In its spread across the country and gradual supplanting of other emancipation celebrations, Juneteenth has always retained that sense of belatedness. It is the observance of a victory delayed, of foot-dragging and desperate resistance by white supremacy against the tide of human rights, and of a legal freedom trampled by the might of state violence. As the belated emancipation embedded in the holiday foretold generations of black codes, forced labor, racial terror, police brutality, and a century-long regime of Jim Crow, it also imbued the holiday with a sense of a Sisyphean prospect of an abridged liberty, with full citizenship always taunting and tantalizing, but just one more protest down the road.
Today, that abridgment is just as loud as the brass bands, drum lines, and multitudes of majorettes marching down Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Boulevards on Juneteenth.
In Minneapolis, Juneteenth comes on the heels of the masses who protested against the verdict in the killing of Philando Castile. Last July, Castile, a 32-year-old black nutrition-services supervisor, was stopped by a police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, while driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter through the suburbs of St. Paul. The pretenses of that stop were flimsy—Castile allegedly resembled a robbery suspect—and the stop was simply the latest and last of a lifetime of harassment and targeting of Castile by police, to the tune of almost 50 stops in 13 years. In the abundance of caution that likely comes as a survival instinct to a man so targeted by officers, Castile warned Yanez about his legally registered handgun before he moved.
Only three living souls truly know what happened in the next split second. Yanez claims that he believed Castile was reaching for the gun when the officer chose to open fire multiple times at close range, killing Castile. Reynolds’s Facebook Live video shows the horrific, bloody aftermath, along with Reynolds’s claims that Castile was merely reaching for his identification, not his gun. Nevertheless, on Friday a jury decided that Yanez’s version would carry the weight of truth. The script had been written. Castile was as good as dead from the moment Yanez allegedly feared for his life, and the law stood behind his killer.
Predictably, the protests across the country barely had a chance to dissipate before the next outrage. On Sunday morning, Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant black mother, in front of her children while she allegedly brandished a knife, all in response to her own call to report a burglary. The details of this case are still hazy, but Lyles’s relatives attest that she had mental-health issues, and that officers explicitly promised her they would not shoot her if they responded. The Seattle Police Department has been operating under court supervision since the Department of Justice reported that more than half of its incidents of excessive use of force and officer-involved killings had involved people suffering mental and behavioral crises.