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Juggling talent and fear a matter of race

Cry of despair: Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, weeps during a press conference in St Paul, Minnesota in July 2016. Philando Castile was shot seven times by police after being pulled over for a broken tail-light (Photograph by Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/AP)

What was supposed to be a charming little story went viral last week: a college student who was pulled over by police in Arkansas was able to literally juggle his way out of a ticket. Blayk Puckett was driving slowly in a car with a broken tail-light, and police suspected that he may have been under the influence. Without a sobriety test, however, they decided to let him off with a warning.

In the video, we hear one officer say, “What’s that in your pocket, if you don’t mind me asking?” Puckett says it’s some type of prop and puts his hand in his pocket but doesn’t pull anything out. There is no indication that the cop finds this movement threatening. Later in the video, Puckett opens the back door of his car and, while the cops chuckle, reaches into the back seat and pulls out juggling pins. Although it’s easy to imagine police arguing that juggling clubs could be wielded as a weapon, these cops didn’t have their guns drawn; they were so relaxed that they used Puckett’s mobile phone to record his tricks for him after they asked him to demonstrate. “No pressure, though,” the cops tell Puckett. “I want you to know you don’t have to.”

It should not surprise you to learn that Puckett is white.

In July 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail-light, the same offence as Puckett. Unlike Puckett, Castile was not able to drive away. In front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter, he was shot seven times by a St Anthony, Minnesota, police officer less than a minute after he was pulled over. He died about a half-hour later at a hospital.

It should not surprise you to recall, either, that Castile was black.

When I saw ABC News tweet a link to video of Puckett juggling, I immediately thought of Castile because they were pulled over for the same offence. I responded to ABC’s tweet by pointing out that Castile never had a chance to get out and juggle.

My objection was retweeted more than 80,000 times. The point is not that Puckett should have been killed. The point is that Castile should not have been killed for a minor traffic violation. The point is that for most black people, there is rarely a fun interaction with police. Young white men get to juggle because the cops don’t assume they are a threat. Young black men get shot.

I enjoy a funny video as much as the next person. But this one was not funny. It triggered a memory of a man who was shot and bled out in front of his girlfriend and her child for the exact same offence. I don’t have the luxury of forgetting about Castile.

As the mother of a teenage son who will be going off to college in the autumn, I worry every time he pulls out of our driveway. When he got his licence, my husband and I decided that he should drive our SUV, the safest car we have, in case he was ever in an accident. The dilemma is that we are constantly concerned that he will be pulled over by a cop who does not think a young black teenager should be behind the wheel of a well-equipped, late-model SUV and pull him over because they think the car is stolen. We have regular talks about “Driving While Black” — what to do when, not if, he is pulled over.

But as we provide him with suggestions, I am constantly reminded of Castile, who was complying with the officer’s demand and was shot seven times anyway. This is not an indictment of all police officers or law enforcement officials. I don’t believe that all cops are bad or racist or untrustworthy. Police officers are not a monolith; there are good and bad cops, just as there are good and bad people in any profession. Obviously, the cops who stopped Puckett are not the same ones who confronted Castile. But how are we supposed to know which are the “good cops” who may allow you to get off with a warning, and which are the “bad cops” whose implicit biases could keep you from making it home? Citizens should be able to rely on consistency from law enforcement officials, so that they are not left guessing about what type of cop is pulling them over.

My husband and I do the only thing we can do to protect our son, and ourselves: we ensure that the insurance, registration and car are always in good order. Of course, all parents should be doing the same. The difference we have seen too often is that these seemingly small things that many take for granted can literally mean the difference between life and death for people of colour.

April Reign is managing editor of Broadway Black, editor at large for Nu Tribe Magazine and creator of #OscarsSoWhite.