It was July of 2016 when Jeronimo Yanez pulled over 32-year old Philando Castile, the 52nd time being pulled over as a licensed driver, along with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her child. The infraction was a broken tail-light. However, the sentence he received was death. For Philando Castile had the audacity to voluntarily inform Yanez that he was (legally) carrying a firearm with him on his person. Within five seconds of this notification, Yanez knew all he needed to know to diagnose Castile as a threat to his own life so his only option was to end Castile’s.
Almost a full year later, Jeronimo Yanez was put on trial for Manslaughter and after five days of deliberation, a jury of his peers(meaning 10 white and 2 black) found him not guilty. How the decision was reached was due to a strict interpretation of the law. How the jury can live with themselves and their decision, particularly after the police dash camera was released, is utterly baffling. But it’s their ability to live with themselves and Jeronimo Yanez and others like Betty Shelby, Darren Wilson and Timothy Loehmann, law enforcement officers that have murdered black males over the last several years without facing justice, have done nothing but send a vivid message to the rest of us black men in America who have to live with lack of accountability for killing us. Particularly for the rather benign and otherwise common actions which has brought about our death. Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice while he was playing. Playing with a toy. Others like Alton Sterling and John Crawford were shot to death for shopping.
However, in this particular case, the consequences are much more alarming. Philando Castile was a legally licensed owner of a firearm with full rights and privileges to carry that firearm, a right that we’re often reminded of by the Gun Lobby and it’s allies like the National Rifle Association. Of course these parties are fairly silent about Castile’s rights. Now, despite my proclivities and aberration, Philando Castile should have the right to have a firearm and that right should be protected, in all pathetic irony, by the same law enforcement that took his life. The sad fact of the matter is that Philando Castile would be alive today if he did not own a gun. But we, as Americans, are allowed to own guns. How can those two dualities exist in one singularity?
Trust me, I get it. I do. I’ve been black for nearly 40 years. And while I have been just as friendly for just as long, we are raised to learn lessons unique to who we are to better navigate society. It’s like women being told to not dress a certain way or act a certain way to not incur any unwanted advances and attention. Black men are also told to keep our distance, moderate our vocals, keep our hands visible, stand with our feet together(yeah, I know), etc. All in an attempt to be less threatening. Now, like with women, we are told to do these things for our own safety. And fair or unfair, it’s what it is. But this is not that. Walking down a dark street or riding an elevator with a female are not CONSTITUTIONALLY guaranteed rights. Philando Castile’s right to keep and bear arms absolutely is. Which means, the consequences of allowing his murder to go without the justice it deserves doesn’t simply violate his rights, but when we continue to see instances like this take place, none of us can assume those same rights or assume those right will be protected. Particularly when it’s being taken away by those who are supposed to protect those rights for us. And no matter how much certain rights and freedoms are guaranteed, some of us are not able to take full advantage of them out of the vivid fear of losing our own lives for it.
The sad reality for black men in America is that this no longer shocking. Not only are we killed for benign reasons, but our killers routinely go unpunished. And that lack of punishment would cause any of us to question our very actions to avoid those same circumstances. Philando Castile was not a criminal. He worked with children at a school. By all accounts, he was no more a threat to Jeronimo Yanez as he was to the kids around him on a daily basis. That did not prevent him from losing his life. Tamir Rice was a kid, playing outside. Something we’ve ALL done. John Crawford was shopping, while talking on a cellphone. That is normal human behavior. These men and dozens more like them were doing nothing more than any of us could be doing. And if they can be shot and killed without consequence, doing anything I could be doing, what reason could I have to believe the same won’t happen to me?
This is not the America we were promised. This is not how we should be judged. I should not have to have in my mind that my actions can dictate whether I live or die when I am approached by law enforcement. I should not have to fear for my life. My mother and mothers of black children should not be afraid that their child’s next encounter with the police will be their last. But that is what has become of being a black man in America. And no matter how friendly or compliant I may be, at the end of the day I am still black. Because even at my best, the worst will be assumed. And while many Americans gloriously sing the virtues of being proud to be an American, I do not have such a luxury. Increasingly, I cannot be proud to be an American because I simply don’t know if I can be free. However, what I actually am starting to accept is our new reality.
I am not proud to be an American, but I am afraid of be an American.