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Philando Castile and the Terror of an Ordinary Day

Philando Castile was shot to death on his way home from buying groceries – last week, the police officer who killed him was acquitted by a jury on all counts.

By Elise C. Boddie|Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times | June 20, 2017


Philando Castile was shot to death last July on his way home from buying groceries with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Last week, the Minnesota police officer who killed him was acquitted by a jury on all counts.

I am haunted by how ordinary Mr. Castile’s final moments were. He was just running errands with his family. It’s this denial of the right to simply be — the perpetual state of otherness — that dangerously shadows black people.

This is most obvious in our criminal justice system. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a park. Akai Gurley was walking down the stairs after having his hair braided for a trip to visit his mother. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards was coming home from a party. All of them were killed by law enforcement officers.

But these deaths also point to the broader terror that black people face while simply going about their daily lives.

This problem is not new. Throughout history black people have been criminalized for everyday actions that most whites take for granted. After the abolition of slavery, laws were passed to make it illegal for blacks to travel freely. During Jim Crow, black people could be brutalized for drinking out of the wrong water fountain, sitting in the wrong place or venturing into the wrong town after sundown.

We can see this history in the recent deaths of Richard Collins III, who was stabbed while standing at a bus stop in Maryland; of the nine parishioners who were shot while praying in their South Carolina church; and of Trayvon Martin, who was walking home after buying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. All of them were killed by civilians.

 Yet black people still struggle to hold on to the ordinary. A Dallas resident told a reporter that he keeps work clothes in his car in case he is stopped by the police. A judge who has been on the bench for nearly 25 years has never left his New York City apartment without his judicial credentials, even to buy soda at the store on the corner.

In these supposedly more modern times, the right to the ordinary isn’t denied just by rogue police officers or racists, however. The problem also surfaces in the indignity of having to justify oneself against presumptions of wrongdoing and illegitimacy.

A white cashier at a grocery store yelled at my 11-year-old son last summer for walking away with our cart before I had finished paying. Several years ago, a white security guard at the law school where I taught mistook one of my older white male students for me. When I explained to the guard that I was the professor, he responded, pointing to the student, “Well, he looks like the professor.

Some of these quiet antagonisms cut across multiple identities. My incident with the guard probably also touched on issues of gender and age. Low-income people of color, who are stripped of the protections of class, suffer the worst of this ritual harassment.

Of course, there is an enormous difference between being killed by the police and having a cashier yell at your child. The incidents are in no way the same.

Still it is easy to overlook the privilege of the ordinary, the ability to do humdrum, boring things without fearing for your safety.

The problems we face are not only about the glaring wrongs of the criminal justice system, the structural barriers and persistent inequities that shut out opportunities, but the grinding daily hassles that deny black people the ability to just be.


Elise Boddie is a law professor at Rutgers.

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