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Philando Castile Aftermath

Is there a cultural connection between America's endless wars and the Castile verdict?

It is hard to believe that Ofc. Jeronimo Yanez got away with shooting Philando Castile to death. I am not a lawyer, and I didn’t sit through the testimony, so I don’t know what technicalities might have swayed the jurors (including its two black members). What David French — who is a lawyer, and a conservative — says makes sense to me. Excerpt:

If you read carefully [from the transcript of the encounter], you’ll note that it appears that the officer shot Castile for doing exactly what the officer told him to do. Yanez asked for Castile’s license. Castile told him that he had a gun, and the officer – rather than asking for his carry permit, or asking where the gun was, or asking to see Castile’s hands – just says, “Don’t reach for it then.” At that point, Castile is operating under two commands. Get his license, and don’t reach for his gun. As Castile reaches for his license (following the officer’s orders), and he assures him that he’s not reaching for the gun (also following the officer’s orders). The entire encounter, he assures Yanez that he’s following Yanez’s instructions.

He died anyway.

Yes, the evidence indicates that Yanez was afraid for his life. He thought he might have been dealing with a robber (a fact he apparently didn’t tell Castile), 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.

French calls the verdict a “miscarriage of justice,” and from what I’ve read, it sounds like he’s right. What else could Castile possibly have done to save his own life? He was obeying the officer — and unlike anybody who would tell a police officer that he has a gun with him is not the kind of person likely to shoot the cop.

The fact that even the two black jurors voted to acquit Ofc. Yanez makes me wonder if this verdict is not (or not simply) an expression of racial prejudice, but is rather a symptom of latent pro-authority prejudice when it comes to law enforcement. Hear me out on this, because my usual stance is to be supportive of the police unless given reason otherwise, and I still think that stance makes general sense. But it can become an excuse for wrongdoing and even criminal misconduct.

What brings this to mind, believe it or not, is the fact that here we are 14 years after the start of the Iraq War, and the United States government is finding fresh ways to dig the country into war in the Middle East — this time, risking a proxy war with Russia over Syria. And there’s no protest anywhere! You’d think people would be tired of all this fighting, and be asking hard questions in public of why our government, no matter which party holds power, backs endless war. TAC’s Andrew Bacevich explored this depressing phenomenon earlier this year in this piece, with regard to Congress. More broadly, there is no anti-war movement. Americans seem resigned to letting this thing drag on. Bacevich here discusses the costs of war, and criticizes US leaders and the American people for avoiding facing realistically what it would take to win our current wars — if it can be done at all. And so on.

The militarization of our police forces has long been discussed. For example, Radley Balko, who wrote a book on the subject, once commented:

Too many police departments today are also infused with a general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us-versus-them mentality that sees the public not as citizens to be served and protected but as a collection of potential threats. Police are regularly told the lie that their jobs get more perilous by the day—actually, the job has been getting safer since the mid-1990s, and 2012 was one of the safest years for cops in decades. And they are told that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. Consequently, they are trained literally and conditioned psychologically to treat every encounter with a citizen as if it could be their last. Consider the striking essay by Sgt. Glenn French, SWAT commander in Sterling Heights, Michigan, published in August on the law enforcement site PoliceOne:

We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector. The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. . . . Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war. That is why commanders and tactical trainers stress the fact that even on the most uneventful portion of your tour, you can be subjected to combat at a moment’s notice.

French’s figures are way off. Not only are police far less likely to be killed than a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, they’re less likely to be murdered than the average resident of many big cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Nashville. But French’s math isn’t nearly as disturbing as his mindset. This is a police officer in a Michigan town that has often been cited as one of the safest communities in America, yet he views the town as a battlefield and his fellow citizens as potential enemy combatants. “Black helicopters and mysterious warriors exist”, French concludes in his essay. “They are America’s answer to the evil men that the anti-SWAT crowd wouldn’t dare face.”

That’s the cops. What I’m interested in is we the people. Is there a connection between America’s endless wars and the militarization of the police? More to the point, has all the “support the troops” rhetoric that we’ve gotten used to since the Iraq War started helped train Americans to accept behavior from police that they would not have before? Has “questioning the police” become as taboo in American popular culture as “questioning the troops”?

I don’t know. I’m throwing it all out there for discussion. Again, I am usually pro-police, and maybe there were things about the Castile case that were clear to the jury, which heard the case, but not to me. Still, I can’t grasp why Castile’s killer got away scot-free, and why there hasn’t been much of an outcry. If a police officer can shoot to death a motorist who was obeying all his commands, and walk away a free man from that shooting, how safe are any of us? This is not the Alton Sterling case, nor is it the Michael Brown case. Not even close. I’m concerned that there’s a connection between our collective habit of deferring to the generals (or at least the idea that the military knows best) and a culture of policing that results in events like Castile’s killing, and the cop who did it getting away with it. Do we really believe as a people that those who bear arms in the service of the state have the right do fulfill their mission by any means necessary?

Don’t read this post as offering answers. I’m just asking questions, trying to get a good discussion going. I’ve been out of the country and not able to keep up closely with the news back home. The Castile verdict really is a shocker.