On July 6, 2016, at 9:05 p.m., in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, near where Fry Street arrives at Larpenteur Avenue and stops, Philando Castile, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter were pulled over by Jeronimo Yanez and Joseph Kauser of the St. Anthony Police Department. Yanez and Kauser stopped Castile’s car because a brake light was out, or because Castile’s “wide-set nose” matched the description of a robbery suspect. Castile, who had a legally-issued permit allowing him to carry a concealed weapon in any place open to the general public, advised Yanez that he had a gun. Within seconds, Yanez unholstered his weapon and shot toward Castile’s body seven times. Five bullets hit Castile in the torso.
Moments later, Reynolds activated Facebook Live on her cell phone and calmly narrated the scene. This is where most of us entered the story, and this is where the main character began his exit. The images endure – the protagonist twisted in agony, his shirt stained red. The disquieting calm Reynolds used to to defend her boyfriend – “He’s licensed to carry and he was trying to get his ID out of his wallet,” she said. There was the way her composure highlighted Yanez’s profane hysteria, his vulgar gun still trained on his victim, Reynolds’ repeated use of ”sir,” the other officers arriving to the scene like military men, minutes of sky and wires scored by anguished voices, then, ominously, no scene at all, just nothingness.
As that happened, Castile was likely en route to Hennepin County Medical Center, eight miles away. Two of the bullets had pierced his heart. The result is known all over the world. At 9:37 p.m., not long after arriving to the emergency room, Philando Castile was pronounced dead.
A year has passed since that day. A year when the governor’s council on law enforcement and community relations made statewide recommendations that included no measures for police accountability. A year in which the response to months of protest that occupied highways and government centers was not to address the protesters’ demands, but to attempt a crackdown on the punishment for protesting. A year when we learned time and again that Black and brown bodies are still not safe from Minnesota police.
So much has happened in one year. And yet nothing has really changed.
The bureaucracy of community response
Falcon Heights is shaped like the letter ‘T’ and sits on 2.24 square miles immediately north of St. Paul. Around 5,500 people live there. The base of the T holds the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus and the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The left branch of the T is almost entirely the university’s golf course and the remainder is where the residents live. There aren’t many roads in Falcon Heights, and only one spans the width of the city: Larpenteur Avenue.
In response to the shooting, the city convened the Falcon Heights Task Force on Policing and Inclusion. The task force included 11 members, met 14 times and held five “Community Conversations” attended by 184 people. Based on those community conversations, output from task force meetings and panel discussions with subject matter experts on topics like policing, community relations and joint-powers agreements, the task force published recommendations addressing culture and values, police-community relationships, police training and capacity, data and transparency and priorities for policing. The task force concluded with an ownership statement, giving the Falcon Heights City Council the primary task of implementing and maintaining recommendations like renegotiating the policing contract with St. Anthony and searching for a potentially new municipality to provide policing services. The statement also reiterated that continued community engagement is essential to long-term success. Those recommendations were adopted by the Falcon Heights City Council in May.
Kathy Quick is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Quick served as volunteer co-facilitator for the Task Force on Policing and Inclusion and summarized its recommendations in two core takeaways.
“Mutual safety is built on mutual trust, and police do what society teaches and asks them to do when it comes to maintaining ‘order,’” she explained. “Public safety officers should take every opportunity to very visibly, proactively and affirmatively defend civil rights and equality. [Police are] the prow of the ship, and policing must be given focused attention, but there will be no change until we recognize that it is everyone’s work to confront the reality of and to persistently combat systemic racism.”
Tony Fischer serves on the Falcon Heights City Council and on the city’s Community Engagement Commission. He spoke to me as a resident of Falcon Heights and not on behalf of the City Council or the commission.
“The task force did great work, a lot of volunteers put time, energy and emotion into the issues and came up with a really thoughtful path forward,” Fisher said. “We have a lot of responsibility now to implement those recommendations, to do the work that needs to be done. I think we’ll do that but we need to watch out for trying to do so much that everything is watered down or we exhaust our capacity. We need to keep momentum so we don’t settle back into comfortable patterns.”
A portion of that responsibility falls to the commission. At a June 27 meeting, seven members met to prioritize one of the task force’s recommendations, the one concerning inclusion. Commission members individually listed the items they deemed most important, then the group worked to formulate those into one task list. The commission interacted with each other in a way that suggested familiarity gained from time together. Most of their conversations concerned ways to keep the community involved in this important work.
At the exact same time, seven miles away, more than 100 people attended the St. Anthony Village City Council meeting, the first one since the Yanez verdict was announced. The quiet and diligence evident among the seven commission members in Falcon Heights were in short supply at the City Council meeting. Jerry Faust, the mayor of St. Anthony Village, didn’t help matters. He kicked things off by saying, “Let’s move forward, not backwards.” Several signs went up on which were written “resign.” Two hours of passionate public comments followed.
In the hall outside council chambers, I met John Thompson, a tall and energetic man dressed entirely in blue and wearing a hat on which was written “Philando.” Almost everyone who walked by hugged him – a minister did, other concerned citizens did, so did a middle-school student. They all thanked him for his comments and encouraged him to keep speaking out against the conditions that led to Castile’s death. Thompson told me he hadn’t planned to address the council, he wanted to come to listen.
“But what the mayor said let me know we have work to do, so I told them I showed up with the truth. I showed up with my wide-set nose,” Thompson said.
Thompson and I stood 25 feet outside a door leading to St. Anthony Police Department’s offices while he told me about his friend of eleven years, Philando Castile. The proximity to the department that killed his friend was not lost on him. While we talked, he said being there makes him afraid for his life and acknowledged that Castile’s fate could easily be his tomorrow. Since Castile was killed, Thompson, along with Castile’s family members and more than a few others, has been a tireless advocate for reform – going to Yanez’s trial, attending meetings in Falcon Heights, Minneapolis, St. Anthony Village and at the state Capitol where he plans to work toward preventing the kind of institutional violence that took his friend’s life. A group of students from St. Anthony Middle School’s Student Diversity Leadership Group gathered around him and asked for advice on how to deal with classmates emboldened in their racism by President Donald Trump. Thompson told them, “There are more of you than there are of them. Remember that. Gather your people and stay together. If you want to have a rally on the first day of school, call me.”
Looking toward the council chambers, responding to aspects of the process that felt perfunctory to him, Thompson said, “everything they’ve done to heal is a check in the box.” Thompson is a man on a mission, and his zeal is evident from down the hall. While we talked, an officer emerged from police department offices, walked by us, and eyed Thompson with open hostility.
Thompson continued undeterred. “I made up my mind I’m not going to live in fear,” he said.
Thompson met Castile 11 years ago when they worked together at St. Paul Public Schools. They became friends. “Philando was a nerd. He liked chess and video games, normal stuff. He kept to himself. He was quiet and calm,” Thompson then described times when Castile, confronted with an oven that wouldn’t heat, or a refrigerator that wouldn’t cool, adapted the meal plan without any signs of concern.“I let my friend guide me. I talk to Philando every day.”
The council meeting ended, members of the public, familiar with Thompson from protests at this City Hall and other locations, streamed toward him. He knew our visit was about to end. As Thompson prepared to meet with other concerned citizens, he showed signs of fatigue, and his eyes revealed an enduring sadness.
The council meeting ends, members of the public, familiar with Thompson from protests at this City Hall and other locations, stream toward him. He knows our visit is ended. He’s showing fatigue and an enduring sadness.
“I miss him,” he said. “I miss my friend, and I’m just stuck. Sad. Mad.”
‘Longstanding experiences of discrimination and exclusion’
Seen in one way, the killing of Philando Castile offers a tale of two cities – Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Village. Most observers realize that perspective is too limiting. This could have happened in Farmington or Spring Lake Park or any city in any state in America. This has happened in Minneapolis and in St. Paul, as well as in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Ferguson, Missouri; and Beavercreek, Ohio. Still, some people in Falcon Heights don’t see Castile’s death as a Falcon Heights issue. They see it more as grounds for ending their contract with the St. Anthony Police Department. For them, a man from South St. Paul employed by St. Anthony Village, in Falcon Heights under contract, killed a man from Robbinsdale. That it happened in Falcon Heights was bad luck; it just as easily could have happened in Lauderdale.
Jay Colond has lived in Falcon Heights for 14 years and sees it differently. At the time of the shooting, he served on the Community Engagement Commission and was then appointed to the Task Force on Policing and Inclusion. He also spoke on the condition that his words be attributed to him and not to the commission or the task force.
“Many white [Falcon Heights residents], and a few people of color, in and of the community, got a brief primer on white supremacy. Some community members have scratched the surface of the effects of historic oppression and what mechanisms keep systems of oppression in place. The council and community have some detailed ideas of how to proceed with policies to resist racism as a community, even if local government is limited,” Colond said.
Colond added that “as an Asian I feel invisible, and further like my own oppression is invisible, which made it more complicated to navigate the internalized racism, lack of awareness and persistent structures of anti-racist, but predominantly white, leadership. There is so little space for people of color to grow and relate, and for Black and Native people just to live.”
The same could be said of St. Anthony. Andrea Voss is a resident of the city and a member of St. Anthony Village Community Action. She decried “the blind way the city council has functioned” in response to Castile’s murder. Speaking about Castile, the proceedings of the City Council meeting after Yanez’s acquittal and what she considered a lack of council leadership concerning the recent decision to close the Lowry Grove mobile home park, she said “all these shiny parks don’t mean anything if we turn our backs on the most vulnerable in our community.”
In the wake of Castile’s death, St. Anthony Police Department released data on the 994 arrests the department made between Jan. 1 and July 3, 2016. The data show 47 percent of the people who were arrested were Black and 46 percent were white. According to 2010 United States Census Bureau data, 7 percent of Falcon Heights residents are Black, so the fact that 47 percent of arrests in Falcon Heights belonged to 7 percent of the population indicates racial bias. This bias becomes more evident as police discretion is considered. St. Anthony Police Department data also showed that 17 percent of people given a warning (instead of a citation) were Black while 67 percent of warnings went to whites.
Statistical indications of police bias were supported by public testimony at the first Falcon Heights City Council meeting after Castile was killed. Public testimony “made visible painful and longstanding experiences of discrimination and exclusion in the community, not only relating to policing,” Quick recalled.
More information, no change
A key question remains – how to move forward from here. The challenge is highlighted by a recent chapter in the Castile story – the June 16 acquittal of Yanez on all charges and public access to records and evidence gathered as part of the criminal investigation. Some in the community see the killing as justified and sourced by Yanez’s reasonable fear of mortal danger. Others understand the verdict as required by a flawed judicial system and a permissive use of force statute. Still others see systemic and institutional racism backed by a system of justice that advances discrimination against people of color.
Lately, as evidence has become available to the public, other videos have gone viral. It’s fair to wonder if those who would benefit most from watching them will do so. Quick, who volunteered on the task force and learned a great deal about Falcon Heights, the community, the residents and the police, has seen them.
“What shocks me in these new videos is the apparent aloofness of Yanez’s colleagues. Among other things, we’ve had all of this discussion in the task force about de-escalation, and then when I see it in action, I’m disturbed by the form and direction it takes. Other officers arrive very quickly and are walking around the site apparently calmly while a man is dying, and they take a very, very long time to give that their attention and try to do anything to save him. The questions coming through on the audiotape of the radio communication, while incomplete – we don’t hear all voices – reflect an extraordinary focus on ensuring that all officers are safe. They handcuff Reynolds as if she were dangerous and a perpetrator, while we know from the video that came out almost a year ago that she has been extraordinarily calm and subordinate to the officer, saying things like, ‘Please tell me you didn’t just shoot my boyfriend.’”
Quick continued, “The police take what feels like hours, though it’s actually many long minutes, before they offer any assistance to Castile. I’ve driven that street so many times that I know perfectly well that the fire station and all of its trained EMTs are less than a half mile away, yet it takes so much longer for medical assistance to arrive than the police backup, which I find inexcusable. By the time EMTs arrive they’ve long since established that there are no loose suspects and that the only suspect with a gun is clearly unable to use it.”
We have more information than we did a year ago and an opportunity for deeper understanding. Lives are in danger and need assistance. Where will we focus our efforts – on preserving the crime scene or rendering aid? Toward perpetuating the hope that we are just and free of prejudice or toward accepting the reality that we have work to do? Will we ignore the painful past and all the lessons it offers us? As anguished voices continue to call out in our streets, how will we respond to them?