Another Harvest In An Orchard Of Strange Fruit

It was a cold night in the fall of 2002 when me and my then-girlfriend pulled up to the public parking lot at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to relax and snuggle a bit. I was 17, a country kid from southeastern Virginia who had just moved to the area with my father the previous summer to start college.

Doing this in the front of my car was not a particularly comfortable experience, so we decided to hop in the back seat. I had to clean it out first, of course, so I did just that before we settled in to watch the moonlight glistening off the lake. It was to be, it appeared, one of those nights that sticks with you long after the moment has passed. Not because anything dramatic happened, but because we tend to remember those little instances in our coming of age where things might have been a bit simpler and sweeter, particularly as the grind of adulthood makes such moments difficult to come by.

And, without question, that night has remained stuck in my mind. I wish that I could tell you that the memory was positive; it might have been, were it not for the Minneapolis Police Department.

I saw the police car entering the parking lot just a minute or two after we had settled in. I tensed up a bit — my parents gave me The Talk just like any other — but I figured they would just pass us by and leave us be. That changed when the cop in the driver’s seat flashed the spotlight into my car. I am thinking, “Oh God, I hope they don’t think I’m trying to fuck out here.” Figured that I would just explain to them how my parents would not particularly approve of such behavior and hope that they would just let us alone.

“Is this cup yours?,” asked the officer with the blinding spotlight.

In my rush to clean the car, snuggle for a bit, and then get home before it got too late out, I had forgotten to pick up a Wendy’s cup that I had dropped due to my hands being full of trash from the back seat. I stated that it was mine, apologized profusely, and went to throw it away. I figured that would be enough. But while one of the cops looked over my driver’s license, his partner kept getting more and more agitated.

“Oh, so you think that you can just throw your shit all over the place whenever you feel like it, huh? You think we’re gonna just pick it up like mommy and daddy do at home?”

You can probably imagine that I do not particularly care for people who speak of my parents this way. But having grown up with the highlight reels of Your Friendly Neighborhood Law Enforcement Officer At Work  — Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell — I knew that getting angry would result in a situation even more unpleasant than the one I was currently facing. So I simply stood my ground and said that he did not need to take it there and asked for their last names.

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you spoiled bitch?!”

At this point, the officer checking my driver’s license has to, basically, hold his partner back and tell him to calm down. My driving record was obviously spotless, and the officer handed back my license after a few minutes. With an admonition to “pick up your trash next time,” the two Minneapolis cops drove away in their patrol car. I never got their names. I never got their badge numbers.

When that cop stood there on a cold Minneapolis night and disrespected me so forcefully, every bit of anger and bile inside of me exploded. I yelled. I pounded the roof of my car. I spit. I cried. I punched my steering wheel.

And then I did something stupid: I got in my car, turned it on, and said that I was going to go after those cops. My girlfriend begged me not to do so, but I was not listening to anything she had to say. She was quick to pick up on this, and threw herself across my lap in order to prevent me from driving anywhere. I did not chase after those cops, which is probably why I am here to tell you this story in the first place.

I felt powerless then. And on July 6, 2016, that feeling of powerlessness came flooding back to me as news of a police shooting in St. Paul, Minnesota came flooding through Facebook in graphic detail.

There is no separation between myself and Philando Castile. None at all.

I lived in the Twin Cities for a decade; my father still lives there today. The road that Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds had been driving on when they were pulled over — Larpenteur Avenue — is one that was a center of my social life in my early 20s. I used to drive down this road just about everyday when I would visit the woman I dated for three years. My friends and I would frequently throw house parties at an apartment off of and Rice Street and Larpenteur. And across the street from the complex was Stargate, a nightclub that I frequented a couple of times.

Like me, Castile was a service employee: he at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, and myself at the Cub Foods bakery in Blaine. We were both union members also; Castile being a Teamster and I being a member of the bakery and confectionery workers’ union. Castile was also likely given the aforementioned Talk by his parents.

“Now, Douglas, when the cops pull you over, place both hands at the top of the steering wheel. Make no sudden movements. When a cop asks you a question, answer everything with “yes, sir” and no, sir”. Be respectful, even if you’re having the worst day of your life. I only get one of you, son. Do you understand? I love you.”

And from the evidence, it appears that Castile did just that, calmly letting the officer know that he had a gun in the same place where his license and registration were located.

But how could he know? How could he know that the officer considered him a suspect in a robbery because of his “wide-set nose”? How could he know that the deference that people of color are trained to show law enforcement would become a license to kill? How could he know that Jeronimo Yanez would play judge, jury, and executioner without any of the attendant rights and freedoms that that false document, the United States Constitution, are supposed to guarantee all citizens of this country?

He probably did know one thing, though: that Yanez would get away with it. There’s all too much of that history for people from marginalized communities to know any differently in this country.

Just think for a second about what this verdict means.

Even if you are respectful and straightforward with a police officer, they are still able to kill you. Quite literally, there is nothing that a motorist can do. You are at the whim of the officer’s mood, life struggles, personal idiosyncrasies and slights, personal levels of racism or other bigotries, and any number of factors that you have no control over. And when it is shown at trial that the evidence presented by the police officer and his defense team is contradicted by eyewitness accounts — namely, the person in the passenger’s seat — and forensic evidence, that a jury of your peers will simply shrug it off and assume that the officer was justified anyway.

These jurors watched a video where they saw a man take his last breaths in front of his daughter and his significant other while a cop screamed profanities at them. Yet the noxious stench of racism and prejudice wafted over the jury and got them to go along with the defense’s case, which amounted to possible marijuana possession being a capital offense.

All because of a badge.

There will be people who read this and balk at the blanket condemnations of law enforcement. Respect — nay, reverence — for cops is so thoroughly ingrained in our society that our immediate sense is to defend the institution. Not all cops are bad, they will say. The common refrain of “a few bad apples” will be on the lips of law enforcement, politicians, columnists, and like-minded souls within the general population.

But all of the apples grow from a poisonous tree. Jeronimo Yanez pulled the trigger, but the system that allowed him to engage in the kind of phrenologic profiling that would have been comfortable in the days of the Fugitive Slave Act was what put him at the side of Philando Castile’s car to begin with. Castile’s point-blank execution shows the dangers inherent for people of color in trying to discern the friendly from the deadly.

My heart hurts. For Philando Castile. For Diamond Reynolds and their daughter. For the rest of Philando’s family and friends. For the community that has to watch one more murder go without the bittersweet flavor of justice that courses through a non-justice system that leaves bodies of color in this country like strange fruit, with their blood pouring onto the leaves and the root. Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie, made a powerful oratory on the steps of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul.

“My son loved this state. He had one tattoo on his body, and it was of the Twin Cities. My son loved this city, and this city killed my son. The system continues to fail black people, and it will continue to fail you all. Like I said, because this happened with Philando, when they get done with us, they coming for you, for you, for you and all your interracial children. Y’all are next, and you will be standing up here fighting for justice just as well as I am.”

I understand Philando’s love of the Twin Cities, because it is one that I share as well. To be sure, though, it is a crazy love. After all, why would you love something that might end up killing you?