AAPF Reflects on the Tragic Deaths of Charleena Lyles and Philando Castile

AAPF Reflects on the Tragic Deaths of Charleena Lyles & Philando Castile

Charleena Lyles should still be alive today. Her death fresh on the heels of the acquittal of Philando Castile’s murderer makes plain the ways that Black life continues to be devalued in our daily lives. As we mourn for Charleena and Philando we also lift up their families, particularly the children who had to witness the murder of a parent or parental figure. We are outraged by the continued violence against Black women and men, and the clear disregard for the endangerment of Black children. We are also concerned that the rise of overtly racist rhetoric seen across the country and propagated by the current president will continue to leave communities of color more vulnerable than ever before.

All too often women are afterthoughts in the struggles against state violence, however Charleena’s death reveals that her gender offered no protection against claims that deadly force was necessary.  Charleena Lyles was a pregnant Black mother of four who called the police to report a burglary in her home.  Tragically, like all too many Black women calling for help, her fears that she would be harmed were realized--not by the suspected burglar, but by the two white officers that entered her home.  Three of Charleena’s children were home with her in their north Seattle apartment when the shooting occurred.  Although physically unharmed, there is no doubt that witnessing the violent death of their mother will affect them for a lifetime.

Charleena Lyles’ life and death reflect the ways that living as a poor, Black women with mental illness constitutes a grave risk of being killed by police.  Deborah Danner, a Black woman who also lived with mental illness, wrote poignantly about the daily risk she faced of losing her life at the hands of police.  Her worst fears come true when she too was shot to death in her apartment by a New York City police officer.  In both cases, the fact that the women were known to police as suffering from mental illness did little to encourage officers to de-escalate the encounters.  In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that their awareness of their mental illness may have lessened their commitment to save their lives rather than to endanger them.

The audio recording from the officer’s dashcam shows that they knew going in that there were mental health issues that would prompt de-escalation techniques, yet they resorted to deadly force when, according to their account, the petite woman brandished a knife.  

Like so many other Black women who were killed by the very officers who were called to help--women like Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Aura Rosser--we grieve for Charleena Lyles and demand that we #SayHerName in the pursuit of justice for her and her children.  

Yet the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer shows that we have a long way to go in the fight for police accountability.  Philando Castile did everything he could to mitigate the officer’s fear, he was courteous, and informed the officer of his firearm and yet it appears that an officer's fear is always reasonable no matter how hard we try to assuage it. Holding officers accountable for these senseless shootings will be virtually impossible so long as an officer’s  claim of fear is greater than any and all evidence that less lethal measures were available.  Homicide should never be justified as prophylactic measures to allay the anxieties, whims, biases, and distortions of state employees equipped with a badge and a gun.  As a society, we must ask ourselves if someone can truly be fit to serve as an officer if they are afraid of the community they are supposed to serve and protect. We must insist that officers cannot be both innocent victims of fear and executors of state violence.