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Police shootings challenge July 4 ideals

Flashing lights on top of police patrol car.

Flashing lights on top of police patrol car. Credit: iStock

This July 4, Americans will celebrate our independence from Great Britain. Most will focus on fireworks and BBQs and perhaps lose sight of the day’s true significance - the commemoration of the Declaration of Independence. It famously proclaims:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

At the time it was written, the Declaration was not really meant to include all men. It most certainly did not include black men. Two centuries later, it still may not.

This year’s Independence Day will have special significance for Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. On July 6, 2016, while driving in the suburbs of Minnesota, Castile was pulled over by the cops. When he reached for his license, he was shot seven times in front of Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter.

While the incident was captured on videos taken by Reynolds and the police - images that shocked people all over the world - it was not enough to get a jury to convict the cop who killed Castile.

We say all men are created equal, except those who aren’t.

Prior to this fatal day, Castile had been pulled over 52 times for minor infractions like not wearing a seat belt. He was only 32. Blacks being pulled over for minor offenses, or none at all, happens all the time. Sometimes the consequences are tragic, as when Sandra Bland of Texas died in jail in July 2015 after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction.

As a teacher of mostly young African-American boys, I fear every day for their safety. We need to make some changes.

I know many great cops out there who risk their lives for their communities; but some are clearly overreacting and using excessive force. It is a problem that needs to be addressed.

While I am grateful for the liberties I have as an American citizen, I cannot stand to watch another young black person be killed. As the Declaration states, we are entitled to life, the basic chance to live and breathe. Castile had that right taken away, two days after the celebration of the very document that promised it to him.

Perhaps we cannot eradicate hundreds of years of racism, but we can uphold the premise on which this country was founded. Perhaps we can’t change the mindset of others. But we can change how we react to it. If it has come to a point in our country where no black child or man can carry a toy gun, we need to give much more consideration to those we let carry real ones.

This year, as you listen to fireworks, think of all the gunshots fired at all of the men who were not created equal. As James Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock . to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance . has not pledged allegiance to you.”

Elana Rabinowitz is a writer and teacher of English as a second language in Brooklyn, New York.