Mr. Phil. That’s what the kids at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul called Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by police on Wednesday night. Thursday night, his school family held a vigil for him. This is not the way he should be famous, someone said. This is not how he should be remembered.A parent called him “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.” Fellow staff members said Mr. Phil was patient and kind and caring. Mr. Phil loved his job and all of “his” kids in the school. Mr. Phil gave them breakfast and hugs and direction. “Everything Mr. Phil did in this school was for the kids,” another parent said.
His mother and sister and cousins spoke, too. “My one and only son,” his mother said. “He was executed by the police.” She said she didn’t speak in public but that she could speak today because her son’s soul was inside her. “It was my son today,” she said, “but it could be yours tomorrow. This has to stop right now.”
His sister and cousins shared memories of a strong man, raised by a family that was rich in love. A cousin talked about “a wealth of strong men” who helped raise Philando Castile to be a strong man who, in his own life, grew up to be a father figure to other children.
He shouldn’t have died on Wednesday night. He did everything by the book. “He lived by the law and he died by the law,” his mother said. When the police asked for his license, he reached into his pocket to get it. He also explained that he had a gun — because the law says if you have a concealed carry permit, you are supposed to tell the police. That’s when the police officer killed him.
“Would this have happened if those passengers and driver were white?” Governor Mark Dayton asked at his press conference this afternoon. He went on to answer his own question. “I don’t think it would have. … So all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.”
Thousands of people came to the vigil. Many were from the J.J. Hill and St. Paul Public School “family.” Others were from the larger community. We listened as person after person described Philando Castile — kind, loving, peaceful, filled with integrity, caring about kids. We need to remember this about Philando Castile. We need to remember his life, not just his death. But we also need to act, to stop the police shootings, to stop the racism that remains so deeply entrenched in our state and nation.
Toward the end of the vigil, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman took the microphone. “This is not acceptable in St. Paul. This is not acceptable in Baton Rouge. This is not acceptable in Ferguson. This is not acceptable in New York. This is not acceptable anywhere in this country,” he said. The mayor apologized to the community and the family. He referred to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and called on people to stand together and demand justice. “We will not allow this to happen any more,” he said.
We do need to stand together. We do need to demand justice.
But it’s too late for Mr. Phil. And all the fine words can’t help the teacher who has to find an answer for the daughter who tells her: “Mom, I’m scared because I don’t know what kind of people human beings are.”