I wasn’t going to write this. On this subject, I felt I had already spilled enough outrage onto enough pages to last a lifetime. I needed a break from the emotional carnage. Then I saw the dashcam video that was released last week.
Granted, it told me nothing I didn’t already know. I knew how a black man named Philando Castile was pulled over last year in a Minneapolis suburb. I knew how he politely informed the police officer that he had a legal firearm in the car. I knew how the officer panicked and started shooting as Castile was complying with a request for his license and registration.
But as it turned out, I had the facts, but not the visceral truth. I didn’t know how shattering and sudden it all was. One moment it’s a traffic stop and then –bangbangbangbangbangbangbang! — it’s an execution.
That video shocked me. It left my heart trembling. It left my thoughts tumbling.
I thought of the NRA, which supposedly exists to protect law-abiding gun owners from government overreach. Obviously, that extends only to law-abiding white gun owners, because it’s been nearly a year since Castile’s death and, at this writing, the group has uttered barely a peep about a black man who was martyred for that cause.
I thought of all those people who assure me, with a smugness found only in the profoundly ignorant, that if black people would just treat police with respect and obey their commands, they wouldn’t get hurt. I would ask them to tell me which of those things Castile failed to do.
I thought of that time Sean Hannity explained how, when he is stopped, he informs the officer that he has a legal firearm and it all goes smoothly after that: “’Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ writes me a ticket, ‘Thank you, sir,’ and that’s it.” I thought of the frequent inability of white men to recognize privilege even when it’s shooting a black man in the chest.
And I thought of a tweet from “Sydette” that has haunted me the last few days: “Why,” she asked, “must black death be broadcast and consumed to be believed, and what is it beyond spectacle if it cannot be used to obtain justice?”
I don’t know who Sydette is, but she raises a question of deep historical implications. Black death, after all, has been spectacle for generations. Deep into the 20th century, it was common for white people to murder black ones in the cruelest ways they could invent, then pose for pictures with the maimed and ruined bodies. Yet even armed with such damning photographic evidence — see some of it for yourself at withoutsanctuary.com — police routinely declined to arrest, and prosecutors, to prosecute.
Generations later, in the era of the smartphone and the dashcam, damning photographic evidence still is not enough. Black death must be “broadcast and consumed to be believed” — and even when believed, often doesn’t seem to count for much. That’s why many of us were unsurprised when Castile’s killer was acquitted.
So this man’s death is reduced to — what? — clickbait? A TV news segment? We get our spectacle, but the profoundly ignorant remain profoundly ignorant, Sean Hannity still can’t see what the fuss is about, and justice is just a voyeur, avidly watching the show — black death, live! — but doing nothing about it.
Castile says, “Sir, I have to tell you: I do have a firearm on me.”
The officer says, “Don’t reach for it, then. Don’t pull it out.”
Castile says, “I’m not pulling it out.”
The officer says, “Don’t pull it out!”
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.