You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land. (Num 35:33)
My freshman year in college, I was living in a large city. One evening, I was taking the subway home from some kind of event. We pulled into a station and a lot of people got off; when the doors closed, I realized that I was alone in the subway car with a large man. I returned to reading my book, but after a minute or so, I became aware that something was not right. I looked up and found the man staring at me, intently. His eyes were glittering; he had unzipped his shorts and was pleasuring himself, staring at me with those glittering eyes.
I was terrified. I did not know whether his invasion of my personhood would stop there, or whether his actions were a prelude to a deliberate assault. I did know that he and I were alone and that I had no way off that train until we pulled into the next station, which was several minutes away. I remember going cold with fear. I remember praying. I was as frightened of that man as I had been of anyone in my young life, but my fear gave me no right to pull out a gun and shoot that man. Nor should it have. The man’s actions were grossly inappropriate, but he did not proceed to assault me. He remained in his chair; the train pulled into a station; I jumped out of the car; the incident was over.
That was then; this is now.
This week, a jury acquitted a police officer of the murder of a school cafeteria-worker named Philando Castile. Mr. Castile was driving with his wife and small child when an officer pulled him over. Mr. Castile complied with the officer’s requests. He was polite. He was deferential. And about a minute after the officer approached the car, Mr. Castile was dead.
The jury’s verdict hinged on the question of whether the officer had been correct to feel threatened by Mr. Castile. As with the other cases in which black men have been killed by police officers in the last few years, the jury concluded that the officer’s sense of threat was appropriate. But with all due respect, that is not the right question. Being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.
I am a small woman, and I have lived my adult life in large cities. Most weeks, I encounter men who are threatening to me: men who are mentally ill and raving, or who seem to be strung out on drugs, or who are angry and aggressive, or who look at me in ways that are not benign. But I do not have the right to kill those men. I have the right to be prudent about how close I get to them; I have the right to refuse to interact with them; I have the right to remain in places where the presence of other people mitigates my sense of danger. I do all those things, and you know what? Not one of those men has ever tried to harm me. Not one. I manage those perceived threats without relying upon a gun, and all of us have gone our separate ways in peace.
And so I have to ask, Why are certain police officers so much less able to handle their fear than I am? And if they are so threatened by black men, why do they insist on interacting with them?
I’m being serious here. If they come upon a person who is engaged in an armed assault, of course they have to intervene. But if the person they’re afraid of is selling cigarettes on the sidewalk or driving a car with a tail-light that’s not working, why not give it a pass, or ask for help from an officer who is less afraid? After all, the vast majority of our police officers are not killing people at traffic stops or choking them on the streets of our cities. Most of them are honorable men and women who try to build relationships with the communities they serve, to maintain the public peace, and to go home each night without blood on their hands. I am deeply grateful for their work, and I trust that they could handle these incidents without resort to violence, or, at least, not to violence that has a fatal outcome.
I know that the police officers who keep us safe need to engage in prudent self-protection. But there is a difference between that and murder. There are Tazers. There are clubs. There is the simple tactic of avoiding confrontation. Because, in the end, fear is just a feeling, and a lot of what we fear never happens. If my continued existence or your continued existence is contingent on someone else’s feelings, rather than on our actions, none of us is safe. None of us is secure.
And the videotape is utterly clear: Mr. Castile did not engage in threatening actions. Trevor Noah asked, “How does a black person not get shot in America? Because if you think about it, the bar is always moving. The goalposts are always shifting. There’s always a different thing that explains why a person got shot. Oh, the person was wearing a hoodie. Or the person was running away from a police. Or, no, the person was going towards the police. Or the person was running around at night. Or, no, the person had an illegal firearm. Or the person didn’t have a firearm. But, at some point you realize, there’s no real answer.” Because the real answer isn’t in the actions of the person whose been killed. It’s in the fear of the person who did the killing.
So let me repeat: being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.