The Fear That Killed Philandro Castile

“What they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.'”: Trevor Noah’s comment on the jury’s decision to exonerate Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of Philando Castile.

Yanez is the police officer from St. Anthony, MN who shot and killed Philando Castile on July 6, 2016. Videos of the incident, from the police dash cam, show Officer Yanez approaching Mr. Castile’s car after a traffic stop and asking for Mr. Castile’s ID, Mr. Castile informing Officer Yanez that he had a firearm, Officer Yanez telling Mr. Castile not to reach for the firearm, then shouting for him not to reach for it, then pulling his service revolver and firing into the car, killing Mr. Castile. All of this took place in less than one minute’s time from Officer Yanez stopping Mr. Castile and approaching his car.

Officer Yanez was charged with manslaughter, the prosecutors insisting that no reasonable officer would have shot Mr. Castile in similar circumstances. The jury acquitted him. Officer Yanez has been dismissed from his job with the St. Anthony police force after the decision was made that the city of St. Anthony would be better served if Officer Yanez did not return to active duty.

I’m not a police officer. I’m not a black man. I can only imagine the fear that police officers experience when they go out on duty. I can only imagine the fear that black people, especially black men, must experience in every encounter with a police officer. But, I can only imagine. There are those, police officers and black men, who don’t have to imagine this fear. They experience it daily.

I think it was fear that killed Philando Castile. We live in a culture that is rooted in fear of the other. We see ourselves as human beings, but we see other human beings, especially those who are sufficiently different from us, as “the other.” When we do so it is a short leap to seeing them as something other than a human being, and seeing them first and foremost as a threat. I don’t have any doubt that Officer Yanez feared for his life. The question is: Why? Was his fear reasonable? On what did his fear rest? Here was a man, Mr. Castile, sitting in a car with his girlfriend sitting next to him and her four year old child sitting in the back. He had just politely informed Officer Yanez that he was in possession of a firearm. I don’t know a lot about criminal mentalities, but I suspect most people who are intent on causing you harm with a firearm don’t take the initiative to first politely inform you that they are in possession of said firearm. Officer Yanez had just asked Mr. Castile to hand over his ID. It seems reasonable that, when Mr. Castile started reaching, it was for his ID that Officer Yanez had just requested. But, Officer Yanez assumed that Mr. Castile was reaching for the gun In fact, Officer Yanez would later insist that Mr. Castile had the gun in his hand. First responders would testify that Mr. Castile’s gun was in his pocket when they placed him on the stretcher to transport him to the hospital. Again: Why was Officer Yanez afraid? Is it because Mr. Castile was black? Did Officer Yanez see him as a threat because he was black? Did he see him as “the other” who is a threat to me? I think it’s fair to answer those questions, “Yes.”

Recall that this incident took place in the context of widespread protests against police shootings of black men. Alton Sterling had just been shot the day before in Louisiana. Walter Scott had been shot a few months before in South Carolina, even as he was running away from the police officer. Also, police were being ambushed by violent criminals, in New York and Jersey City, NJ, and ambush attacks against police were on the rise (and still are). After Mr. Castile’s killing, five police officers were killed in Dallas, TX by a man claiming revenge for Sterling and Castile. There was plenty of fear to go around on July 6, 2016.

I don’t know the religous affiliation of either man. Officer Yanez is Hispanic, and many Hispanics come from a Catholic background. Mr. Castile’s funeral took place in the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Catholic Cathedral, so it’s almost certain that he was Catholic.

1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

The only answer to fear is love. How do we turn the corner from fear to love? I don’t know. I believe that the first step is to risk trust. I don’t think trust means being foolish. I think it’s possible to be both trustful and cautious. But, what is impossible is to love another from a position of fear. If we fear the other, we cannot love the other. Trust does mean taking a risk. But, doing so means seeing the other first as a child of God, a human being, a person whose dignity as one made in the image of God requires my respect. I think it’s possible to see a person first as one whose personhood requires my respect and, second, as one who is realistically a possible threat to me. If we see another first and foremost as “other” and as “threat,” then we see them from fear, and we cannot love them. If we see them first and foremost as a person, then we can love them.

I believe it was fear that killed Philandro Castile. I believe it is only love that can save us all.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


















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