Last month, a 32-year-old black man named Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer after being pulled over for a busted taillight in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota while his fiancee witnessed and documented his final moments on Facebook Live.
As a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, Philando was a child caregiver who memorized the 500 names of the students he served as well as their food allergies. By all accounts, he was a capable, serious, and committed employee loved by his students. A friend told me that after reading about Philando's professional life, his bond with his students, and his mother's description of him as a laid-back person who liked to play video games, she thought, "They killed Steve."
Steve is my husband. He is a 32-year-old preschool teacher whose students know him as "Mr. Steve." He is the most laidback person I've ever met and plays video games like I read books -- for the love of story. As complex and unique as individuals are, I'm sure there are differences between Philando and Steve that we can never know. But the most significant difference in our society where racism* still exists against African Americans is that Steve is not African American. He is Asian American. After my friend's comment, I asked Steve if he had ever been scared when pulled over by police. "No," he said. And he has been pulled over a few times. Including on the day of our courthouse wedding. We had just finished saying our vows in the courthouse square -- next to a statue of Stonewall Jackson in our small southern city where statues of Native Americans and African Americans are noticeably absent, save for Sacagawea crouching like an afterthought behind Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. We had driven in separate cars for some reason. I was driving my mother and grandmother to the celebratory dinner afterwards and Steve was driving behind us. We saw police lights flash and I began to slow down when I realized my new husband was the one being pulled over. After parking in a nearby lot, I, a white woman, started running towards them, then thought better of running at a police officer and slowed to a quick walk. Thinking Steve had been speeding, I shouted, "We just got married!" gesturing toward my white cocktail dress as evidence, perhaps hoping to get him out of a ticket. "He was probably just excited!" I don't know what I was thinking, but I didn't fear for either of our lives.
The one time I was pulled over for running a red light, the officer let me off the hook. The one time I was pulled over for expired registration (in Steve's car), the officer gave me a ticket and no bodily harm. I called 911 once when I arrived at my friend's apartment to check on her cats while she was away and found her front door open. When the police officer arrived, he did not cast any kind of suspicion over me or ask for identification.
On the day of our wedding, the police officer responded calmly to my exuberant shouts that Steve's registration was (again) expired. He got a ticket, and we drove to dinner. Our encounters with uniformed authority have always been a little uncomfortable, but we've never been considered suspicious, blood has never been shed, and the stops have been few and far between. Philando, on the other hand, had been stopped by police 46 times in the 13 years he had been driving, accruing more than $6,000 in fines.
After I learned about the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Jessica Williams, an unarmed black woman shot by San Francisco police while driving a suspected stolen car -- as if property were more valuable than human life -- I looked to our local African American Heritage Center. On July 14, they opened up their space to a "yoga vigil for peace" and asked for donations to benefit Black Lives Matter. The yoga vigil was held in partnership with a women's support services program and a wellness group that offers, among other things, yoga classes on a sliding scale in a city where the cost of attending most yoga studios is prohibitive to many. I arrived early, met up with a couple friends, and we rolled our mats across the wooden floorboards of what had been this city's only African American school from 1865 to 1951.
The instructor, an African American woman and certified yoga teacher and therapist, reminded us that to hold vigil means to keep watch. In holding vigil we were serving as witnesses and, by doing so, honoring the lives taken. Two women moved along the lines we had made with our mats, handing each of us a slim piece of card stock with a name printed on one side and a quote by Elie Wiesel on the other.
The names had been chosen from a long list of black men and women killed or abused by police. There were more names on that list, the instructor told us, than people in the room, and we numbered more than 100. I placed the name at the top of my mat and read it again and again throughout the practice. In a fast-paced culture where self-care is still seen as indulgent, doing yoga during such a time may seem an odd response to some. But during the postures, I felt the full force of how appropriate yoga was as a moving meditation in response to death. With its focus on the breath, it gave me a profound sense of my ability, my allowance, to breathe, which these black lives had been denied. And with yoga's insistence on holding postures, on testing, carefully, our own boundaries, it teaches us to hold ourselves in challenging spaces -- not to shrink from and abandon them.
Throughout the practice, as the instructor guided us with her words, songs by black artists helped guide us in our movements: Beyonce, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye. And then, at the close of the practice, we lay still in relaxation pose as though demonstrating a die-in and -- reverberating in the old school that had provided the only public space where black children could learn in this city for almost 100 years -- Maya Angelou's voice spoke the lines of her poem "Still I Rise," suddenly the only sound her laughter crackling across the silent space, and in our prone position my tears for the printed name I had been given and all the other names and bodies and lives had nowhere to go but into my mat.
When I returned home, I searched online for the name I'd been given but couldn't find an exact match. The closest I came to it was Ladarius Williams, age 23, shot and killed by Saint Louis police in February 2015. In 2009, when he was 17, he had pointed a gun at a police officer and was shot in the leg. He served 5 years. In February 2015, he ran from two officers and when they caught up to him they found him in possession of a firearm, which, as a convicted felon, he was carrying illegally. In this video, Ladarius's brother claims that black men carry guns in their neighborhood as protection against police brutality.
"They get paid for it. What we get? We get the dirt," he said.
The chief of police described the experience of his two officers who confronted Ladarius as "a struggle for your life." For Ladarius, too, it was a struggle for his life. He was blind in one eye; he was shot three times; one of the officers was the same one who shot him in 2009. There is no video footage of the struggle. We cannot know exactly what happened. But it is okay to simultaneously acknowledge that if these officers pursued him because they believed he was carrying a gun illegally then they were doing their job, while also mourning the loss of Ladarius's life and questioning whether such an extreme measure was necessary. We can hold ourselves in this uncomfortable space and examine the bigger picture of broken trust within a community, a place where a 17-year-old feels something so strongly he points a gun at a uniformed person who represents a profession intended to serve and protect. We can recognize and challenge the school-to-prison pipeline. We can empathize both with those who resemble people we know and those who don't.
The spelling of the name on the card I was given was slightly different: Ladarious. During the yoga practice my brain kept flipping the "d" to a "b," the second "a" into an "o," transposing the name into the word "Laborious." As I negotiated the tight space around my yoga mat -- a friend to my right, a stranger to my left, each of us accommodating the other, staggering ourselves so we would have room to stretch to our full wingspan without hitting or inhibiting each other -- I meditated on this word: "Laborious." Defined as requiring much work, exertion, or perseverance; characterized by or requiring extreme care. I can only begin to imagine how laborious it must be to negotiate space in which to live and breathe as a black person in this country.
Two days after the yoga vigil, Steve and I left for a seven-day road trip spanning 1,600 miles. We were not pulled over once.
The least we can do as allies is labor with exertion, perseverance, and extreme care to help resolve racism and violence. We can listen and we can witness, sit with our discomfort and not abandon it, question our own resistance because if we are being defensive then we aren't listening. In comparison to the energy many black men and women exert nearly every day just to be, it is a small but necessary labor.
*In the original version of this post I used the phrase "racial prejudice" instead of the word "racism." I have now corrected this error after learning more about the difference between the two.