Alive and Unarrested in Minnesota

A young man was murdered last night, less than ten miles from where I live. His name was Philando Castile. While I was at home drawing and watching Netflix, his girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds, watched him bleed out in the passenger seat of her car. Reynolds also posted a video of the event to Facebook, where it has now been shared many times and generated many news stories. Unfortunately, no amount of news coverage can change the fact that Castile, like so many Black Americans before him, was murdered in cold blood by a cop.

I won’t go into the details of the event, as they have been reported at length elsewhere. If you have watched Reynolds’ video, or read the transcript, you will know that the reason the cops supposedly pulled the car over was a broken tail light. You will know that Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter was in the backseat of the car when the officer shot Castile multiple times. You will know that Reynolds was told by officers to get out of the car with her arms up, and that she did so, while multiple officers trained their guns on her. You will know that later, while Reynolds sat in the back of a squad car, she told her daughter, “Don’t be scared.” Shortly after, as she screamed in anguish, her four-year-old daughter told her, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

Already on social media I see people gaslighting this story, urging those sharing articles about it to calm down, warning us against getting too excited or “jumping to conclusions” because “we don’t know everything yet.” I saw a comment on Facebook which questioned the validity of the story given that it was at that point “less than 12 hours old.” I responded:

You say “less than 12 hours old” as if it weren’t the case that ALL breaking news is very recent. I wonder if you would be as concerned about the recentness if this were a different story. As with all news stories, we will undoubtedly learn more facts as time passes. But what we know now, and what we can see in the video, is disturbing, and important to share.

Of course, the huge, glaring, depressing fact behind this particular story is how many similar ones precede it. The very same day that Castile was murdered, Roxane Gay published an essay on the New York Times about another Black man who was murdered by cops, 37-year-old Alton Sterling.

Every story like this, every story of a Black person who is murdered for no reason other than their skin color, should be shared and shared and shared. We must continue to respond with the shock and outrage this situation demands. If we don’t, we are failing our fellow humans.

And yet, as Gay notes, it can be difficult not to become dazed by the constant onslaught of such stories, and the video footage that these days often accompanies them. As Gay writes:

I don’t think we could have imagined that video of police brutality would not translate into justice, and I don’t think we could have imagined how easy it is to see too much, to become numb.

There are certainly days when I feel numb, or even consciously shut it out, thinking, “not another story like this, I can’t stand one more story like this.” But today, I refuse to be numb. With Lavish Reynolds showing the amount of courage she has shown, in recording and posting that video, the least the rest of us can do is pay attention, and add our voices in support.

In 2011-2012, I lived and worked in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My apartment was a mile and a half from J J Hill Montessori, the school where Castile worked. I ran past that school countless times. It’s a nice area. (For those from out of state: its address puts it roughly in the middle of this Selby Ave map I drew last year.) It is two and a half miles from the Minnesota State Capitol. It is one mile from Grand Ole Creamery, which President Obama visited when he was in town two years ago. It is a nice school and, by all accounts, it sounds like Castile was an extremely positive addition. As one of his coworkers put it, “Kids loved him. He was smart, overqualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind.”

My husband also used to work for a Saint Paul public school. He was a paraprofessional in a Special Ed classroom. Philando Castile was a cafeteria supervisor. From what I can tell, those positions are pretty similar in terms of qualifications and pay scale. Castile was 32 when he died. My husband will turn 32 this September. “Quiet, respectful, and kind” are words I imagine my husband’s Saint Paul coworkers might have used to describe his manner as well. It makes my whole body hurt to think about the similarities between Castile’s life and my husband’s, and how this one difference—race—is the reason Castile is dead.

Castile’s murder took place near the corner of Larpenteur and Fry in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. As fellow Minnesotans know, Falcon Heights is basically an extension of Saint Paul. It’s where our enormous State Fairgrounds are located. Larpenteur and Fry is directly north of the University of Minnesota’s Saint Paul campus. It’s right by the old location of the Source, where I used to buy comics; where, in 2009, I sold my own work for the first time at a small comic convention.

Back when my husband (then boyfriend) was working for the Saint Paul Public School system, I drove through that area often. I would pick him up at work in my dad’s old Le Sabre, and drive him home to his apartment in Northeast. We passed the Source. We passed the U of M cornfields. We passed Larpenteur and Fry.

This is where it is impossible not to notice how different my own experience has been from Castile and Reynolds’.

I have driven in cars with busted tail lights.

I have driven in cars where weed was present.

Like any adult with a driver’s license, I have my own list of “bad driver” things that I’ve done over the years.

To date, no police officer has shot me or any of my passengers.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, I am now going to share a story that I have never shared with anyone (not my parents, not my sister, not my husband) because it is that embarrassing. I am sharing it now because is an example of how different it is when a white couple is in the car.

The summer before my senior year of college, one of my college friends flew to Minnesota to visit me. I picked him up at the airport. As a dumb joke, we decided to meet one another wearing formal clothing. When I found him at baggage claim, he was wearing slacks, a collared shirt, and tie. I was wearing a purple dress. I am white. He is not, but he usually passes as white.

On our way home from the airport, I got completely lost. It was dark out, and at that time I’d barely driven between my hometown and the Twin Cities. This was also before smart phones, so it wasn’t as easy to get our bearings again. I ended up on some county road driving slowly—way too slowly. Soon enough, I saw a cop car behind me, flashing its lights. I pulled over and the cop got out and walked up to our vehicle. I’m sure he assumed we were drunk. But when he saw my friend and I in the car, in our formal wear, looking very, very white, giving him an “aw shucks” attitude, he smiled and let us go.

That’s not the embarrassing part.

Not fifteen minutes after we were back on the road, I was still lost, and still driving slowly. And a second cop made me pull over. Just like the first cop, as soon as he saw my friend and I, he was all smiles. He gave us some general directions and sent us on our way. We made it home safely that night without further issue.

Philando Castile didn’t.