“He was very honest.” That’s how one juror explained the decision last week to acquit Philando Castile’s killer, Jeronimo Yanez, formerly of the St. Anthony, Minn., police department, of second-degree manslaughter. The implication: That Castile, the man he shot, was not as honest, not as innocent and not as good. That Yanez’s fear of Castile was reasonable.
Before Yanez’s trial, we witnessed the immediate aftermath of Castile’s shooting live-streamed on Facebook. It triggered outrage across the country, prompting Minnesota’s governor to initially ask, “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver, were white?” before going on to answer, “I don’t think it would have.” This week, the public saw the dashboard-camera footage Yanez’s jury saw. It highlights Castile’s manifestly appropriate response after being pulled over by Yanez, but it also amplifies Yanez’s instantaneous fear, helping the jury conclude that he acted lawfully.
All of which underscores the commitment, ingrained into our moral imagination, to perceiving police officers as good, honest and reasonable, while perceiving black civilians as bad, dishonest and dangerous — the problem at the heart of Castile’s killing, Eric Garner’s killing, Samuel DuBose’s killing and Walter Scott’s killing.
Each of these killings was caught on camera, reminding us that despite the public-policy argument for wider use of body and dashboard cameras, police video will not deliver justice.
Much has been made of the introduction of dash-cam and body-cam technology. Here, advocates have said, are the tools that produce the evidence needed to help jurors and the public come to a consensus about when police killings are, and are not, justified. “Put body cameras on every cop,” argued Mark O’Mara, who represented George Zimmerman in his trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin, to “hold cops accountable for unjustified actions against minorities.”
In recent years, as police killings of unarmed African Americans have become widely publicized, polls have shown that Americans support the adoption of the technology. And there are certainly examples of police departments that have effectively implemented their use.
I’m skeptical, though, because of what cameras cannot do: They can’t upend the perception that black people present a threat that justifies the use of deadly police force, even when victims are running away, as in Scott’s case. Videos won’t stop an officer from imagining himself as “a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” when engaging a black teenager, or from approaching a 12-year-old black boy as if he were a grown man. The knowledge that he was being recorded did not temper the overreaction of Yanez, a trained, armed police officer. Instead, Yanez immediately reached for his gun after Castile calmly and responsibly informed Yanez that he was carrying a firearm, and within seconds Yanez fired seven rounds in rapid succession into a car where a 4-year-old sat in the back seat.
This irrational fear doesn’t only operate in police encounters. Look around at America’s segregated settings for evidence: Parents use race as a heuristic for school quality irrespective of test scores, prompting whites not only to avoid majority-minority schools, but also to fight attempts at public school integration. Homeowners use race when evaluating neighborhoods, characterizing neighborhoods as significantly less desirable places to live when more black people are featured in pictures of those neighborhoods. Just this week, a viral video illustrated the phenomenon of white patients eschewing care from doctors and nurses of color.
These racial perceptions have other material and unjust consequences. One 2014 Stanford University study found that Americans support more punitive crime legislation when they closely associate criminality with blackness. In a bittersweet change to drug policy, now that the country’s opioid crisis is associated with white Americans, greater empathy informs our conversations about drug trafficking and substance abuse. And in the tense moments of a police stop, irrational and racialized fear turns deadly.
What becomes of a society where race warps the functioning of the justice system, where juries, observing these horrors on video, nevertheless deem fear of blackness reasonable? What happens when the killing of unarmed black people consistently and despairingly results in acquittals that leave black victims’ friends, families and entire communities convinced that the system is incapable of delivering justice? Faith in our democracy, in our institutions and in each other dies a steady and certain death. In the wake of that death, white supremacy grows, destroying not only black lives but the lives of everyone else complicit in, or benefiting from, that destruction.
Video can’t save us from this. Only a reckoning with America’s fear of blackness can take us beyond the place where cameras leave us. In that new place, Castile, like his killer, might — must — also be understood in the first instance as honest, good and deserving of life.