Written: Zanab J.S., Jibril Ali
On July 6th, 2016, Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile as he sat in the backseat of his car with his 5 year old daughter.
The entire event was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. Philando Castile had not committed any crime and was fully complying with the requests of Yanez when he was shot several times at close range by the officer. Nearly one year later, on June 16th, Yanez was acquitted of all charges including manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
The livestream of Philando Castile's killing was made available to hundreds of people, and has since been watched millions of times. The recording begins the moment Reynolds, who was driving the car at the time, is pulled over for an unexplained traffic stop and includes footage of when Castile was shot and killed while trying to reach for his registration card.
The killing of unarmed, or legally armed, African Americans during traffic stops (on street corners, in police cars, in prison cells and during 911 calls for help) are not at all uncommon in the landscape of American police brutality. In fact, to describe such systemic abuse as a component of the system of anti-blackness in America is both reasonable and rooted in the history of policing.
Looking back to the several videos of police shooting and killing African Americans, the death of Philando Castile, broadcasted live to the world, instills a new kind of terror.
We have witnessed in full colour the moment where a young, well-respected, kind-hearted, gentle and beloved father is shot and killed by a police officer--for doing exactly what that police officer told him to do. No crime. No threat. No reluctance. Full compliance followed by several fatal gunshots.
When such an inconceivable act is committed, and when such an act has been made visible to the world, an unrelenting campaign must be initiated to sway the opinion of the public.
It is not surprising Yanez's first action following the shooting, not even 4 hours later, was to contact a lawyer. For his bosses to have done the same is just as unsurprising.
The point of growing interest begins later, when Special Agent Bill O'Donnell issues a highly specific, and just as inexplicable, search warrant to Facebook for Diamond Reynolds' personal account history. The warrant, seeking "all information retained" by Facebook, sought all chat messages sent to and from Reynolds' account, as well as any material which may have been deleted. The warrant goes on to request metadata applied to Reynolds' photos and any videos she may have uploaded or had been tagged in. The warrant also includes a gag order, preventing Facebook to go public with details of the warrant.
One day after the warrant was supplied to Facebook, an identical order was given to Sprint, Reynolds' phone company, for her call logs, text logs and associated metadata. Facebook opposed the gag order and eventually fought off the warrant itself, whereas Sprint complied fully with the request.
The contrast between Facebook and Sprint's interaction with the police order is noteworthy. Both companies receive regular requests for information and search warrants for suspects in criminal investigations. Facebook's policy requires the person in question is informed about the search, whereas phone companies like Sprint do not.
The request for metadata from Reynolds' and Castile's Facebook accounts spanned July 4th to July 8th, 2 days before and after the shooting. The request for Yanez's phone records spanned only a few hours on July 6th.
The livestream of Castile's death provided the world with a truth so many victims and families of victims have already tried to explain.
"He was unarmed."
"She did not break any laws."
"They complied with the officer's request."
"They were only reaching into their pocket."
Undeniably, in the face of such bold and irrefutable proof that this killing was, in fact, unnecessary, and the victim was, in fact, innocent, for the officer responsible, and those responsible for the officer to seek cover is predictable, expected.
What is less clear is why special agents were seeking private information on Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Castile, in the most covert and invasive way possible. What reason could there be for such a thorough and censored investigation into the life of the victim of this tragic, unwarranted act of brutality?
The answer to this question is explained succinctly in the warrant itself:
"Your affiant is aware through training and expertise that individuals frequently call and/or text messages to each other regarding criminal activity during and/or after and [sic] event has occurred."
Investigators were looking for criminal wrongdoing on the part of Reynolds and those intimately involved with Castile for reasons which are not directly stated, but easily interpreted: the police was seeking information which would criminalize Castile, or at least justify his shooting death.
In moments, Reynolds' records and private phone history were secretly given to the police, all the while not having committed a single crime which would justify such measures.
Yanez's testimony for why he pulled Reynolds' car over, however, was not as clear as Reynolds' lack of criminal involvement. Yanez originally claimed he could smell marijuana in the car, but neither Castile nor Reynolds had been under the influence at the time. He then claimed he originally pulled them over because of a broken taillight, then claimed it was because Castile matched the description of another suspect. Neither claim was validated.
According to Reynolds, her treatment by the police following the shooting was always that of a suspect.
"I was treated like a criminal...I was treated like I was the one who did this."
--Diamond Reynolds, 24 hours after the shooting of Philando Castile
Though there has been no comment from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on the matter, the way Reynolds was treated during the case and the attempts made to secure her private information amounts to a troubling reality where law enforcement can access intimate details of victims of police brutality, despite the fact they have done nothing to cause the police shootings.
This power to unveil private communication without cause reveals the dangerous imbalance between the police, and victims of their brutality. The situation of Diamond Reynolds serves as an example of how powerful law enforcement agencies really are. With police departments being able to uncover unrelated, posthumous accounts of prospective criminal activity with a single warrant, victims of brutality are forever at risk of being smeared and having the public opinion swayed against them.
There is only one winner on this unlevelled playing field and that is the party least regulated and with the most access.