ST. PAUL, Minn. – There isn’t a hint of the Super Bowl down here on Selby Avenue. There are no festive plazas, no banners on the light posts, no NFL gear in storefronts. At the Golden Thyme café, locals tap on laptops and sip mochas as the new mayor walks in. Melvin Carter is the first African-American elected to his position, only a few weeks into his job, and he spots a city worker named John Thompson seated in the corner. He knows “JT,” as a lot of people do around here. JT was one of Philando Castile’s close friends.
“He should be here,” the mayor says, “having a cup of coffee.”
Castile spent his days around the corner from here at J.J. Hill Montessori School, where he worked as a nutrition services supervisor. He knew the children so well that he often caught the lactose intolerant kids before they accidentally sipped a milk box. Then in July of 2016, he and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter were returning from a trip to the grocery store when a police officer radioed in and said he intended to pull their car over. “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery,” the officer reportedly said . After the officer approached the car, Castile informed him he had a firearm. The policeman replied, “Don’t reach for it then.” Castile said he wasn’t pulling out the gun and Reynolds said the same. The officer raised his voice and said, “Don’t pull it out!” He fired seven shots. “I wasn’t reaching for it,” is the last thing Castile said.
The aftermath of the shooting, which was filmed on Facebook by Reynolds and replayed on cable news programs again and again, became one of several police killings that have incensed African-Americans and others nationwide. Only a few weeks after Castile’s death, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat for the national anthem during a preseason game and began one of the most polarizing chapters in football history. Kaepernick’s protest set off a wave of speaking out against police brutality that roiled the NFL this season. The Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins has traveled to Washington to lobby for social justice issues, and teammate Chris Long has donated his entire 2017 season salary to like-minded causes. Kaepernick made his decision based on a multitude of tragedies, including the deaths of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Alton Sterling. But the shooting of Castile hit a unique nerve. We saw the video of the moments after he was shot. We heard the voice of the 4-year-old child in the backseat, consoling her mom: “I don’t want you to get shooted.”
NFL players do not protest during the national anthem as much anymore, and social issues haven’t been a major theme of this week’s Super Bowl lead-up. It feels in some ways as if the story has passed.
“There’s a lot of NFL players that forgot about us,” Thompson says. “If they didn’t, they’d do more with the activists, trying to connect with some of us.”
Thompson wasn’t much into activism before his friend died. He’s a machinist who works for the city, visiting schools to fix everything from freezers to A/C units. Only a day before Castile was pulled over, Thompson was complaining to a friend about the coverage of the Sterling shooting, saying no one wants to see these “snuff movies” and everyone knows the cop will get acquitted anyway.
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