It has been an emotional nine days since Valerie Castile’s daughter alerted her to the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck on Memorial Day for more than eight minutes before he died.
The video felt like a sickening déjà vu: Another black man killed at the hands of a Twin Cities police officer, and filmed for the world to see. It was like four years ago, when her son, 32-year-old Philando Castile, was shot five times by officer Jeronimo Yanez after a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
When Castile watched the video, she cried.
When she was invited to speak at a protest in downtown Minneapolis last week, the day before her 64th birthday, she spoke, even though she’s avoided crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
When she saw protests turn violent, she wasn’t surprised: “I’ve said it time after time. You cannot keep treating people this way. They’re going to rebel. I knew this day would come. George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
When Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday announced a harsher charge against Chauvin — second-degree murder — and charges against the three other officers, she cheered.
And yet all this is, she said, “really meaningless” — unless it’s accompanied by drastic systemic changes in police departments around Minnesota and the country. By that, she means amending use-of-force guidelines, including community members in police advisory boards, and not responding to nonviolent incidents — her son’s traffic stop, or Floyd being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill — with aggressive tactics.
“For years, I’ve cried for other women’s children,” Castile said Wednesday, not long after charges were announced for the three other officers. “When that happened to me with Philando, I hardly had tears to shed for him. Because I was all cried out. And this just broke my heart all over again, to see such a brazen murder in broad daylight, and people asking this fool to get up off the man. That’s just too much.”
The image of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck brought to mind a sickening comparison for Castile: It looked like a hunter sitting on top of a deer that he’d just slain.
“That’s what went through my mind,” she said. “He’s sitting on that man like he done killed his prize trophy. Arrogant — just arrogant. Boastful. Inhumane. All of that.”
As she spoke, a dog barked. It was Julio, a Morkie — a mix between a Maltese and Yorkshire terrier — that Castile got after her son’s death. Julio was the one of Philando’s nicknames.
The barking nearly woke up her napping granddaughter. Her granddaughter is named Philandra, after her slain son. Philandra turns 2 in August.
“She’s all I got left,” Castile said. “I can’t live without her.”
She was pleased that the four police officers were immediately fired. She was heartened that Gov. Tim Walz didn’t militarize the Twin Cities with federal troops after protests turned violent. She was saddened that civic leaders weren’t talking with President Donald Trump: “He should be concerned: ‘How can we mend this thing? How can we get this right?’ I don’t hear any conversation like that.”
One night this week, she was in Philando’s old room in her Brooklyn Park house. She came across a 30-page report from the Governor’s Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations, submitted on Sept. 29, 2017. There were plenty of recommendations: implicit and explicit bias training for police officers, bringing special prosecutors to partner with county attorneys in police investigations, promoting de-escalation strategies among police, working more closely with community leaders.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, here it is in black and white,’ ” she said. “You can make all the recommendations in the world. But they’re gathering dust. You just gotta pull it out and dust it off.”
Her top priority is having community advisory boards. She wants these boards to be diverse and to include ex-police officers.
“I don’t get it, that for the people that live here in Minnesota, there’s not a community accountability board, an advisory board, that can go sit down with chiefs of police and the governor and say, ‘We need to look at use-of-force policy,” Castile said. “These policies are so vague, any attorney can flip those words. It’s all about the word game — who can spin the best lie. And that’s who they’re gonna believe. But if there’s no wiggle room in these policies, [then] it is what it is. You kill somebody, you go to jail.”
Part of her feels optimistic that, this time, things will be different. That this time, people’s eyes will open. She’s grateful all four officers involved in Floyd’s death have been charged.
But she’s seen this movie before. She just hopes there’s a different ending.
“You charge a person, you got high hopes, and then they slap you back down,” Castile said. “If they’re really sincere in really creating a different culture, really believing in what they’re saying about accountability, and there being consequences about the things that you do, then yes. By all means. I hope they do. I pray that they do.
“It’s now or never.”