I think it’s safe to say as a whole, our country was overwhelmed, shocked and saddened by the deaths of two black men this July: Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile right here in Minnesota. These deaths have raised further controversy around the need for Black Lives Matter. That said, I’m not here to throw statistics encouraging you to support this movement. Instead, I’d like to give my perspective on the issue and what I, as a young black student, think needs to happen next.
Since January of this year alone, there have been 160 black deaths at the hands of police. Many are understandably outraged by these unjust deaths, but many more continue to excuse the actions of our police officers. People from all over have protested this police violence, but it’s black students who have been among the most deeply affected.
As recourse, they’ve joined Black Lives Matter, actively participating in protests and demanding police reform within their local communities. But the movement hasn’t come without criticism and backlash, with many questioning it’s true purpose and benefit, justifying the deaths of black citizens with the popular argument that as long as we stay out of trouble, we won’t be at risk of this happening to us. I remember the frustration I would feel over this message when I was younger, unable to articulate how this issue is far more complex than “staying out of trouble.” Nonetheless, black students consistently hear it from teachers, law enforcement, the media, the All/No Lives Matter crowd and other community members. For a while, this felt like a fairly reasonable point—until Philando Castile’s death.
It made us question whether academic achievement even matters, when to our justice system, it doesn’t.
By now, we are all very familiar with this tragic story. Philando Castile was shot at a traffic stop in Falcon Heights when pulled over by officer Jeronimo Yanez, who suspected him of being part of a convenience store robbery a few days earlier. Yanez considered Castile to be a good suspect because of his “wide-set nose”, as heard in a radio transmission from the night of the shooting. But Castile had no previous felonies, just a number of minor traffic violations.
He was a model citizen. Castile represented what so many people told the black community they had to do and be in order to avoid confrontation with law enforcement. Castile held a job as a cafeteria supervisor in the St. Paul public school district and was a law-abiding citizen. Put together, these facts negate the argument that only criminals experience this type of treatment from police. Philando Castile was killed because he was racially profiled; he was killed because he was black. This is the message that has been shown to black youth all across the nation. Castile showed us that it no longer matters how good our grades are or whether we stay in school and have a clean record.
The argument that staying out of trouble won’t get us killed is no longer applicable. Castile’s death has shown that as long as you’re black, your presence is threatening. This has lead many of my peers and friends to question not only our safety, but how many of our achievements actually matter. Regardless of academic excellence, our race is a crime. Black students no longer feel safe in the presence of law enforcement, and justifiably so. As students, parents, teachers, and community leaders, what can we take from Philando Castile’s death and the impact it has had on black youth? And more importantly, how are we going to respond?
I believe the real answer is police reform. We can still support our local law enforcement without excusing racial discrimination within our justice system. The concerns black youth have are valid, and we should be given the opportunity and space to voice them.
We must also continue encouraging black student success. What happened to Philando Castile uncovers a problem that goes beyond refraining from criminal behavior, as I and many others have. It made us question whether academic achievement even matters, when to our justice system, it doesn’t.
Lastly, the community must help us raise our voice. We are often silenced by those saying the victims of police violence deserved what happened to them. To them, it doesn’t matter that their crimes were petty misdemeanors that don’t land most people in a coffin. Teach us to speak up and use our voice to bring change to the criminal justice system. As a community, we can work to improve how our society views black people and show that black lives do matter.
Coralie is currently a senior at North High School in North St. Paul. She is part of the policy committee of the Minnesota Youth Council and is a member of the Youth Leadership Council. She is also president of an activist group at her school called S.T.A.N.D (Solidarity Through the Annihilation of the Normality of Discrimination). Being very passionate about social justice, she can usually be found either attending a workshop or conference, reading non-fiction literature or posting a rant about current events on one of her many social media accounts.
The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows’ views and opinions are solely their own.