It ain’t no secret
It ain’t no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
– Bruce Springsteen, American Skin (41 Shots)
It’s no secret that we’ve witnessed yet another bloody flood of real-life, race-related gun violence in recent days.
A Louisiana cop kills an African American selling CDs outside a convenience store.
A crazed assault weapon assault, on Dallas police guarding a Black Lives Matter protest, leaves five officers dead.
And sandwiched in-between – and the most illuminating of the three incidents, for reasons I’ll address – a Minnesota cop kills an African American motorist.
Many of the laments over this sad state of affairs have understandably focused on race. They’ve ranged from a New York Times article bemoaning a national racial divide to a cautiously hopeful Slate take speculating that perhaps our society is slowly recognizing the racial reality of police violence.
But there’s another bottom line basis for these tragedies: guns, and how their widespread use feeds widespread fear, including among cops. That ain’t no secret. But it’s been much less discussed by the media in the anguish of these killings’ aftermath.
IS IT A GUN?
Where to start exploring the toxic mix of race and firearms in America?
With Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 song, “American Skin.” He wrote it in response to the death of an innocent African immigrant. Mistaking his wallet for a gun, New York City police officers fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo (19 striking him) in his darkened apartment building vestibule. The song shines a light on at lot of what’s at issue in such police shootings.
Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
The Minnesota man killed the other day, Philando Castile, was similarly reaching for his wallet when shot.
There is so much we have yet to learn about each of these three recent tragedies, and so much to mourn. But Castile’s death hits me hardest.
It’s not that I value the other lost lives less than his. Rather, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ remarkable, 10-minute phone video, taken immediately after the shooting, tells us a lot about both this one terrible event and about the broader terrors at play in our society.
If you can take the pain, the video (and her subsequent, impromptu press conference, filled with understandably raw emotions) tells the tale far better than I can.
Nevertheless, to make this long, still-emerging story short: Castile, a popular, school cafeteria supervisor, was driving with Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter when pulled over by officer Jeronimo Yanez and his partner, allegedly for a broken tail light. According to Reynolds – incredibly composed at the outset of the video – Castile was obeying Yanez’s order to provide his license and registration when he was shot. He was calmly reaching for his wallet in his back pocket and mentioning that he had a (licensed) gun, when Yanez suddenly pumped several bullets into him.
UNDERSTAND THE RULES
41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
Philando Castile understood the rules. As his mother told CNN:
“That was something we always discussed. Comply. That’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police is to comply. Whatever they ask you to do, do it. Don’t say nothing. Just do what they want you to do. So what’s the difference in complying, and they kill you anyway.”
She added, “I think he was just black in the wrong place.”
In other words, Castile was apparently guilty of “driving while black.” According to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver were white? I don’t think it would have.”
We must be cautious in assessing this event; more can come out that alters our understanding of it. But even if the specific circumstances of Castile’s death prove cloudy, this kind of situation clearly represents the larger phenomenon of race at play in police stops.
NOT SIMPLY BLACK AND WHITE
Nevertheless…this reality of racial injustice overlaps with another dreadful fact of American life. As Vox explains, “More guns mean more gun deaths. Period.”
And when it comes to guns, we’re Number One. The United States has way more guns per capita than the Number Two nation, chaotic and war-torn Yemen.
More from Vox: “Americans make up about 4.43 percent of the world’s population, yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.”
Which brings us back to Philando Castile. Yes, a cop’s racial bias probably accounted for his shooting. But his death also flowed from the fear that infects a society where guns are everywhere. It’s a literally vicious circle: People kill people when they fear being killed.
We have yet to learn much about Officer Yanez – himself seemingly a minority who might have suffered his own race-based harassment in his life. But one of the many incredible aspects of Diamond Reynolds’ video is how scared he sounds in comparison to her, even as he’s still pointing a gun at the dying Castile and seeking to justify the shooting.
Yanez may turn out to be a total jerk and an unrepentant raging racist. But you can also imagine a scenario in which, like the cops in Springsteen’s song, he’s haunted by what he’s done:
You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life
WHAT SETS AMERICA APART
We’re surely not the only country with racist or otherwise repressive cops. It’s a problem in many places. But we’re unique among affluent societies in the degree to which our police officers fear coming up against a gun in the daily course of events. Fear plus racial bias is a lethal combination.
None of this is to excuse Philando Castile’s death, nor the daily indignities or the other deaths African Americans suffer at the hands of police.
Nor, for that matter, should we forget the fact that very many officers do their very tough jobs in a very professional way. One tragic irony of the Dallas shootings was that the city’s police force, headed by an African American, has been widely praised for its community-friendly practices, including by a presidential task force.
But back to my point: It’s vital to put this all in the context of this other societal crisis we face: our addiction to guns, and how guns both fuel and flow from our fears.
And that’s the real meaning of “American Skin”. It’s not just about one’s race, as crucial as that can be in determining how one can die. It’s about how we live:
We’re baptized in these waters
And in each other’s blood
But nothing I’ve said here can say it the way Bruce sings it. Check it out.
HOPE AND DREAMS
It would be easy to end it there, in despair. But I’d prefer to close on a different note. To cite another Springsteen song, well worth hearing and heeding, this is a Land of Hope and Dreams.
Yes, our gun culture seems ingrained in our blood. The National Rifle Association appears unbeatable as it beats the drum of endless self-armament. The fact that I’m pointing to a 17-year-old Springsteen song here illustrates how little things have changed, except to the extent that perhaps they have gotten worse.
But we’ve seen seemingly hopeless struggles succeed before. Decades of dedication to civil and women’s rights. Surprisingly quick transitions regarding gay marriage and some drug laws. And yes, amidst all this racism, an African American president.
If you prefer your hope and dreams in a more concrete form, consider this: A Hillary Clinton win in November will usher in the first progressive-majority Supreme Court in nearly a half-century. That holds potentially crucial ramifications for our current, de facto, insanely unrestrained right to bear arms. It adds public interest litigation as – pardon the expression – a weapon to the arsenal gun control advocates can bring to bear.
The long-term struggle against our national firearms addiction may take yet more decades and suffer yet more defeats. But that does not mean it is not worth waging.
An irony in all this is that the Diamond Reynolds video could be one small step in that struggle.
To be sure, our gun culture is a much more mortal threat to minorities than to most of the rest of us. But with 300,000 firearms deaths over the past decade, we’re all baptized in this blood. It’s on all of us to address this deadly reality.
And that ain’t no secret.