When we got to the governor’s house, on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, a hot rain exploded onto the protesters, the kind that offers no relief, no break in the weather, just an even worse humidity, if that’s possible in a Minnesota summer. I had walked along the protesters for a short distance, a block or two, from the elementary school where Philando Castile worked serving lunch to kids, to the governor’s house. At the front of the protest was Castile’s family and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, crying as she held up a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt—Reynolds, along with her 4-year-old daughter, witnessed a police officer shoot and kill Castile in his car after he announced to the officer that he had a licensed gun in the glove compartment.
The protest was unlike any other I’d covered. It was truly diverse. There were so many residents of St. Paul’s black community there; the Castiles, a childhood friend told me, were “a big family” in St. Paul. And there were lots of people from his school, colleagues who attested to his warm and friendly character. He was one of those “perfect negroes,” I thought to myself, one of the ones you can’t mess up with a flimsy story about how he sold loose cigarettes, like Eric Garner was. “There probably wasn’t even a story raising questions about him stealing a cigarillo,” I thought to myself, sickly hopeful. Since all human beings are fallible, “perfect negroes” are an impossibility, but I thought, because I was desperate, that Philando Castile might be one. The only time I held out hope that there might be consequences for the police following the shooting death of a black American was for Tamir Rice, a child so young that to create a myth around him being a big, bad miscreant would be impossible. I was wrong there. And I’m wrong here.
The “perfect negro,” a description so unfair it’s absurd, doesn’t work. The not-guilty verdict, returned after an initially deadlocked jury and after more than 25 hours of deliberation, proves that even in a liberal enclave like the one Castile lived and worked in, having a licensed gun, like the one Castile had, and having a 4-year-old girl in the back of the vehicle he is operating cannot bring worth to a black man’s life in the eyes of a cruelly racist justice system.
The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino, shot Castile in the head last July in a suburb right outside St. Paul. Reynolds, who somehow had the presence to capture it on video, broadcast the minutes after his shooting on Facebook Live. That didn’t make a difference, either. Soon after that hot, sticky protest outside the governor’s house, Governor Mark Dayton said that Castile’s being black had something to do with his death, but that didn’t make a difference, either. Technology, political will, nothing makes a difference.
“The system continues to fail black people,” said Castile’s mother, Valerie, following the verdict. “My son loved this city and this city killed my son and let the murderer get away.”
I remember, again, what Castile’s childhood friend told me. They’re a “big family” in St. Paul. Now they’re less big, and the city he loved so much, the one that in death couldn’t find a way to soil his character, couldn’t bring his killer to justice.