silent? If I were to make a guess, it is because they are caught between the desire to defend all gun owners from the sort of itchy trigger fingers and poor judgment that left Phil Castile dead, while placating the powerful police unions who are big NRA supporters. It’s hard to do both when police unions continually and obstinately resist the firing of bad cops. Much like teachers’ unions, they resist the push to make their profession better and more accountable; the policemen in this country already do a difficult job incredibly well, but there are obstacles that prevent them from doing even better.
The biggest obstacle is fear. In several recent cases, including Officer Yanez’s criminal trial, the fact that an officer has been afraid at the moment of decision has been an overpowering force towards acquittal. But an officer’s conduct cannot be excused simply by the fact that he was afraid. There has to be a legitimate reason for his fear, and then his actions have to be commensurate to the level of legitimacy of that fear. As French write, “It’s imperative that juries understand that not all fear is reasonable, and some officers simply and wrongly panic.”
For Christians, this verdict and the furor surrounding it raise more questions than they answer. How should Christians honor and respect the law, and those who enforce it, while holding officers accountable on the rare occasions when they mess up? How does the Church minister to a black community suffering from, among other things, “injustice exhaustion” and a growing distrust of white-majority institutions like the American church? It was mostly Jewish and liberal Christian activists from the northeast who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s a legacy we as evangelical Christians are still coming to grips with. But in Christ’s new creation, there will be no Jew, Greek, black man, or white man. For they will all be one in Christ Jesus. What work does He have for us now, to heal divisions and to be his standard-bearers for justice?