Guns Don’t Kill, Culture Does

Photo above is from Creative Commons: “1911r1” by K.G.23 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our culture shoots black men. Kills them. And our culture acquits their killers—if they are the police. This headline grabbed me and shook me, reading like too many that I have seen before: Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Killing of Philando Castile.

How quickly horrors like this recede into the background, as we are distracted by the short-fingered vulgarian‘s latest ugly tweet. There’s something new and juvenile with him every day, and it’s blocking your view of the real bullshit that is going on in his government. And more terrifying, it’s blocking the systemic racism that continues in our culture…although we got good at systemic racism long before Trump came along.

Trump and the R’s have a general desire to return this country to the so-called idyllic 1950s. (Um, except for the 90% top income tax bracket.) Knowing all the while that you cannot return to the past…unless you never left it.

War hero “Ike” Eisenhower was president. Senator Joe McCarthy Red Scared anyone who made a living in the public eye. The USA and USSR traded nuclear tests like teen boys comparing their junk in the locker room. And the adult murderers of young Emmett Till were acquitted by a jury of their prejudiced white peers.

Segregation and racism were a long-established part of American culture. Black men were killed, too often without consequence.

Cut to today: Eisenhower and McCarthy are dead. Only North Korea tests nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. The USSR fell and is attempting a comeback. But killing black men without consequence? That is still a thing.

In the 1996 film Lone Star, Kris Kristoferson plays a 1950s Texas sheriff who likes to kill black and latino men during traffic stops. He pulls them over, requests a closer look at what’s hanging on their gun racks—and then shoots them dead as they obey him. See, they were “resisting arrest!”

This is frighteningly similar to what happened to Philando Castile in 2016. He died obeying the orders of a police officer. There were some notable differences: the officer did not plan to shoot him, and did not want to see his gun. But the result was the the same: another black man died unnecessarily at the hands of the police. Dashcam and cell phone video reveals how the cop lost his composure, screaming at Castile, shooting him, screaming at the unarmed girlfriend and her four-year old child after.

This police officer had complete physical domination of the situation, yet behaved like a cornered animal.

How can that be? He screamed at the top of his lungs while pointing a loaded handgun at an unarmed woman and her four-year old daughter, moments after pumping seven shots into the man now dying in the seat next to her. At his trial, the jury acquitted the cop—because, um, he feared for his life. You’d think that this officer of the law had never been in a threatening situation before. And had never even been trained for it.

Watch and decide for yourself. This New York Times video combines previously unseen footage from the officer’s dashcam with the video that Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds streamed live through Facebook following the shooting. I am ill viewing it. Her boyfriend is dying in the driver’s seat next to her. Her four-year old daughter is in the back seat. The police officer who just fired into the car points the weapon at her and screams again and again.

She stays calm and measured in communicating with the officer, perhaps out of shock at what has just happened, or perhaps just trying to stay alive. This screaming man with the gun—will he pull the trigger on her? On her daughter?

The police dashcam footage is particularly disturbing. The officer tells Castile to retrieve his driver’s license and then shoots him when he does. Can you guess the black man’s mistake? Was it telling the officer that he had a firearm? He thought he was protecting himself with that caution.

From the video:

Castile: “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”

Officer: “Don’t reach for it then.”

The cop begins to slide his own handgun out of the holster.

“I’m not reaching…”

“Don’t pull it out, then.”

“I’m not pulling it out.”

“Don’t pull it out!”

Reynolds: “He’s not…”

And then seven shots are fired at point blank range.  He was going for his driver’s license, Sergeant. But I thought he was going for his gun. Someone please tell me: who warns a cop before trying to shoot him? Here’s my subtext of that exchange from the video:

Philando Castile says: “Don’t worry if you see my gun.”

The police officer hears: “I’m going to use my gun.”

In the trial acquittal’s aftermath, I read a newspaper columnist lamenting how each time that a cop kills a black man, there’s a quick rationale of why. It is presented by the defense lawyers, by the officer’s fellow cops, by the city government. By Fox News. The black guy did this wrong thing and the situation exploded unintentionally. Next time, it’ll be a different wrong thing. The common element is that the killing was an accident.

No. No! The common element is that it’s a pathetic excuse for cultural racism. For systemic racism. If Philando Castile was white, would he even have been stopped? Would the non-white officer who killed him (on film!) still be acquitted? I said this on the subject in an earlier post:

A white Philando Castile would never have been stopped.  “The driver looks more like one of our [robbery] suspects, just because of the wide-set nose,” said the officer to his police radio just before he stopped Castile’s car. Really?

So racial profiling killed Philando Castile? Yes. Was it the officer’s fear? Yes. Was it Castile’s unfortunate pairing of “I have a gun” with a move to retrieve something from his pocket? Yes. If you no more than glance at it, the cop’s crude profiling sounds valid. A black man was wanted for robbery and look, there’s a black man.

But wait. Keep thinking that and you’ve stepped into the signature scene of In the Heat of the Night, with Rod Steiger arresting Sidney Poitier for the offense of Being Black. Unfortunately, you’ve also entered a lot of communities in this country—even though it hasn’t been 1967 for a very long time.

It makes me wonder why dozens of white male drivers aren’t stopped and questioned after some white guy robs a jewelry store. Surely the police, seeking the suspect, see these people who look like the suspect driving by?

I am not saying that government-sanctioned gunfire killed another black man. I am saying that it was culture: a police culture that seems to teach officers to shoot first and ask questions later, especially if the subject is black. That’s related to the gun culture that has silenced the NRA from defending a legal gun owner, because he was black.

So it is revealed: Wayne LaPierre’s “good guy with a gun” can be black, but only if he is wearing blue. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote:

“The officer absolved of Castile’s killing … is Latino. But the incident would be an example of structural racism even if the officer were African American. Greater diversity in police departments is helpful, but the real problem is the assumption—by officers of any color—that black men can be shot first and questioned later.”

This institutional prejudice can go all the way to the courtroom. There’s a particularly disturbing behavior in this story of a former police officer acquitted in the fatal shooting of black man in Milwaukee:

The former officer “…was fired from the police force in October after being charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case. The sexual assault case was not mentioned during the trial because it is being handled separately and knowledge of it could prejudice the jury.”

Does that sound fair to you, to not smear a defendant with a different, unproven crime? “Yes” is an easy call, in a democracy. But our democracy does not apply rules consistently. Of course you know where I’m going with this: straight into our cultural, systemic racism. In every case that I’ve read about in the past few years, the dead black man’s reputation was assaulted by the defense during the cop’s trial.

I’m trying to square that with the consideration granted to the police defendant, that you just read about in the previous paragraph. I cannot square it. And there’s more. At the end, the story mentions Castile:

The acquitted officer “…testified the motorist, 32-year-old Philando Castile, disregarded his commands not to pull out a handgun Castile had informed him he was carrying.”

In the video I linked earlier, you can hear both Philando Castile and Diamond Reynolds telling the officer that Castile was obeying the officer’s order to produce his driver’s license. NOT his handgun. I’ll ask again: who advises a police officer that he has a gun before reaching for it?

I can understand the law enforcement version of omerta, the mafia code of silence. Patrol buddies lying to keep each other out of trouble. It’s an extension of the natural urge to protect your extended family. But at some point, that practice must yield to the law, if not to morality.

Too often the devil wins out, as in this Chicago Tribune story of how some police went wrong after the death of a black suspect. Laquan McDonald was caught breaking into cars and carrying a knife. He deserved to be arrested, and after a patient pursuit, the arrest was poised to happen. But one cop decided that shooting him was a better idea, and in the aftermath, the other cops decided to protect their fellow officer.

This is police culture at its worst.

Part of this tragedy is that most police don’t start their shifts planning or wanting to kill a black man. What happens is they get into situations for which they are inadequately prepared, or improperly trained. I live near Santa Rosa, California, where several times a year, I read that police wound up killing a mentally disturbed person in front of the very people who had called the police, to defuse the situation.

Why are police asked to be mental health counselors? That’s a whole profession by itself.

A 2013 incident in Santa Rosa played out very much like the Tamir Rice killing, where a thirteen-year old latino boy with a fake gun was shot by a Sheriff’s Deputy who didn’t give him enough time to respond to a halt! order. The officer was acquitted at trial.

I don’t have a quick solution. I do think that the police need better training—and more of it. I know that a cop’s day is a seesaw of downtime and stress. Perhaps virtual reality, or live simulations, could help them experience a variety of volatile situations, frequently enough to help them handle the stress better when they’re in the middle of the real thing.

If you can stand to look, the Washington Post and the Guardian now keep databases of police shootings. Black men aren’t the only people killed, but they die in far greater numbers than their percentage in the population.

I have much more to say on the subject of guns. In a future post, I will address the gun culture’s role in American life, and death.

Written by

Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.

Latest comments
  • A very insightful essay on the topic, Steve. I’m almost embarrassed to say, but my first thought after reading it (twice, I might add) was that — what good will essays like this do when our protests accomplish so little? Sounds defeatist, I suppose….

  • Uh, Steve, what the heck is “mertaur culture”?

    And why can I only type in caps in this comment box?

    Otherwise, good column, except it’s not really about handguns vs. culture, it’s about “Cop Culture,” isn’t it? having been a member of that brotherhood for a short time, i can vouch that there is a kind of “omerta,” at least in northern california. can’t speak to other parts of the country. there has always been a kind of “us vs. them” thing where cops and civilians are concerned.

    sad, but true.


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