In Defense of Philando Castile & Smoking Cannabis

For the rest of my life, I will remember the name of Philando Castile, a 32 year old African American man who was racially profiled, pulled over and hastily, recklessly shot to death by former St. Anthony (Minnesota) police department officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez irrationally feared for his life after Castile calmly and responsibly informed him that he was in possession of a firearm during the traffic stop. Yanez pulled Philando Castile over with the dishonest excuse of a cracked taillight, but in truth, Yanez had radioed to dispatch that he was pulling Castile over because of his “wide-set nose,” which made him think of an alleged suspect in a then recent convenience store robbery days before. #PhilandoCastile became another famous internet hashtag name because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds made a Facebook Live video that went viral, showing the immediate aftermath of the shooting in which Jeronimo was having an obviously guilt-ridden emotional breakdown as Philando was dying before our eyes online.

The Twin Cities, i.e. the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area, is a hotbed for anti-police brutality protest demonstrations. Thousands of people here took to the streets to express public outrage over this killing, especially because Philando Castile was a good man who literally did nothing to deserve to be killed by the emotionally unintelligent and unprofessional police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who asininely and desperately tried to blame the alleged smell of “burnt marijuana” in Castile’s car as the main reason he feared he’d be killed. That may be one of the worst examples of Reefer Madness * I’ve ever heard. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office brought criminal charges against Yanez, making this the first case in Minnesota history of a cop being tried for killing a non-threatening civilian.

It has now been nearly two months since the jury issued a not guilty verdict, acquitting Yanez of the state’s charges against him of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a weapon. There are hundreds of cases around the country of police officers killing civilians annually, far too often when they are unarmed, and African Americans are disproportionately killed even when they are unarmed. Young Black men between the ages of 15 – 34 were 9 times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans at the end of 2015 when more than 1,000 Americans were killed by cops. High profile media stories that go viral on social media like Philando Castile’s have been the catalysts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many activists, including this blogger, were slightly hopeful – arguably unrealistically – that for once a cop might be held accountable for unjustly killing a Black man, especially given the damning Facebook Live video footage and eye witness testimony of Diamond Reynolds, who demonstrated extraordinary restraint as the passenger in the face of this violent tragedy, especially given the endangerment of her four year old daughter who was sitting behind her and in the line of fire. The jury claimed Diamond lacked credibility… but they had no problems with Jeronimo’s credibility despite his repeatedly inconsistent statements. The jury acquitted Yanez because they claimed the state supposedly failed to prove that Yanez did not see Castile’s gun, despite the testimony of a paramedic during the trial who was emphatic in saying that the gun was buried deep inside of Philando’s pocket and not protruding from it, and despite the fact that the defense failed to prove that Jeronimo did see it, a most salient point neglected by the prosecution and the foolish, biased jury. We who value freedom and justice but lack trust in the U.S. political and criminal justice systems were generally unsurprised by the bogus not guilty verdict, yet most of us were heartbroken no less over this infuriating travesty of justice. This state violence is epidemic in the United States, where law enforcement officers tend to have a license to kill us with impunity. All they have to say is that they feared for their lives, regardless of the evidence against them.

Within a week after the not guilty verdict, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the state agency responsible for investigating the killing, released the dash cam video footage of it, showing us the view of this tragedy from Yanez’s squad car, which further convinced everyone but racist, delusional, staunchly unreasonable police apologists that Yanez was guilty as charged and that justice was not served. Also shortly after the acquittal, the Castile family was awarded a $3,000,000 settlement in their civil suit, and the St. Anthony Police Department publicly announced that Yanez would no longer be working for them, albeit with a $48,500 severance package. The dash cam video is painful to watch, especially when you hear Philando’s last words, “I’m not pulling it out!” It’s traumatic to see the young girl rushing out of his car after the gunfire shot up his body. It’s infuriating how Diamond Reynolds was detained and interrogated like a criminal for three hours in an initially undisclosed location while Jeronimo Yanez was given 24 hours to calm down and concoct a narrative to justify killing Philando Castile. If you listen to the audio recording of the conversation that Yanez had with his colleagues in the aftermath of the killing, and if you read the transcripts of his BCA interview, it’s abundantly clear that Yanez repeatedly gave contradictory statements, including his initial admission that he didn’t know where Castile’s gun was when he shot him! WtF?!?

The reason I and millions of other African Americans mourn the killing of Philando Castile and the systemic fuckery that was the Jeronimo Yanez acquittal is because we either see ourselves or some of our loved ones who are Black men, women and children as a potential victim of unjustified police violence. The reason this story personally resonates with me so deeply is because I’m a 39 year old African American man and social justice activist from North Minneapolis (less than 20 minutes drive from the Falcon Heights location where Philando was killed) who has been racially profiled excessively myself. I have been pulled over by police 49 times in vehicles and on foot without breaking any laws justifying any of those stops. Philando was seven years younger than me and he had been pulled over an estimated 46 times already, all for petty traffic violations. Having been pulled over dozens of times for bullshit reasons, and knowing very well that too many police officers prey on – while fearing – young Black people, I believed all along, and after watching the dash cam video I know now for a fact that Philando Castile knew better than most people how to calmly and even respectfully interact with cops during a traffic stop. According to Minnesota law, Philando did not have to inform Yanez that he had his gun on him, but I believe he did so as a proactive measure to avoid a potential overreaction by Yanez to Castile’s being armed. Ironically, he received the opposite reaction. Unfortunately, Yanez’s irrational fear of Black men – remember, he pulled Philando over because of his “wide-set nose,” which most descendants of West Africa have – and his Reefer Madness * caused him to overreact anyway.

As an unapologetic and unashamed cannabis consumer, I must call BULLSHIT in response to the ridiculous excuses expressed in Yanez’s BCA interview transcripts and arguments made by his attorney, Earl Grey, during trial saying that Philando Castile smoking cannabis  was the cause of his death. The defense dishonestly dismissed race as a factor and focused emphatically on their irrational fears of cannabis. Here are some of the statements Yanez made during the BCA interview in which he conveniently failed to mention that Philando Castile told him he was not reaching for his gun in response to Yanez’s command not to.

 

“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 said.

“Being that the … inside of the vehicle smelled like marijuana … I didn’t know if he was keeping it [the firearm Castile informed Yanez about]on him for protection, for, from a, a drug dealer or anything like that or any other people trying to [steal from]him.”

 

Anyone familiar with cannabis knows that it relaxes and calms consumers. Smoking cannabis does not make one aggressive and prone to violence. People smoke because it reduces stress and pain and makes life more enjoyable. It’s utterly ridiculous for Yanez to have feared for his life even if he did smell burnt cannabis in the car. Beyond the clearly calm voice of Castile that we hear in the dash cam video, which did not sound disoriented, experienced cannabis smokers do not suffer impaired driving even if they are high. Being high on cannabis is not remotely similar to alcohol intoxication, which can definitely impair driving in excess. We don’t know for a fact that Philando and Diamond were actually smoking in the car with the child in it, or when or how much they smoked, but we do know the defense made it’s motion to dismiss the case in the beginning of the trial because Castile was allegedly, “stoned” during the traffic stop. The dash cam video showed us that Castile drove just fine and if the child in the car was high, it did not appear to impair her at all as she spoke so clearly, wisely and compassionately during an extremely stressful and traumatic experience. That precious child was not high!

In a failed written motion to judge [INSERT HIS NAME… O’LEARY] to dismiss the case, Yanez’s attorney, Earl Grey wrote:

“The status of being stoned (in an acute and chronic sense) explains why Mr. Castile: 1) did not follow the repeated directions of Officer Yanez; 2) stared straight ahead and avoided eye-contact; 3) never mentioned that he had a carry permit, but instead said he had a gun; and (4) he did not show his hands.”

In Grey’s closing arguments to the jury he said,

“Had it not been for Castile’s decision to ‘get stoned’ on marijuana before operating a vehicle while armed with a gun, and further his decision to ‘ignore’ Yanez’s commands not to reach for his firearm, ‘none of this would have happened.”

Again, as a Black man from the Twin Cities who has been racially profiled and harassed excessively by police in my life; as one who unapologetically and unashamedly smokes cannabis for personal use (I don’t call it medical or recreational use); and as a responsible and devoted husband and father of young children who publicly advocates for the end of cannabis prohibition and for full legalization of cannabis with a racially just and equitable framework, Philando Castile’s killing hit home on multiple levels. As a social justice champion, I’ve long protested against racial profiling and police brutality, and for the past few years I’ve been protesting against cannabis prohibition ever since the states of Colorado and Washington legalized adult personal use AKA “recreational use” cannabis. There are many imperatives for ending prohibition and fully legalizing cannabis, which I’ll expound upon in future blogs, but for me, ending the senseless, failed and structurally racist so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is arguably the most important. African Americans suffer the brunt of the racially discriminatory enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. In Minnesota, Black people are 9 times more likely than White people to be arrested for cannabis and 11.5 times more likely in Minneapolis. Nationally it’s a nearly 4:1 racial disparity in arrests despite equal usage rates. I’ve noticed how the police and the media tend to obsess over the cannabis use of most of the high profile Black victims of police or vigilante violence in recent years, as if smoking cannabis makes one a bad person who deserves to die. Having cannabis in their system or possession was made a huge issue in the senseless killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and many others as if it’s character assassination to identify them as ‘weed smokers.’

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and writing this blog, which is my first one for theweedblog.com, so I must confess that I questioned myself many times about wether or not it was appropriate to write about Philando Castile’s life and unjustified death with such an emphatic defense of cannabis in general, and of his consumption in particular, because of the persistent stigmatization of this senselessly criminalized plant. There is not a single good reason to justify cannabis prohibition. When I concluded how Philando’s use of cannabis was the central argument justifying his killing, I felt compelled to share this rebuttal and testimony publicly because I haven’t heard or read it anywhere else and that is fucking bullshit. Cannabis is a wonderful, healing plant and smoking it should not be treated as a God damn crime. Jeronimo Yanez offered the lamest excuse for killing Philando Castile but the structurally racist and recklessly violent criminal justice system has shown us yet again, as it does time and time again, that it’s not truly in the business of justice. It’s primarily a tool of for-profit policing and the prison industrial complex, systems that cannot effectively be reformed. It must be radically reconstructed. As I end this blog, I’m literally smoking on some Tahoe OG Kush in memory of Philando Castile, a good son, brother, and community servant I never knew, but deeply relate to the brother. As we say in Minnesota, #LongLiveTheKing!