These are the magic words police officers use to get acquitted after shooting unarmed Black people.
This week the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was found not guilty on all charges. Philando was killed during a traffic stop when a police officer claimed he thought Philando was reaching for a gun (which he had a permit to carry legally). The day after the acquittal, the official dashcam footage from the traffic stop was released to the public, and the world was able to see, and it's a chilling reminder of how our bodies are not our own and how our lives can be snatched away from us at any moment. Philando followed proper protocol by first telling the officer that he has a firearm in his vehicle, then proceeded to get his license and registration. The cop ordered him not to reach for the gun, and within seconds Philando was pumped with seven bullets in front of his girlfriend and young child.
The video speaks for itself, but a jury watched the same video and still rendered a not guilty verdict. The officer sang the same old song we hear when dealing with these types of cases, "I feared for my life." Those five words have been the get out of jail free cards for killing Black people. It's as if our skin alone is a threat. My honest question is what does it take to make it home from a traffic stop?
Many Black Millenials have grown up hearing horror stories about police brutality in our communities, and some of our parents have lived through many of these situations. My parents can vividly remember where they were when they saw the Rodney King video. They also can recall how the community reacted when the verdict came back that those officers who were innocent after being caught on camera beating and unarmed black man.
The horror stories I'll be able to tell my kids in the future will be too many to count. I remember where I was when I heard about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young teenage boy who was confronted on his way back from the store by a neighborhood watchman who took the law into his own hands and killed Trayvon in cold blood. As I attempted to sit back and analyze the situation, I found myself asking questions that had nothing to do with the fact the man killed him. I was more concerned with the man’s thought process.
George Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking with a hoodie on and felt he was suspicious enough to confront him (as he told police when he was questioned). My initial thought was,“why did the sight of this black boy threaten him?” Then I thought, “Well doesn’t matter now because he’s going to jail for the rest of his life.”
Of course, I was mistaken.
On July 13th, 2013 a six-person jury rendered a not guilty verdict on all counts. I was driving around the uptown area of the Bronx with my friends when we heard the news. It deflated our spirits and turned what was suppose to be a fun night out partying into a political discussion that didn’t end with a feeling of optimism of what is to come in the future. Four black boys in a nice car on a Friday night; we knew we had heard this story before, so we turned the music down and drove in well-lit areas. Being afraid in our skin was now our reality. We had to conduct ourselves in a civilized manner because we didn’t know who was watching, and itching to cause us trouble.
The drive to our location was only half of our journey, however. When we got to the party that was located in someone’s basement, we had to go by another set of rules. We now had to conduct ourselves in a more defensive and hostile manner while still trying to have fun. Again, we didn't know who was watching. In a span of a couple of hours we four felt a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions that shape our entire experience as black males in America. We went from young, educated black males looking for a good time on a Friday night, to four negroes riding in a car trying not to get pulled over, to four niggas in a party with misdirected disdain towards the other Black males in the party for so much as a stare that was too lengthy. We weren't angry at our brothers, we were angry at the system.
I can also remember having my night ruined after getting being confronted by some campus police officers at my college. I was walking with a group of friends to go get some food from the late night spot we had. As we were walking we noticed a cop car pull up and we naturally became hesitant. No matter how far you are from the hood there are some habits that just don’t die. The officer stepped out of his vehicle and told us to stop walking and present our Student Identification Cards. My friends and I were taken aback as to why we were being stopped, so we asked what was the reason and in return we got an unwarranted disrespectful response. The officer claimed he was just doing his job and he had to make sure we were students at the school, and if we were we had nothing to worry about.
I have noticed the way cops, and people who support their methods love to pull the whole, “If you’re not guilty you have no reason to worry” routine. That would be a valid argument if it weren't for the fact that innocence in our society does not give black people a pass to live. The officer then went on to say he smelled marijuana and we should go back to our rooms and stay out of trouble. None of us were smoking are doing anything illegal we were just going to get something to eat like any other college student would on a late Friday night.
It’s wild to think about, no matter what you do to make an officer feel safe while stopping you, you can still end up dead. I have never been inside of a jail cell, but I feel like I know what is it like to be trapped. It’s rushing home to finish your Black History paper for school but on the way getting looks of pure hate from the people who look just like you. It’s feeling excited about passing your road test then being brought down to earth by your father and being reminded to keep still and keep your hands visible if a cop ever pulls you over because they can and will kill you.
Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.