There isn’t a day that goes by when Black and brown people are not thinking about what oppression looks like. From the moment we’re brought into this world, we realize just how quickly racist institutions will render us nonexistent.
With the acquittal of Philando Castile‘s murderer and the recent killings of Charleena Lyles and Nabra Hassanen, these past two weeks have been unbelievably difficult. These senseless acts of violence – already setting the tone for the summer – make it easy to see how injustice is interconnected.
Last July, Castile, 32, was killed by St. Anthony, Minn., Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez in front of his child and girlfriend. Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds posted the live recording on Facebook for the world to bear witness to the aftermath. In the video, she clearly explains that after being pulled over for a broken taillight, her boyfriend was shot multiple times while reaching for his license. Recent news reports – and footage from the dashcam – show that Castile informed officers that he had a firearm in his possession and a conceal-and-carry permit in the car. However, within seconds Castile is shot multiple times.
On June 16, 2017 a Minnesota jury acquitted Castile’s killer of all charges, which included second-degree manslaughter, for which he faced 20 years. None of this is surprising, but it is particularly frustrating because the evidence of wrongdoing is clear: Yanez killed Castile despite him complying with the officer’s request.
To be sure, gun-toting organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) have remained silent. The NRA never intended for Black people to carry firearms, so it certainly would not go out of its way to articulate a vision that only applied to white gun owners. In an op-ed last year, I made this claim in The 2nd Amendment is So White: What the Past 24 Hours Have Taught Me About Black People’s Right to Bear Arms, noting “The Second Amendment was never intended to protect black people. The fear that black people will exercise constitutionally protected rights is what strikes the biggest fear in white people and, by extension, white police officers.”
The ability to own weaponry does not apply to Black and brown people because racist institutions believe we will rise up and use them against our oppressors (see: then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s Mulford Act). We are killed for our ownership of them, then are met with a justice system that will excuse obvious unconstitutional actions. Charleena Lyles knows this all too well.
Two days after the acquittal of Yanez, police arrived to the home of Ms. Lyles, pregnant mother of three, to investigate a theft in her unit. As the police entered her apartment, the encounter suddenly escalated when one of the officers indicated that Lyles was clutching a knife. What happened afterward was tragic: the officers proceeded to tase her and fired at least five shots, killing her. Lyles’ family – who said that she struggled with mental illness after years of experiencing domestic violence and threats of her children being removed from her home – was rightfully outraged at the fatal shooting. This calls into obvious questions of policing but especially when mental health is involved.
The layers of race, gender, and mental health are not to be ignored when law enforcement is involved. Police officers are not equipped to handle intense situations, so they shoot to kill, then don’t face consequences for their reckless, egomaniacal actions. Just last year, police shot and killed Deborah Danner who, because of prior interactions, was known to have a mental illness, and none of it mattered. Law enforcement doesn’t value Black lives or women – and certainly not the intersection.
What’s more, we have an incompetent, islamophobic president and a racist, tough-on-crime U.S. attorney general who believes law enforcement don’t police enough. But Black and brown people know better; and religious minorities do as well. Just ask Nabra Hassanen, 17, who may not have been killed by a police officer but had her life taken by the same racist institution.
The same day Ms. Lyles was murdered by a Seattle police officer, Darwin Martinez Torres chased, attacked, and killed Hassanen with a baseball bat near her Virginia mosque. According to The Daily Beast, recent developments indicate that police are also investigating whether she was raped. The story is frustratingly tragic: Hassanen and her friends were headed back to All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center Mosque following Ramadan late-Sunday. As they were heading back, one of Hassanen’s friends got into an argument with Torres, who was driving. The man drove his car over a curb, scattering the group of friends, including Hassanen. When they regrouped, they realized that Hassanen was missing; police eventually found her body in a nearby pond.
Fairfax County police are investigating this as a road rage incident, not a hate crime, indicating that they do not believe she was picked out or targeted for being Muslim. But, we know she was a Muslim wearing an abaya, walking to her mosque. This act of violence is not merely a result of road rage. Let’s be clear: Hassanen was killed because she was Muslim, but because hate crime laws are so difficult to prove, it allows for wiggle room despite what we know.
It is also particularly troubling that instead of figuring out ways to reduce islamophobia, racist institutions will use this as an opportunity to put Muslim communities against Latinx communities as if an intersection does not, or cannot, exist. The (in)justice systems of islamophobia, racism, and sexism are interconnected.
Castile, Lyles, and Hassanen’s death prove that. Alas, America.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.