On Terror and Privilege

Minnesota Public Radio posted the dash cam footage from Philando Castile's murder by Office Jeronimo Yanez. I don't know why, but I decided to watch it--perhaps because the verdict was fresh in my mind, another police officer proved innocent of crimes we can see him commit, perhaps because I felt like I owed it in some small part to the memory of Philando Castile. I stay away from graphic footage of attacks like those because they are a heavy burden to bear, but I am allowed to stay away because I'm white, and because I'm white I spend my life staying away from attacks like those, and because I'm white I spend my life free from the true terror that Black Americans feel every day.

A few weeks ago, it hit me. I was driving down the California highway, zipping in and out of traffic at 80MPH in a 65MPH zone, cursing the people in front of me who didn't have somewhere to be like I did. I passed a Black man in his car and thought, I can zip around at 80MPH because I don't drag around the fear that I may be pulled over for speeding and then shot for being Black. That's privilege: I think about the horror of what our country does to its Black citizens often--who cannot these days, when every week feels drowned in the blood of another innocent Black life--but I had never parsed my privilege down to my speeding. 

Office Yanez fired 7 shots into Philando Castile's car at point blank range, mere seconds into a traffic stop for busted brake lights. Philando Castile freely admits to having a firearm in the car, and in a split second, his life is taken from him, wrenched from his body by the bullets of a police officer who seems terrified that a Black man might even have a gun. 

The job of a police officer is a job rife with danger, but it is a known danger, a risk you sign on for when you put on the uniform. You are instructed to keep the peace and enact justice. Cops most certainly die on the job, but here's the real truth about danger: you are not in danger if you can pull out your firearm and kill the slightest threat to your safety, and cops are granted that amnesty. Their badge is a shield, literally and figuratively, freeing them from the justice that is theirs to enact. What would it take to put a cop in jail? Not sexual assault, not murder--many court cases over the last few years have shown us this.

My father's an ex-police officer. We grapple with these conversations often. I do not believe my father is bad, do not believe all cops are bad--but they defend each other blindly, showing empathy for only themselves and no one else. Terror does not give you the right to shoot a person 5 times in the chest at point blank range, and if it does, Philando Castile should have shot long before Officer Yanez. He was armed, after all; he could have. Signing up for a dangerous job should not guarantee you amnesty from your crimes, and if it does, all the marginalized communities in America should be granted amnesty, since to be Black, to be female, to be Latinx, Muslim, queer, gay, transgendered, anything but straight and white and male seems like an automatic death sentence these days. We do not sign up for our uniform, the one that endangers our lives just for walking down the street, for saying no, for praying, for being, and we do not have the gun already in our hands when we're terrified.

In a week, Philando Castile's murderer was let off scot-free, Charleena Lyles was shot in front of her children because she called the cops for help, and Nabra Hassanen was beaten to death for wearing a hijab in public. Their terror meant nothing. I sit in an air-conditioned house, the epitome of privileged, a white girl with only the slightest idea of what it means to be terrified of life--that creeping feeling when I hear a sound in the house, when a man looks at me too long, when I'm walking alone and digging for my keys just to make myself feel like I have an ounce of protection. I cry for Philando Castile, for Diamond Reynolds, for their daughter, for Charleena and Nabra.

Tears don't mean anything. For every one of mine that falls, millions of people in this country who are more terrified than me hear nothing but the rain.