Commentary

"Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me"

Originally Appeared in : 9714-7/6/17

I was driving home from work on a two-lane highway when a few cars in front of me slowed and stopped as a car ahead was turning left. I braked, but saw the car behind me was not slowing down in time to stop. The impact from the car rearending mine caused my glasses to fly off, but I was unhurt. When I exited the car, the other driver, a young black man asked, “Are you all right? I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were stopping. It happened so fast.” I assured him I was okay. 

 

Once it was clear to the first responders that neither of us needed emergency assistance, we were told to wait for the state highway patrol. The accident was in their jurisdiction. He called his mother to come to the scene because his car couldn’t be driven; its front end was mangled. 

 

Rain began to fall, so we both retreated to the shelter of our cars to wait for the highway patrol. When two troopers arrived, only the driver of the other vehicle and I were on the scene. One trooper, calmly and politely, began to ask what happened. I could tell the young man was growing nervous. He began to talk a lot – quickly. He accepted responsibility for the accident, saying he just hadn’t seen my car in time to stop. 

 

The trooper went back to his vehicle to check our licenses, and the young man whispered to me, “I’m really scared.” It was only then that I realized why his response to the troopers’ arrival was fraught with anxiety. As a 60-something white woman not at fault in the accident, I saw the state troopers as protectors. As a 20-something black man who would likely be charged, he saw the troopers as potential threats to his safety, especially in light of recent police shootings of unarmed black motorists. 

 

I tried to reassure him, but it was only after the entire incident I realized I could have been more empathetic. He was afraid for his life. When his mother arrived, he became visibly calmer. The troopers were professional and helpful. 

 

The young man had a valid license and insurance policy. I told his mother, who also apologized for the accident, that her son was clearly a responsible and caring young man. As car wrecks go, everything ended as well as could be. 

 

When the officer who shot Philando Castile in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was acquitted, my thoughts returned to my own experience witnessing a young black male interacting with law enforcement. And what I witnessed – the terror of the man who had made a mistake but who otherwise obeyed the law – clearly delineated the very different worlds he and I inhabit. And who I am to say that his reaction was overblown? 
 

 

Philando Castile appeared to have been doing all the right things when he was approached by the officer who shot him five times as he sat buckled in the driver seat of his car. He was legally carrying a permitted weapon and told the officer about it. He reached for his license and registration as instructed. I wonder, if Philando Castile had been white, would he have been killed? I think not.

 

And, I surmise that if he were white and had been killed, his killer would not be acquitted. I believe if he were white and legally carrying a weapon, the NRA would have come to his defense. Could it be that, as a black male, he was profiled and considered dangerous simply because of his race? I cannot fault Jeronimo Yanez for deliberately murdering Castile. But I can fault the training he received, his fear and anxiety, and his “instinct” to shoot before fully assessing the threat. Do I have empathy for Yanez? Yes, because I believe he made a terrible mistake. His fear and emotions overshadowed his training. But, I do not think he should have been exonerated. 

 

And yet – once again – instead of considering the injustice of Castile’s execution, many are trying to defend it by pointing to his history of traffic tickets and alleged marijuana use. Rather than trying to empathize with the experience of a man who was trying his best to do the right thing, some vilify him as a way to justify his being shot. Rather than empathizing with the experience of our black brothers and sisters, many are inclined to search for any justification for the brutality our fellow citizens face simply because of their race. 

 

Caring about what happens to black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement does not mean we don’t care about those brave and courteous officers who face grave risk every day. Caring about both groups is not mutually exclusive. We can care about police brutality without blaming all police officers, just as we can care about domestic violence without blaming all spouses. 

 

Shortly after Yanez’s acquittal, a mentally ill pregnant woman, Charleena Lyles, was shot to death when she called for police assistance at her home. She had a history of erratic behavior and she was known to police. She was gunned down while in the throes of what appeared to be a psychotic episode. Yes, she was threatening the police with a pair of scissors, but was shooting her to death an appropriate response? 

 

Vulnerable people are at grave risk – in ways I cannot begin to imagine because of my white skin and socioeconomic status. As a Christian, I believe I am called to consider what elements of our system are threatening these vulnerable people. As a Christian, I am not called to try to justify their deaths at the hands of the state. As Jesus reminds us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” 

 

As long as those of us who are safe by virtue of the color of our skin and status refuse to acknowledge the reality of the experiences of those who are threatened, vulnerable people will continue to die. And their blood will be on the hands of all who are unwilling to work for justice on their behalf. 

 

Editor's Note: Hart received a 1st Place award for Best Regular Column from the Catholic Press Association at its national convention in Quebec, June 20-23. 

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com.

 

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