In a nation that needs few reminders lately, the killing of Philando Castile by a law enforcement officer has been a particularly chilling reminder of police violence and institutional racism. Mr. Castile appears to have been racially profiled, was not under suspicion of a crime, did nothing to disrespect or resist the officer, and was legally allowed to carry the gun in his possession.
But in many other cases of police shootings of unarmed minorities in America, conservatives defend the police by saying that the victims should have been more cooperative with and respectful of the officers. This is a terrible argument for many reasons: first, simply being difficult with police should not be a death sentence if the officers don’t have substantial cause to fear for their lives. Second, there are numerous cases of white suspects resisting arrest and even pointing guns at officers without being shot.
Even at that, though, it would be difficult to blame African-American communities for assuming hostile attitudes in encounters with police due to widespread profiling and harassment.
Again, the case of Mr. Castile provides a disturbing case in point: Mr. Castile had been pulled over a remarkable 49 times over 13 years, almost always for minor or even imagined vehicular infractions:
Turning into a parking lot without signaling. Failing to repair a broken seatbelt. Driving at night with an unlit license plate. Driving with tinted windows.
In a 13-year span, Philando Castile was pulled over by the police in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region at least 49 times, an average of about once every three months, often for minor infractions.
His mother, Valerie, who was often called on to help when her son’s car was impounded, believes that the police were stopping Mr. Castile not because of his driving but because of his race. “Driving while black,” she said.
This level of harassment is a constant for minority communities all across America, and it doesn’t only affect interactions with the police. The fines, tickets and license suspensions that derive from it often lead to difficulties in maintaining a productive economic life and career. Some would say that’s even the point. States cut taxes on the wealthy, which in turn forces counties and cities to raise funds from fees, which they in turn raise regressively by enforcing silly infractions on poor non-white communities, preventing them from gaining an economic and social foothold. For-profit prisons carry the project of institutional racism forward from there.
Beyond all that, though, is the element of danger this creates for every interaction with police. While Philando Castile was by all accounts a gentle soul who didn’t let the police attention bother him, others are not so sanguine–and they have every right not to be. If you were stopped 49 times by police for very minor or even imaginary infractions when you knew that simple prejudice was the real reason you were being pulled over, you might start to develop a hostile attitude. You might resist doing whatever self-incriminating or degrading thing the officer told you to do. That situation might escalate, and then you might find yourself dead.
In a nation of pervasive institutional racism, simply failing to follow officers’ commands is not a legitimate reason for being summarily executed. As police forces hopefully work toward a new style of policing, it will be incumbent on them to have patience with individuals who don’t follow orders, no matter what the violence enablers in the conservative movement might say. Respect and trust between officers and the communities they serve must be mutual, and it will take a time to develop.