Nothing and everything has changed for John Thompson since his friend Philando Castile was shot and killed during what began as a routine traffic stop.
Thursday marks the anniversary of the day the world was introduced to a dying Castile, an officer’s gun trained on him, as his girlfriend livestreamed the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook. In the ensuing year, he became known as not just the latest black man shot and killed by police, but a beloved nutrition services supervisor who doted on schoolchildren.
Protesters took to the streets both before and after Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony police officer who shot Castile, was charged and later found not guilty.
To Thompson, Yanez’s acquittal shattered hopes that Minnesota would buck the national trend in police prosecutions. The anniversary delivered little if any satisfaction that the criminal justice system had improved for black citizens, particularly black men.
“It’s going to be a long time for me to pull myself together,” Thompson said.
Castile’s death and Yanez’s trial in June drew national scrutiny in the wake of acquittals of police officers who faced similar charges for fatally shooting unarmed black men. A Ramsey County jury deliberated for a week before acquitting Yanez.
In reaching the not-guilty verdict, two jurors later said their debate hinged on the definition of reckless negligence and on whether Yanez feared for his life. Further, they said, squad car video didn’t show inside the car or where Castile’s hands were.
“I worry that this case will corrode people’s faith in the criminal justice system,” said Chiraag Bains, a visiting senior fellow at Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. “You can do everything right and still get shot.”
That fear is shared by police, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
“I think law enforcement in general is looking for ways to do a better job of connecting with communities of color,” Skoogman said.
Dave Metusalem, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said police realize Castile’s shooting has strained already tense relations between police and many in the black community.
“Law enforcement agencies are not shying away from the issue. They are doubling down on efforts to promote good relations with communities of color,” he said.
Three events have been organized to commemorate Castile on the anniversary of his death. Thompson plans to speak at one of them, a picnic and lantern release on Friday. “My message is clear: We have a fight on our hands,” he said.
Catalyst for change
Just after 9 p.m. on July 6, 2016, Castile, 32, was driving on Larpenteur Avenue near the State Fairgrounds with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, in the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter in the back.
Yanez, 28, pulled Castile over, believing him to resemble a suspect in an armed robbery a few days earlier. (Castile wasn’t involved.) Dashcam video from that night shows that about a minute transpired between the initial stop and the shots fired.
In that minute, Castile, who had a permit to carry, told Yanez he had a firearm on him. Yanez ordered him not to reach for it before opening fire seven times, striking Castile five. Reynolds began filming on Facebook in footage seen by millions. Four months later, the Ramsey County attorney’s office charged Yanez with felony manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
Last week, the trial’s presiding judge, William H. Leary III, wrote to jurors, supporting their decision despite criticism based on what he called “a failure to understand what you were asked to do.”
In his letter to the jury of five women and seven men, including two people of color, Leary wrote that he was not providing his own opinion of Yanez’s actions, merely that he wanted to convey to jurors that their verdict “was fully supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence and the law you were obligated to apply.”
For Jason Sole, head of the Minneapolis NAACP, the verdict showed that nothing has changed with how blacks fare in the criminal justice system. He wants to accelerate a plan to get a message out to communities of color that they should police their own, maybe even going so far as to not report crimes to law enforcement.
“It’s radical,” he said. “But it’s necessary.”
That trust gap between people of color and law enforcement is unfortunate but understandable, said Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender. But she sees a chance to make changes that could prevent more deaths.
“We need to put down our defensiveness and talk about these issues,” she said.
Thompson and activist Mel Reeves said they’re turning their grief into political action. Change has to come from lawmakers willing to toughen their stance on police use of force and from new lawmakers, they said.
“I still haven’t made sense of it,” Reeves said of Castile’s death. “Two years from now, three years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, a lifetime from now, people are going to look back and say, ‘That didn’t make sense.’ ”
The fact that Yanez is the first officer in modern Minnesota history charged with fatally shooting someone in the line of duty was of little consolation to Reeves.
“The fact that there was a trial … didn’t necessarily represent progress … ,” Reeves said. “Real progress would be a conviction of somebody. We’d move forward. We don’t want progress; we want justice.”
Visitors continue to stream to a memorial for Castile at the Falcon Heights intersection where he was killed. At its heart stands a wooden monument created by neighborhood residents.
“Son, you never talked much here,” reads its inscription, a quote from his mother, Valerie Castile. “But you’re making a lot of noise now, baby!”