On days when I don’t want to take a freeway from one Twin City to the other, I sometimes drive down a road called Larpenteur Avenue. (It changes names when it reaches Minneapolis.) Because I’m normally impatient, I tend to push the speed limit when it drops to 30 mph. Because I’m normally a rule-follower, that means that I tend to spend my time on Larpenteur nervous that a police officer will pull me over.
But because I’m white, it never occurs to me that such an encounter with law enforcement will end like it did last night, on the same road, for an African American man named Philando Castile. His girlfriend shot this Facebook Live video from the passenger seat of their car:
According to the Star Tribune, Castile had been pulled over at 9pm for a broken taillight, told the officers that he had a conceal carry permit for a gun, and was then shot by one of the policemen, who claimed that Castile was reaching for that weapon. He died later at Hennepin County Medical Center. Overnight a protest started (just five miles away) at the Minnesota governor’s mansion in St. Paul.
Of course, this incident happened just a day after another shocking video captured another police shooting of an African American man, Alton Sterling. According to the website Mapping Police Violence, over 100 unarmed black people were shot by police last year, meaning that 13% of the American population suffers 37% of such killings. Castile’s mother told CNN that her son was a victim of “a silent war against African-American people.”
These two latest shootings reminded me of a long series of tweets late last month by African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, inspired by the 14th birthday of another young black man shot by the police.
Here’s what Anyabwile — whom I’ve mentioned recently for his Gospel Coalition post arguing that evangelical voters should consider that racism is a worse evil than abortion — tweeted this morning:
I want to admit that I have no idea how hard a police officer’s job is. I want to say that we don’t know all the facts of the Castile or Sterling case. I want to say that we should wait for the state (and perhaps federal) investigation to do its work. But however true, I don’t think that’s adequate.
I want to reiterate what I tell my students: that the historian’s task is to be objective, but also to seek empathy — for victims of injustice, but even for those who commit acts of evil. But however true, I don’t believe that’s adequate.
I wanted to spend this week not blogging. I wanted to ignore another historian’s needling of me for writing a blog post about one tragedy and not others. I wanted the right to both have a public platform and be silent, knowing that I can’t comment on everything and should probably spend more time listening and less time speaking. But however true, I’m afraid that’s not adequate.
Not that this post is.
Frankly, I’m not sure what response would be adequate. I don’t think I can express that uncertainty better than JeaNell Krupnick, one of my former students, did earlier this morning on Facebook: (reprinted with her permission)
…I want to ask what to actually do about the fact that our police officers keep killing black men and women for no good reason. I can try to make it out to a protest rally if that will help, but I’m not sure it does? I have read that talking to my white friends about this is useful but, as stated above, most of my white friends already feel sick by it. So that doesn’t accomplish much either. I could write my congressional representatives but every single one of them already agree with me about this because of where I live. I can try really, really hard to teach my sons not to be afraid of black men but that is a long game and won’t save any lives in the coming days and weeks when we will certainly hear this same story again. When my grandkids learn about this era and this movement in their high school social studies classes and ask me what it was like to live through it, and what I did to be on the correct side of history, what would be the right answer?
I’m a Christian living in America. So I believe that Barack Obama was right, speaking last year in front of a bridge in Selma, that Americans “are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” And even if our Union’s political and legal processes prove incapable once again of perfecting itself out of its original sin, I believe that the life, murder, and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that sin and death do not have the final word in this world, that we can continue to live in the active expectation of hope for a kingdom in which peace, justice, and righteousness truly reign.
But I’m a white Christian living in a part of America that’s one mile and another world away from where Philando Castile was shot. So I’ve got the luxury of believing those things — and then continuing on with my life when they don’t seem to work out as they should.