If you say it wasn't racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well I guess that means that you ain't black
It means that you ain't black
— Drive By Truckers "What It Means"
We recently passed a terribly sad one-year anniversary July 6, and I've been struggling to frame the tragedy properly. It addresses something that I know exists, but that doesn't mean I'm the best person to speak to it. Because even though I recognize the problem, I think I may still be part of the problem: White Privilege and Cannabis.
On July 6, 2016, a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minn., turned horrific in a matter of seconds for the driver, Philando Castile, his fiance, Lavish Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter. Castile, a 32 year old nutrition services supervisor at a Montessori Magnet School, was licensed to carry a firearm, and he told the officer he was armed in a calm, deliberate manner.
Things got really bad, really quick, after that.
In a video that you may have seen (and if so, will never forget), Philando Castile was murdered by the officer at point blank range while Lavish live streamed the shooting—and Philando's death—on Facebook. It's horrible to watch, from Philando painfully bleeding out, Lavish narrating what no one should ever have to see, to her daughter seeking to calm down her sobbing mother while they sit together in the back of the police cruiser by saying "Mom, please don't scream 'cause I don't want you to get shooted!"
Jeramino Yanez, the officer who shot him, was charged with felony manslaughter. As we have seen so many times so as to have become sickeningly surreal yet familiar, he was acquitted. Recently, a transcript was released of Yanez discussing what had happened during the stop, which he gave the day after the shooting. His justification for his actions? He smelled marijuana.
These are his words. This really happened.
"I thought, I was gonna die and I thought if he's, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what, what care does he give about me," Yanez told investigators.
He continues later in the interview to say by way of justifications of his actions: "Because usually people that carry firearms carry 'em on their waistband. Um, and or, in between the seats and being that the inside of the vehicle smelled like marijuana, I didn't know if he was keeping it on him for protection from a drug deal, or anything like or any other people trying to rip him."
Never mind that Minnesota has a licensed regulated medical cannabis program, so there was every reason to assume that Castile had a perfectly valid reason for smelling like cannabis. (And we don't have anything other that Yanez's assertion that he did.)
I've hotboxed literally over 100-plus vehicles, though never as a driver. But I wasn't smoking alone, and yep, we got pulled over more than once.
At no time did it ever cross my mind we would be shot, because smelling like a plant is not an offense that's punishable by death. That's my white privilege showing. I take for granted that my consumption of cannabis will not result in a disproportionate response by law enforcement, resulting in my demise.
This is why, as a cannabis industry still vastly owned and operated by white people, we need to do more. To encourage investment/ownership into minority cannabis businesses, to support cannabis conviction expungements for people of color, and to speak up on the vastly disparate arrests and sentencing for cannabis offenses placed upon POC. You can start with checking out the Portland-based nonprofit Minority Cannabis Business Association. They are addressing these issues and others.
And what of Officer Yanez, who shot a young black man because he may have smelled like pot smoke? He recently resigned from the force after being acquitted, and took a $43,500 payout. All because he "smelled marijuana."