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Civil Rights Lawyer: Philando Castile’s Skin Color Ended Up Being a Death Sentence

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Black Lives Matter protests are continuing in the Twin Cities after a Minnesota police officer was acquitted Friday in the killing of Philando Castile, an African-American man who was shot five times during a traffic stop last year. His girlfriend filmed the aftermath and streamed it live on Facebook. We speak to civil rights lawyer Nekima Levy-Pounds, the former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, who is now running for mayor of Minneapolis.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Black Lives Matter protests were continuing in the Twin Cities and other cities, after Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted Friday in the killing of Philando Castile, an African-American man who was shot five times during a traffic stop last year.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Minneapolis, where we’re joined by Nekima Levy-Pounds. She’s former president of the Minneapolis NAACP and is now running for mayor of Minneapolis.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about your reaction to the verdict and then the protests that followed in the Twin Cities, Nekima?

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Well, number one, I thought that the result of the jury in finding Jeronimo Yanez not guilty was absolutely absurd, in light of the facts of the case, in light of the circumstances surrounding Philando Castile’s untimely death. And people here are outraged. Time after time again, we see circumstances in which officers who kill are not held accountable under the laws of the state of Minnesota. And so we have taken to the streets repeatedly. We started out within hours after Philando Castile was killed last summer. And we waited patiently for almost a year for the verdict to come down. And to see that Jeronimo Yanez was not even found guilty on the lesser charges is extremely disappointing and frustrating. And so, it means that we have to continue protesting and demonstrating and challenging the laws and policies that allow these police officers to kill people with impunity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about the decision of the prosecution, as I understand, not to play the video that became—that went around the world, in terms of the aftermath of the shooting, during the trial?

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Well, it doesn’t surprise me that they did not play the video. I mean, some people have raised concerns about the strategy of the prosecution, including during jury selection. When you look at the composition of the jury, there were 10 white individuals who served on the jury, two people of color, both of whom were young. I mean, one was an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant. The other was a young black man. And when you look at that, I mean, who in their right minds would pick 10 white people in Minnesota against, you know, potentially two young people of color and having them decide a case of this magnitude? And so, some people are arguing that the prosecution made some mistakes in this case, and not playing the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death was probably one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: The jury was made up of seven men, five women, 10 of whom were white, two African-American. They deliberated for more than 25 hours over five days before acquitting Officer Yanez on all charges. After the verdict, the local ABC affiliate in Minneapolis spoke with juror Bonita Schultz, who said the jury addressed the issue of race with the two African-American jurors hearing the case.

BONITA SCHULTZ: We did ask them if they thought that this was a racist thing. And they were very comfortable about it and did not think it was at all.

AMY GOODMAN: This juror, Bonita Schultz, went on to explain how the jury arrived at the verdict.

BONITA SCHULTZ: I just hope that they realize that we didn’t go by it lightly. We did not favor the cop. We just felt that the state did not prove their case.

AMY GOODMAN: Nekima Levy-Pounds, your response? You know, some of these jurors apparently said they had never heard of the case, as well, when they were chosen.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Well, that’s absolutely shocking that they hadn’t heard of the case. It shows that, unfortunately, some people in our state are out of touch with issues of police-involved shootings and the impacts upon people of color, because this has been a constant staple in the news since Black Lives Matter emerged in Minneapolis, in particular, back in November of 2014. And so it’s surprising that they had no idea about this particular case. And again, as I said before, I’m not sure who in their right minds would choose two young African Americans to serve on the jury—again, one being an Ethiopian immigrant—as opposed to older African Americans, a larger composition of people of color across the board who are concerned about the phenomenon of officer-involved shooting cases, the use of excessive force in the state of Minnesota and the fact that there is a repeated pattern of failing to hold police officers accountable when they abuse the rights of citizens of the state of Minnesota.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was one of the groups that investigated the shooting death of Philando Castile. And they have a terrible track record for holding police officers accountable. We do not trust their investigations or the outcomes. There is no independent group in the state of Minnesota that investigates officer-involved shooting cases. And so it’s up to each individual prosecutor and each individual police department to determine how they’re going to handle these situations. And that has resulted in officers not being held accountable, time and time and time again, for killing, often unarmed civilians.

In this case, we know Philando was licensed to carry a firearm. And he went above the law—the law’s requirements in letting Officer Yanez know, and it still did not save his life. Officer Yanez had an unreasonable fear of Philando Castile as a black man. And so we need to look at the criteria that are being used when officers say that they were afraid for their safety. That cannot be the way in which these cases are being evaluated. There has to be some type of objective criteria that’s being used, or more people’s lives will be in danger.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the role of the political leadership in Minnesota, in the Minneapolis and the Twin Cities area. This is generally considered a liberal state, especially the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. The current mayor, the one that you’re running against, Betsy Hodges, has been under a lot of fire from the police department for some of her stands. At the same time, other people feel that she has not paid sufficient attention to the issue of these kinds of police abuses. Your sense of how the political leadership of your area has responded to these cases?

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Well, the political leadership in our area has responded very poorly. I mean, I’ve seen this play out over the years. In addition to being the former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, I’m also a civil rights attorney. I was a law professor for 14 years. And during that period of time, I had the opportunity to work on issues such as police-community relations. And what I saw were government leaders, including DFL, which is, you know, our Democratic Farm and Labor party, here in Minnesota, being—essentially, not being focused on these particular issues, ignoring concerns from communities of color about the ways in which people of color were being treated by the police, abused by the police. And Betsy Hodges was one of those people. She ran four years ago on an equity platform. And we have yet to see her deliver the results that we’ve been asking for.

All of that played a role in my decision to run for mayor. I mean, I was one of those people standing with the community, demanding that she hold police accountable for their abuse against people of color. Minneapolis Police Department has a long track record of engaging in excessive force towards African-American residents, criminalizing them and harassing them. And that still has not changed under her leadership. And so, we have an unprecedented number of people of color who are running to become city councilmembers in the city of Minneapolis. And, of course, I am running for mayor, because we’re ready to shift the paradigm in the city and to ensure that we’re actually focusing on equity, that we’re holding police officers accountable, that we’re looking at racial disparities across every key indicator of quality of life, including economics.

If you look at the plight of African Americans in the city of Minneapolis, we have African-American men in some pockets of the city facing double-digit unemployment. Those men are often subjected to police abuse, to harassment and criminalization. And the matters are not being addressed, simply because the state is deemed to be liberal. I see the recognition of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota as being liberal places as masking the truth of what African Americans and other people of color here are facing, which are conditions that are reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, except that we call it the Jim Crow North here.

AMY GOODMAN: During a protest on Saturday, Nekima Levy-Pounds, you encountered several police officers on bicycles. This is a clip of you addressing the officers.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: What we’re saying is, if you call yourself a good cop, but you see one of your colleagues beating somebody or disrespecting them or treating them like they’re less than human, then report them. That’s what a good cop does. So we’re asking you all to step up, exhibit leadership, and work to build trust within the community. And if the government isn’t going to hold you all account, hold yourselves accountable. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Nekima Levy-Pounds, can you talk about what you were asking for and demanding?

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Yes. We led a protest through the streets of downtown on Saturday afternoon, and we had police officers following us in vehicles. We said that that was fine. But as we were leaving the 1st Precinct police station, we encountered several police officers in an alley. And I was stunned, first of all, to see them there on bicycles. And I just stopped to ask them why they were there. You know, were they there to protect us? Were they there because they thought there would be some form of violence? And I reminded them that we were peaceful demonstrators, that we did not need additional escorts.

And then I talked to them about this matter of good cops versus bad cops, because when we’re out on the streets protesting, when we’re raising concerns about police violence, the pushback is often that, “You know, well, there are good cops out there. You know, these are just a few bad apples,” when, in reality, there is a culture of policing that needs to be addressed. There’s a culture of militarization amongst the police that need to be addressed. There is a culture that allows police officers to be killed with—I’m sorry, police officers to kill people with impunity and to not be held accountable, not only in Minnesota, but across the state of Minnesota. And if citizens engage in the type of behavior that we’ve seen from officers such as Yanez, they would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and probably be under the jail. We don’t get the same deference as far as whether we’re a good person or a bad person. A lot of us are judged, just as Philando Castile was, by the color of his skin, when Yanez said that he had a wide-set nose and looked like a robbery suspect, and unfortunately he was mistaken. But the color of his skin wound up being a death sentence in that particular case.

And so we’re saying, “Listen, if you’re a good officer, then don’t falsify reports. Don’t go along with police brutality and abuse and think that it’s enough, just because you may not have participated. A good cop is actually going to report the conduct of bad cops and push to hold them accountable, so that they can build trust within the community.” I believe that that’s part of the message that needs to be spread throughout the United States. What exactly is a good cop? And what standard of care are we holding them to when they’re on the force and they’re witnessing these acts by officers who are engaging in wayward conduct? I believe that they have a heightened duty to respond in those situations and not to be complicit in that type of abusive behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: Nekima Levy-Pounds, I want to thank you for being with us, civil rights attorney, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, currently running for mayor of Minneapolis.

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