A few days after Independence Day, a police officer in Minnesota shot and mortally wounded Philando Castile, a black man and school cafeteria worker, during a traffic stop in the small town of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, near St Paul. Mr Castile’s girlfriend captured the aftermath of the shooting on video, showing the police officer still aiming a gun at point-blank range.
During the stop, Mr Castile told the officer he had a gun but was very clear he was reaching into his pocket to retrieve his driver’s license and the registration for the car, which the officer had asked him to show.
St Paul Public Schools, where Mr Castile worked in the nutrition services department for 14 years, released a statement, saying it was a pleasure to have him on the job. “He had a cheerful disposition and his colleagues enjoyed working with him,” the district wrote. “He was quick to greet former co-workers with a smile and hug.”
Protests followed the shooting, especially since it came right after another police shooting of a black citizen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Following deaths of black citizens at the hands of police in Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, and elsewhere, President Barack Obama, who is in Warsaw for a NATO conference, felt compelled to respond.
“When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same,” the Times quoted him as saying in a statement Thursday. “And that hurts, and that should trouble all of us. … This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about.”
A protest in Dallas turned violent, and five police officers were shot and killed by a 25-year-old black man who said he was angry about police violence against African-Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement finds itself at a crossroads in its short history: it must distance itself from the violent and reactionary response of the Dallas sniper but must also propel its message to take advantage of what is a national repugnance over the undeniable evidence that police respond differently to white people than they do to black people. They have a different fear threshold when it comes to provoking deadly force in response to a citizen’s actions or words.
Black children, while asserting their Fourth Amendment rights, must be taught (or just know from growing up in their neighborhood, although I can’t attest to this, being white), unlike their white counterparts, to take special care to avoid a fear-based response from police officers during a search, even if that search may later be judged unconstitutional. It has been like this for a long time, given this country’s history of race and racism, but the movement has brought it to the attention of national leaders like Mr Obama.
Schools should be a place of safety, but people anywhere often use violence when they feel fear, just as animals bite people when they’re scared. “Motivated by fear, defensively aggressive dogs decide that the best defense is a good offense,” the ASPCA writes about staying safe from dog bites. But some people are wondering if the Black Lives Matter movement itself may have encouraged the Dallas violence. Bill Zedler, a state representative in Texas, tweeted, “Clearly the rhetoric of Black Lives Matters encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers.”
No doubt kids will need to talk about this and address these questions on their own terms, and I hope our teachers do a better job than our nation seems to be capable of doing right now to provide some very difficult answers that lead to positive changes for these communities. Young people are often behind successful civil rights movements, and they should get support from teachers, who can provide accurate information about these troubling issues.