My New Normal Post Philando Castile

The death of Philando Castile and the resulting verdict was a horrific warning.

Yesterday, I was pulled over.

The reason given was that my license plate cover was too dark. I never thought it was, nor had I been warned for this previously.

In the past, I had my prosecutor’s badge to protect me — not anymore.

I’m the number two in the state for the most powerful civil liberties organization – the ACLU.

And I felt fear.

I placed my hands over the steering wheel, in full view of the officer. When he asked for my registration, I made sure to move slowly, with my hands continuously in full view.

He commented on my sports car, and my President Obama pin hanging from my rear view mirror. He also commented on my novelty license plate. My plate can be construed in several ways ― commonly it is thought to support Black Lives Matter. In truth, the plate is a combination of mine and my husband’s initials. I don’t correct people, because I support intelligent policing. I always liked the double entendre.

Philando did what he was supposed to do, and still died.

I left with a warning, but felt very disturbed.

I was reminded that the things that identify me ― that give me pride― can also be my undoing depending on the viewer.

So why was I so afraid? I had done nothing wrong.

It was because of the knowledge that doing the right thing is not a guarantee that things will end well.

This is my new normal, and it’s not okay.

It was because I viewed the death of Philando Castile and the resulting verdict as a horrific warning. He did what he was supposed to do – he declared the legal weapon he had in the car, and complied with the officer’s demands to reach for his license.

Philando did what he was supposed to do, and still died.

It flew in the face of all the lectures I have given across the nation, all the articles I wrote, all the talks I had with young people.

When pulled over as a person of color, you are completely at the mercy of the officer. The illusion that compliance assures safety has been concretely shattered.

I think of Tamir Rice, a 13 year old was playing with a toy on a playground. Isn’t this what children should be doing? Instead, he was killed. He was doing what he was supposed to, and was killed.

By way of anecdote, a young African American girl plays in her neighborhood park. Her father looks on as she runs and plays with the flowers. A police car appears, and begins to watch. The car stays the entire time. The father and daughter return to the park again. The same scenario plays out. It becomes more than coincidence.

Why was this so strange? It is the late 1970′s in New York. The African American father and daughter live in a predominantly white neighborhood. Although the park was public, they were not welcome.

The little girl was me. And I learned a valuable lesson. Be respectful always, but be aware.

I thought I had figured out the formula for myself and all people of color to be safe when interacting with law enforcement.

That lesson was never lost. I grew up, became a prosecutor, and interacted with a variety of people in my journey. I learned (to an extent) what made officers tick. I thought I had figured out the formula for myself and all people of color to be safe when interacting with law enforcement. You could never end racism in policing, but you could reduce the likelihood of terrible events through the use of body cameras and other video evidence.

And here we are again ― this time with dashcam video and Facebook Live video. Philando was a licensed gun owner. He did what he was supposed to ― tell the officer. If he really had ill intent towards the officer, would he have declared his weapon? In nearly two decades of prosecution, I never heard of a person telling the officer s/he has a gun in this type of scenario, and then shooting at the officer. The officer in this case judged him based on race, and the fact he smelled marijuana (which is legal or decriminalized in many states) as the basis for being in fear.

We know all know the result of this trial. But at the end of the day, having the evidence is better than not. The Minneapolis police department involved was able to see that this person was not fit to serve; without the video evidence, he may have been reinstated. It is a small consolation.

As I continue my journey as Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida, I continue to fight this new normal. It’s not just for me, but for everyone. However, it is exhausting and sad. As Trevor Noah so eloquently put it, it’s hard when the goal posts keep shifting, and the rules keep changing.

LeBron James said it better after the n-word was scrawled on his mansion – being Black in America is hard.

But we’ll keep rising to the challenge.