Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.
Last week, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanex, the man who shot and killed Philando Castile, a black man, was acquitted of all charges. Later that day, the dashboard camera video of the incident was released by state investigators to the public. In the video Castile calmly tells Officer Yanez, “Sir, I have to tell you I do have a firearm on me.” What happens next is disturbing. Officer Yanez tells Castile not to reach for his gun. Castile assures him he is not. Yanez then fires seven shots through the driver’s side window, killing Castile.
CSU, and Fort Collins, has recently had its own experience with public exposure of police force. On April 7th, a bystander took a video of an altercation between Fort Collins police officer Randall Klamser and Colorado State junior Michaella Surat, a white woman. As Surat appears to pull away from the grasp of Klamser, he body slams her to the ground, Surat’s head hitting the ground with an audible smack.
I am not conflating the two incidents. Castile’s ended in his death, Surat was injured and is facing charges. Each is operating under a vastly different context. Yet both involve law enforcement, an organization that has come under widespread American criticism in the past few years and a bellwether for the current divide in America. And because they are filmed, both are on the receiving end of the American eye that has recently come into focus and critical of the nation’s justice system: with Castile, as with countless others, it’s institutional racism and brutality; with Surat, it’s excessive force.
With both Castile and Surat, the context the videos cannot provide seems to be the primary defense provided by the police department. Officer Yanez said that Castile was reaching for his gun. The video does not confirm or deny this allegation, providing jurors reasonable doubt for his acquittal. Fort Collins Police said that before the video was taken, Surat assaulted an officer, hitting and grabbing him by the throat. On June 1, an internal investigation performed by the Fort Collins police department cleared Officer Klamser of any wrong doing. He has since returned to full duty.
Videos are empathy machines. The recordings of such interactions with the police provide a gateway to the viewing audience to supplant themselves in place of the person they most empathize with. Some people who watch such videos are empathetic with the vulnerable, at being an unwilling participant at the hands of indomitable force. Some might seem themselves in the shoes of the blue uniform and the blue collar worker who is just doing his job and wants to get home safe to his family.
Is it possible to see yourself in the shoes of both parties, to neutralize defensive heel-digging by a sincere effort of understanding? Yes, but only if both parties act accordingly. For example: Black Lives Matter, full stop. Blue Lives Matter, too, but co-opting a phrase symbolic of racial and social justice was bound to be determined as the threat that it is. An original phrase would have communicated the intent of Blue Lives to co-exist with Black Lives rather than to supplant them—the issue that continues to fan the flames the of a nation under threat.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Ibram Kendi spoke to the racism at the heart of incidents like Castile’s, and how the reaction of the white America to such incidents says as much about them as it does their view of America: “People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America. And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up exonerating themselves.”
America doesn’t need exonerating. America needs accountability. Cards on the table: I think that Officer Yanez is guilty and Castile is innocent. I think both Surat and Officer Klamser are to blame; I think the problems of institutional racism and brutality in the American judicial system can be addressed while simultaneously supporting those members who put on the uniform and pledge to “Protect and Serve.” One can be against police injustice and also support police–for respect given and respect returned. I want us both to be better. That means convict me if I deserve it—likewise for the police.
I don’t want the police to go away; I want them to be better and I want them here. I think they can be, but only if the police can live up to the reasonable expectations they place upon the public. We all deserve better than to view justice as a competition within which winning is the only path to a righteous conclusion. There has to be a better way, and that way is by operating together rather than against each other.
Despite all our differences and disputes, we are one nation– Lets act like it.
Columnist Colin Raunig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online @colinraunig