By Courtney B. Cook
Courtney Cook sent this poetic response to the murder of Philando Castile to Rethinking Schools. We wanted to share it with our readers as a source of healing and a call to action. Cook is a former high school English teacher who has been engaged in justice work and critical education in high schools, prisons, and youth-run organizations. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies in Education at University of Texas at Austin.
I went to sleep safely on Wednesday night with Alton Sterling and his family in my heart and with a heaviness of despair at my doorstep. I woke up Thursday morning to a world without Philando Castile and because I could no longer stomach the videos of Black men being murdered by police, I listened only to the audio. Then I listened again and typed the transcript, and considered more carefully the words and grief of Diamond ‘Lavish’ Reynolds. I want to be in dialogue with this moment. I want to be in dialogue with Ms. Reynolds and her child to say I am so sorry. I want to be in dialogue with the Black community in this nation and say, yes, your lives matter. I want to be in dialogue with the police who mishandled her and her daughter after senselessly killing her partner – pay attention, I want to say! You are accountable, you are responsible, you have to do better. You do not have the right to kill Black people. Importantly, I want to be in dialogue with my white community who may not be listening – it is your privilege that allows you to move forward without paying attention. We don’t deserve the safety we’ve been granted anymore than Philando and Ms. Reynolds and her daughter do. Anymore than Alton Sterling did, or any of the others whose names deserve to be listed, who deserve to be memorialized and remembered, who deserved safety and protection because that is what we, as citizens, are promised. I want to be in dialogue with my white counterparts who may be passively watching these videos as they become commonplace, or worse spectacle, or who may be expressing outrage and advice only in digital spaces without taking action – active solidarity is the only solidarity. We have to show up or we are complicit. I want to be in dialogue with my fellow educators and ask this question: if the curriculum of our nation is teaching us that Black lives don’t matter, that police have the right to kill and go free, then why not use this transcript as a part of your curriculum? Why not study it carefully, read it critically, write letters in response to it to your local police and politicians as citizens asking the questions that these events might conjure in the hearts of young people facing terrifying realities?
The following is that attempt towards dialogue with this reality; to read this moment as curriculum with a critical eye of an educator, of a white woman, of a citizen who continues to hope for justice and democracy and humanity to take the lead. It takes its form by responding directly to Ms. Lavish Reynolds, the officers involved, and other audio which is partially transcribed from the recording she shared with the world during the time of her unimaginable tragedy. Unless otherwise indicated, the language which is not italicized is transcribed speech from Ms. Reynolds directly.
we got pulled over for a busted tail light
I, too, have been stopped for a busted tail light. My boyfriend joked with the officer about the Boston Red Sox. I got a warning. I am still breathing. He didn’t even get murdered. Served and protected by our whiteness.
Dear politicians who employ your rhetoric of safety and defense for the right to carry firearms,
Licensed carry for what kinds of citizens? Which bodies get to carry openly within your definition of safety? Who gets to carry guns within your conception of self-defense? Which people get to abide by the laws you work so tirelessly to defend? The message I hear is clear: gun rights for whites.
he let the officer know he had a firearm
and was reaching for his wallet
Philando’s mother said he was taught to “comply, comply, comply.” His was killed in compliance. To you, Philando’s mother, I am so sorry. He did not deserve this. You did not deserve this.
No. His compliance didn’t kill him. A man killed him. An officer of the law shot four shots into the window of a car with a four-year old in the backseat. An ambassador of justice yelled profanity into the ears of the victims. In case his shots fired weren’t loud enough, he demanded his confused reaction to his own action to be heard. No, his power in the pistol was not enough, he extended his reach to constrict space as his voice silenced victims’ cries of grief and fear. Shame on you, Officer. For murdering a man, for pointing a gun at his lover, for cursing in front of a scared child and polluting her air with your toxicity.
[pause for compliance.]
yes sir, I will, no worries.
Compliance. Respectful language. No worries, she said. And now it is the duty of the victim to calm the culprit. Must we expect her to call her partner’s murderer Sir? No worries she said. No worries. No, he mustn’t mind the worry her child will change through after this trauma. He mustn’t mind her worried, weary soul; the ways she must worry her memories of moments with her partner – moments taken from her en route to an irrecoverable future – like a stone in her pocket she rubs and rubs until worry itself erodes it into non-existence.
oh my God please don’t tell me he’s dead.
please don’t tell me he’s gone.
please Jesus don’t tell me he’s gone.
please don’t tell me you just did this to him.
Please. Please. Please. Please God and Jesus and Officer. Please reality be an illusion. Please fictions of justice be more of a fiction and less of a reality. Please interventions from the Heavens make a difference. Officer, you just did this to him. Please comply. Please call yourself a killer, a thug with a gun. Please explain yourself. Please take responsibility. Please use your experience to speak to other murderous and untrained officers. Please Officer, you just did this to him and, yes, you are a You in a system of Y’all’s and Y’all bear the burden of murder and we hold you all – and you – in contempt of justice that we wish to no longer accept as a fiction, because the truth of the fiction is a man bleeding to death in a passenger seat of a car with a broken tail light, and a grieving lover a foot away from him, and a terrified child stunned in a backseat, and your finger on the compressed trigger. In your hand the still warm pistol pointing into innocent faces, in your hand a tool of death not justice. Please Officer, see your hand holding the gun, see your fear pulling the trigger, see your power as an alienable right which we are standing at the ready to alienate loudly and persistently until You and Y’all see a Black body and know that the right to life is unquestionably real. Until you hold as an unalienable right that Black lives matter and you are not author to the stories of who gets to live and who must die.
where is my daughter?
do you got my daughter?
Who has this mother’s daughter? How can we hold this mother’s daughter? How can I, with my feminine whiteness and all its power it doesn’t deserve, serve the Black mothers and their daughters and their sons in the absence of a justice system that does not meet that promise? How can I leverage my shield of whiteness to stand in for the protection that this justice system denies?
Keep walking an officer orders. Keep walking. What if her legs are tired from all the walking you’ve forced her do? What if her feet have blisters from walking and walking and walking through the combat zone you’ve created in her very own neighborhood, despite careful compliance with your orders to walk and walk and walk? Thousands of others have walked and walked and walked through histories which neglect this violence. They have walked and walked and walked in a direction towards racial justice and how long will the order “keep walking” come down from architects of the violence? It is not her duty to keep walking. Let her rest. Shame on you, Officer.
Get on your knees
Get on your knees
A woman forced to get on her knees before a man. A man in uniform with a badge of power. A mother forced into violent submission of your power while her daughter is crying. Forced to negotiate measures of safety and knowing, and learning, that safe spaces are as much of an illusion as the justice you claim to serve. A lover whose dead partner’s shirt is still wet with blood, who kept walking and walking and walking and courageously broadcast her torture. Who testified her experience to the court of us all, who is forced to kneel before you like the human God that you and y’all imagine yourselves to be. Like a human God that we all, in our silence and complicity, in digital outrage that isn’t supported by human action – by not putting our white bodies in the street, on the steps of the capital, in community spaces of care and support – join in a fellowship of praise. Digital outrage, fleeting hashtags, tweets and reposts do not account for change. Shame on you, Officer, for your orders and shame on us if outrage does not translate to action. White counterparts, if you cannot understand your inaction as your unearned privilege, if you do not see your ability to choose whether or not to be a body in action involved in a movement towards racial justice, then you do not understand that our whiteness and its power is the bedrock of the problem.
[the mother’s daughter is crying]
[click-clack of handcuffs into further confinement of the mother whose child is crying]
Ma’am you are just getting detained right
now until we get this all sorted out, okay?
What exactly are you “sorting out?” How do you sort out the murder of an innocent man? What’s to sort? Why do you contain a woman, a mother, a partner, and deny her daughter comfort, so you can “sort out” the “all this?” All this? This human life, you mean? Sort it out? A murderer who is not cuffed while an innocent and traumatized victim is? “All this” is everything – everything wrong with your understanding of justice and humanity and procedure. There is no procedure to follow when yours are the bloodied hands of responsibility, but I assure you that the direct course of action to follow is not to contain a grieving lover and mother who is on her knees before you, who has walked and walked and walked while you refer to the life of her partner as “all this.” Shame on you, Officer.
Mother, I hear your grief. Sweet girl, I hear your crying; Philando, I heard your voice as you spoke before breath left you. You and you and you did not deserve these degrees of despair. You and you and you did not deserve this counterfeit justice which calls itself by the name of human God.
Please don’t tell me
Please don’t tell me Lord Jesus
Please don’t tell me my boyfriend is gone
Please don’t tell me he’s gone
I am so sorry. I am so sorry.
PLEASE JESUS, NO!
I am so sorry. I am so sorry.
Stand up and walk over here.
You with your orders, quiet down, shut your mouth. You with your power to murder cannot be blind to the grief You and Y’all have caused. You with your fear of repercussion shut up, shut up, and listen to this mother’s, this lover’s, this child’s grief and hear it and know you are responsible. Shut up and listen and see her and see what You and Y’all have done. I wish blood stained skin like it stained Philando’s shirt, like it stained Ms. Reynolds’ empty passenger seat, so you cannot forget. So you cannot turn away from responsibility.
Don’t let him be gone.
I am so sorry.
Shut your mouth. This is not a space for your grief or your shock or your incomprehension. You did this. I know you have grown accustomed to being heard and not being questioned and I know it because I, too, am bearing witness to your actions, but please shut your mouth. Are you worrying that we will find out what you’ve done or that you will be held responsible? No worries, remember? No worries, administrative leave is your future. No worries, indictment is not. No worries, your hands clasp through history with the hands of lynch mobs and will be thrown into the archive of the hands of persons unknown. Quiet down. We cannot hear you until a new language is spoken from your mouth.
He started shooting for no reason.
Thank you for your truth. It is a truth that is not to be contested. The media may try, but I believe you. This is a truth of trauma and we as her witness must hear this truth and not tangle it into spectacle. He started shooting for no reason. Thank you for your truth. You and you and you did not deserve this. There was no reason.
I am so tired of your voice. Oh, was this an “accident?” Hold your power with the same smugness in which you held your pistol. If to be a man with power is to murder another in front of her lover and child then use that manhood to contain your growls of disbelief.
You wanted his license and registration.
You told him to get it Sir…
We force the victim to remind the perpetrator of reality. Realities which will be called fictions, fictions which will not be acknowledged as reality. Lavish, I am so sorry.
Please don’t tell me my boyfriend is gone.
I am so sorry.
he don’t deserve this
he’s a good man.
he worked at J.J. Hill Montessori School
he had no records of anything
he never been in jail
he not a gang member, anything
You force her to justify Black life to you. We force her to justify Black life to us. Black life does not require justification. Black life does not require justification. Black life does NOT require justification. I believe he was a good man, Lavish. I am so sorry. I am so sorry for the students who he smiled at in the cafeteria having to learn of his death, having to watch it in the news, having to experience a grief that cannot be held. I am so sorry for what we have done to support the system and praise the human God of power that changed your life. I am so sorry. He did not deserve this. You did not deserve this. Your daughter did not deserve this. Your community did not deserve this. Black life does not require a justification.
that you allow him to be still here with us
wrap your arms around him
the Police Officers are not allowed to just kill these people like this.
spare their heart Lord.
Your name, Diamond, comes from the Greek word meaning indestructible. Diamonds were once imagined to be tears of the gods. The gods weep with you. Your compassion amidst grief which asked the Lord to spare the hearts of murderers in the moment is humanity at its most magnificent depth. I am so sorry. I hope your Lord wraps her arms around Philando and holds him warmly. I hope your Lord folds you into her embrace through your grief. I am so sorry.
You know we are innocent people Lord.
…we are innocent people.
We are innocent.
Your innocence is unquestionable and you did not deserve this. You are innocent people. I hear you. I do not doubt you. I know you are speaking truth. We must consider guilt and innocence as James Baldwin did in a letter to his nephew 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1963 he wrote to his nephew:
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
The officer is not innocent. His colleagues who cuffed you and failed to acknowledge your grief are not innocent. The system that supports their actions is not innocent. They are guilty and I see their guilt. We see his guilt.
[Four year-old child:]
I want to give my mommy…
Can you take the handcuffs off me?
I am so sorry you could not hold your daughter.
I am so sorry.
Can you search her?
I can’t. It’s got to be processed.
Is the murdering officer in cuffs? Is he in cuffs as you sort out the all of this? Is he still holding his gun in his hand while the innocent mother’s are clasped behind her back unable to hold her daughter?
I don’t know what kind of condition he’s in
because I’m handcuffed in the back of a police car.
I am so sorry, Diamond. You did not deserve this.
I’m scared mommy
Sweet girl, I am so sorry you are scared and that you should be scared. I am so sorry the police scare you and should scare you. I am so sorry you are scared. You do not deserve to live in fear. I am so sorry.
Don’t be scared.
The strength of a mother, the power of a woman.
It’s okay Mommy.
It’s okay I’m right here with you.
Sweet girl, I don’t know when it became your weight – the grief of the world’s madness. I don’t know when we decided that our nation’s children would have to carry the impossible load of terror and violence on their shoulders and in their spirits, and you do not deserve to have to be so beautifully strong. You are innocent. You deserve that innocence. You are beautiful. Your life does not require justification. Your mother is beautiful. Your mother is strong. I am so sorry you are afraid. You are beautiful.
Y’all please pray for us.
Yes, of course. Of course.
We have to do so much more. We have to do so much more. If you are forced to keep walking, keep walking, keep walking we have to walk with you, we have to kneel beside you, we have to walk and walk and walk and I want you to know that I will be walking. I will be listening carefully until the powerful pistol-holders who call themselves Gods are blinded by the dust from our tracks. It is only by wiping their eyes clean that they will be able to see. I, and we, will be here walking until you get to rest.