Behind Philando Castile video, a deep yearning for justice

One woman's video of her dying fiancé is a chilling glimpse into how powerless many black Americans feel – and how they're using their cellphones to change that.

Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/AP
Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, weeps during a press conference at the governor's residence in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday. Philando Castile was shot in a car Wednesday night by police in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights.

Even as her fiancé, Philando Castile, lay dying next to her, Diamond Reynolds’s reaction was to grab her cellphone and start live-streaming the bloody aftermath of a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. 

America saw the result in real-time: A searing eyewitness view of a police shooting scene where a split-second decision by an officer in a middle-class Minnesota neighborhood spilled into mayhem. As the officer shouted expletives, Ms. Reynolds calmly narrated as her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat: “Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”

The video was live-streamed on a new Facebook service just days after another video, taken in Louisiana, showed the killing of Alton Sterling, who was pinned to the ground by two white police officers when he was shot and killed. That video was taken by activists working to document and narrate killings in the black community.

In their disturbing intent to document death, the two videos reflect the depth of desperation among many in the black community. For all that has changed in police reform and public perception since Ferguson two years ago, black men who appear to present no clear threat are still dying at the hands of police.

Though both men had guns – Mr. Castile had a concealed-carry license, according to his family – neither appeared to be drawn during the incidents.

On one hand, the videos represent a yearning for justice. The rise of cellphone videos has been perhaps the most powerful tool for the black community to focus public attention on police behavior. The recent videos are a sign that blacks are now turning to video in new ways in an attempt to find some measure of empowerment.

Yet the video of Castile, in particular, is also something even more visceral: a glimpse of one of America’s most fraught racial fault lines through black eyes. In its chilling intimacy, it represents something wholly new, experts say.

“It’s the first live-streamed police murder, and it speaks to some kind of watershed,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Reynolds’s “description is a stunning moment: She knows it’s an injustice, and she knows that there’s an audience for this injustice – that there is an echo when you cry out in the wilderness.”

A new cellphone activism

St. Anthony Police interim chief Jon Mangseth said the incident began as a traffic stop Wednesday evening and that the officer involved has been put on standard leave. In the video, Reynolds said the car was pulled over for a broken tail light, and that Castile let the officer know he had a firearm and was only reaching for his wallet to get his license when the officer shot him. 

Reynolds’s impulse, after Castile was shot, to reach for her cellphone and begin narrating is one that is only growing within the black community, fed by activists seeking to further leverage the power of such videos.

“There’s a reflex that has now been developed among African-Americans that you need to pull out your cellphone and capture these things when they happen,” says Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a new app where people can record and report police misconduct. And in the Sterling case, an activist group called Stop the Killing recorded and released one of the videos from the scene. Members of the group went to the scene when they heard reports on a police scanner. Through such videos, founder Arthur Reed told The Washington Post, the group is “forcefully seeking justice.”

Reaction has been widespread, with President Obama speaking on the issue during a trip to Poland Thursday, saying, “Change has been too slow.” The Department of Justice quickly opened a probe into the Sterling shooting, and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton formally requested a federal inquest into the Castile shooting, as well.

Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, gave voice to the frustrations driving protests over the deaths, which included protesters shutting down interstates in Philadelphia.

“They say there is no [racial] profiling, but there is,” Ms. Castile said on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday. “We are being hunted every day. It’s a silent war against African-Americans as a whole. A lot of our African-American men, women, and children are being executed by police and there are no consequences.”

Her son was the cafeteria supervisor at a Montessori school. He had no criminal record. 

Two interpretations of the data 

The data beneath the sense of injustice is well-established, though interpreted differently by different groups.

Black people are killed by police at rates that far exceed their share of the population, according to numerous studies. This year, 24 percent of the 509 people shot and killed by police have been black; blacks make up 13 percent of the population.

Some note that, historically, such rates are largely in line with the arrest rates for African-Americans, suggesting that the deaths are a function of criminality, not race. But others argue that fundamental biases in the criminal justice system have tilted it against them.

For example, “African-Americans are only slightly more likely to use drugs than whites. Yet, they are more than twice as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges,” notes Sendhil Mullainathan in the New York Times’s “Upshot” blog.

The perception is that African-Americans often start from a standpoint of guilty until proven innocent.

“A black person might experience police brutality or injustice, but, historically, saying that it’s happening is not enough – we have to literally have evidence, and even then you may not get justice,” says Lori Martin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The legal outcomes since Ferguson have been mixed. In the cases of the Walter Scott in South Carolina, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, law enforcement officials now face murder charges. But grand juries in Ferguson and New York declined to indict officers involved in the killing of unarmed men. And in Baltimore, trials of three officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray have ended in acquittal or hung juries.

The first word, if not the last

But even cases that have not resulted in conviction or indictment have raised awareness and pointed to the power of social media.

“Black Americans might never be able to have the last word on these issues, but social media has at times given us the ability to have the first word – the ability to tell your story and to make it real,” says Robert Ruffins, a community organizer in New Orleans.

In the Castile video, he says, Reynolds “is not recording it for herself; she’s making a directly political act.”

The focus on broadcasting the deaths of black people has its critics. The images can be dehumanizing, says Professor Martin of Louisiana State. They can also accomplish the reverse of what is intended, she says – serving as de facto warnings to black people to not step out of line.

But the need to share what they show is greater, some say.

“One impulse is to not keep sharing these videos," adds Professor Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel. “But it cuts both ways. Images catalyze resistance and offer striking turning points, from Emmitt Till to Rodney King to the present.”

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