Brecht Explains Castile Shooting

The gun that is about to shoot Philando Castile


Of the many things we can predict with absolute certainty, one appears to be that juries will acquit police officers charged with shooting innocent people of color. Most recently, a Minnesota jury acquitted an officer for shooting Philando Castile, who tried to follow proper procedure when stopped for a broken taillight and still ended up dead.

Before then, it was a Tulsa officer shooting a stranded motorist, a Pennsylvania police officer shooting an unarmed motorist in the back as he lay face down in the snow, a Cleveland officer shooting a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun, and so on.

To understand what is going on, there’s no better explanation than one offered up by Bertolt Brecht in his play The Exception and the Rule (1957).

Before examining the play, let’s take a quick walk through recent history. The New York Times provides a list of what happened to the officer in 15 of the latest cases where innocent blacks were killed by the police or died in police custody:

Fired – 5 cases
Indicted or charged – 8 cases
Settlement reached – 8 cases
Officer convicted/pleaded guilty – 2 cases

In Brecht’s play, an entrepreneur is racing across a desert to be the first to lay claim to a valuable oil concession. He drives his coolie very hard and then, when the coolie offers him some of his water, shoots him because he thinks the canteen is a rock and that his life is in danger. The play concludes with a judge acquitting him of the killing and offering the following explanation:

The court finds proved that the coolie approached his master not with a stone but with a water-bottle. This fact established, however, the court takes as more reasonable the view that the coolie was about to attack his master with the bottle, and not that he was offering him water. The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited. For such a man it would be a matter of common wit to defend himself in face of an inequitable distribution of the water. Indeed it might even seem a matter of justice to such people as the coolie, limited and prejudiced as their outlook is by its dependence on mere reality, to revenge themselves against their tormentor. It must be said that, in the last analysis, they have nothing to lose. The merchant belongs to a different class from that of the porter. He could only anticipate the worst. He could not credit that the porter whom he had ill-treated, as he himself has said, would offer him an act of friendship. His common wit told him that he was in the greatest danger. The isolated nature of the area must have caused him great anxiety. The distance from the police and the restraint of the law would encourage his servant to demand his share of the water. The accused therefore acted in justifiable self-defense regardless of whether he was actually threatened or merely believed himself to be threatened. In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened. The case is therefore dismissed and the widow’s claim fails.

The situation parallels the Castile shooting. When Castile was stopped, he tried to be cooperative and informed the officer that he had a licensed firearm in the car.He then reached into his glove compartment to get the demanded registration papers.

Perhaps the officer was like the businessman in Brecht’s play and figured that a black man felt towards him like he felt towards black men. Or perhaps he sensed that, because Castile was a victim of racism, Castile must be itching to shoot him, requiring him to shoot first. (“The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited.”) The jury may well have reached the same conclusion as the judge: “In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened.”

“The circumstances as established” is what people today mean by “systemic racism.” Individuals are caught up in a larger system of paranoia and projection, making it practically inevitable that these shootings will occur. Brecht’s parable style makes the point that individual personalities don’t matter that much.

At the end of the play, the actors form a chorus and plead for us not to normalize such behavior. We can imagine a Black Lives Matter member delivering the speech:

You have heard and you have seen.
You saw the normal, that which happens every day.
But please, we say to you now:
Even when ordinary, find it strange
Even when familiar, find it inexplicable
Even when quite normal, it must astound you
Even when the rule, recognize it as an abuse
And whenever you have recognized abuse
Put it right!

In other words, do everything you can to keep from taking such shootings for granted. Continue to be astounded, even though such killings and acquittals happen again and again. Act collectively in an attempt to change the reality.

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