When Sincere Fear is the Problem

Apparently, part of the reason police officer Jeronimo Yanez was aquitted today was because he took the stand and talked about how fearful he was when he pulled his gun on Philando Castile and shot him seven times. He described the fear and tension he felt during the few seconds he confronted Castile before killing him: “I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die. My family popped into my head. My wife. My baby girl.” Because he convinced the jury that he was sincerely afraid, the jury was encouraged by established law to find him not guilty of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a weapon.

I have no reason to doubt Yanez’s sincerity, but the point the Black Lives Matter movement is making is that this fear he felt when confronting a black man is a problem. His fear may have been sincere, but it was irrational and based on racial stereotypes. Furthermore, his impulse to resort to lethal violence would have been inhibited if his culture didn’t devalue Castile’s life.

Castile was armed, but he had a valid license to carry and he informed Officer Yanez of both these facts when Yanez approached the car. Castile was sitting in the driver’s seat, his seatbelt on, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds in the passenger’s seat and her four-year-old daughter in the back seat. It doesn’t appear there’s any disagreement, in retrospect, that Castile was only reaching for his wallet when Yanez killed him, but Yanez says he told Castile not to reach for it, whereas Reynolds says Yanez told Castile to present his ID. Reynolds videotaped the moments following the shooting with her phone, and she and Yanez can be heard arguing about that point.

Whatever happened, whatever misunderstanding might have occurred, Castile ended up dead. His autopsy revealed he had THC in his blood, and Yanez’s lawyers argued he was stoned and not responding properly to Yanez’s commands. Their successful legal defense hinged on Yanez’s sincere fear and Castile’s assumed impairment being sufficient justifications for Yanez to discharge his weapon.

When I was a rowdy teenager, I had several encounters with police while drunk. I was never a pot smoker, but I occasionally kept company with people who were. We were all white.

No matter how intoxicated I was, or how uncooperative I might have been with police, there was never any danger I was going to be shot. I don’t ever remember a moment when I feared a cop might pull his gun out and shoot me. I never saw a cop pull a gun on one of my friends, no matter how drunk, stoned, uncooperative, or downright belligerent that friend might have been.

I remember being arrested for underage drinking in Modesto along with a couple of buddies and being taken downtown to the police station. Once there, one of my friends, who was very drunk, freaked out for some reason and I still have a vivid image of four or five cops struggling with him in a hallway. While he screamed obscenities and threw punches, they wrestled him to the floor and handcuff him. Then they stood back up laughing and wiping the sweat from their foreheads. They had sidearms, but I’m sure it never occurred to anyone involved that they might use them.

And that’s because my friend was white. It wasn’t because he was cooperating, or being respectful, or doing what they told him. We weren’t from rich or prominent families, so it wasn’t that. It was because he was white, and his life mattered, and nobody was going to shoot a white kid just because he had flown into a drunken rage at the police station.

If you look at the details of the traffic stop that resulted in Castile’s death, there are some unsettling questions about why exactly the stop even happened and whether Yanez and his partner were following proper procedure, but I am ready to assume that Officer Yanez reluctantly shot Castile because he was afraid of him, and he was devastated by the shooting. I don’t believe Officer Yanez wanted to shoot anybody that day, and I don’t believe Philando Castile wanted to shoot anybody that day.

I do believe if I had been sitting in that driver’s seat, and had behaved exactly as Castile did, nobody would have pulled a gun on me. Because I’m white.

Last year I was pulled over for going 113 mph on the freeway in northern California. The CHP had to do a sudden and dramatic U-turn across the median to get behind me and pull me over. When he appeared at my window he growled at me to show ID. I had my wallet inside a satchel on the passenger’s seat with my camera and some other stuff, and I reached in and started digging around for it. I never gave a moment’s thought to the possibility that what I was doing might unnerve the cop, or make him think he was going to die or start thinking about his family. He waited, grumpy but unconcerned.

That’s the way it should be, and it shouldn’t be different because you’re black.

Black Lives Matter has been trying to force America to think about how our history of race relations can distort how a cop sees a citizen who happens to be black. They want us to see how a black man – or even a black child like Tamir Rice – can provoke an unreasonable fear and exaggerated sense of threat. They want us to think about how a black person’s life can be unthinkingly devalued. That’s what “black lives matter” means – not that other lives don’t matter, but that black lives should matter just as much.

When you respond with “all lives matter” you’re rejecting the claim that black lives are devalued in a way white lives aren’t. You’re saying there isn’t a problem.

And you’re wrong. And if you’ve been around the block a few times, you should know you’re wrong.

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