“It’s okay, Mommy…”
Four-year-old Dae’Anna was speaking to her mother in the back of a police radio car, her voice tender and reassuring in the face of what no child should witness. She was proving herself in these harrowing moments on Wednesday night to be as brave and loving as anybody of any age could be.
“…It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
Not 15 minutes earlier, Dae’Anna and her mother, Diamond Lavish Reynolds, had been riding in a car outside Minneapolis with her mother’s boyfriend at the wheel. The boyfriend, 32-year-old Philando Castile, had worked his way up from cook to cafeteria manager at a Montessori school, where he was famous for trading fist bumps with the kids and slipping them extra Graham crackers. He had never been arrested. His most serious encounters were traffic violations, the latest of which now came as a cop from suburban St. Anthony pulled them over for a broken tail light.
Dae’Anna was sitting alone in the back seat as the cop stepped up to the driver’s side window and asked Castile for his license and registration. Reynolds says that Castile took the precaution of telling the officer that he was carrying a licensed firearm. Castile then reached for the wallet in his pants pocket.
Dae’Anna, who is known as Dae Dae, likes fireworks and her mother’s Facebook page showed her holding a “Family Pack” on the Fourth of July, the accompanying comment reading, “Anything to see her happy.” Her mother had gone on Facebook Live early on the evening of the Fourth as she and Dae’Anna and Castile were picnicking in the park. Castile could be seen sitting at a bench with his cell phone in the background. Dae’Anna and another child were running happily across the grass, an all American idyll.
“Happy Fourth, everybody!” Reynolds exclaimed, wearing an American flag top. “Put the guns down, let these babies enjoy these fireworks!”
Now, around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, a sound that was whole magnitudes more jarring, violent, and shocking than any fireworks filled the car where Dae’Anna was sitting as the cop fired repeatedly at Castile. Dae’Anna could have only been terrified on seeing Castile slump over in his seat, a gaping bullet hole in his arm, blood seeping a vivid red across the chest of his white T-shirt.
Reynolds went on Facebook Live just as she had two evenings before, only this time showing an all-American nightmare made all the more so by the cop who continued to point his pistol into the car. His voice was panicky.
That was the very word that a Barton Rogue police officer had shouted after shooting another black man on Tuesday night. The expletive was nowhere near as unfitting for a child’s ears as were the dying moans that Dae’Anna must have heard coming from Castile as her mother gave Facebook Live an account of their sudden veer into horror.
“He was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him,” Reynold said.
The cop was still pointing the gun.
“Ma’am just keep your hands where they are!” he commanded.
Dae’Anna would have been right to think that the cop was threatening to shoot her mother as well if she did not comply. Reynolds remained remarkably calm.
“I will sir, no worries,” she said.
“Fuck!” the cop said again. “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand open.”
“You told him to get out his ID, sir, and his driver’s license,” Reynolds corrected with preternatural calm.
Dae’Anna would have heard all this and would have known from what she had seen who was already trying to twist the facts and who was telling the simple truth.
“Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead,” the mother then said, her calm straining. “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend went like that.”
“Keep your hands where they are, please,” the cop again commanded.
“Yes, I will, sir,” the mother replied, recovering herself. “I’ll keep my hands where they are.”
More cops had arrived.
“Get the female passenger out,” the first cop called to them.
One of the arriving cops spoke to Reynolds.
“Ma’am exit the car right now, with your hands up. Exit now.”
The mother complied.
“Keep ’em up, keep ’em up,” the second cop commanded. “Face away from me and walk backward. Keep walking.”
“Where’s my daughter?” the mother asked. “You got my daughter?”
“Get on your knees, get on your knees,” the second cop ordered.
Reynolds either dropped the phone or one of the cops took it and tossed it to the ground. The camera then showed only blue sky, but the microphone caught the first sounds from Dae’Anna.
At that moment, Dae’Anna could have been any 4-year-old who had sat transfixed by close-up gunfire, blood, and violent death and then cried out as she was taken from the car and away from her mother. An audible clicking such as a child would always remember came as the mother was handcuffed.
“Ma’am, you’re just being detained for now, until we get this straightened out, OK!” a cop said.
A siren approached and then ceased as an ambulance arrived. The ensuing cries suggest that the severity of Castile’s wounds must have become more apparent when the paramedics lifted him from the car. The first cop repeatedly shouted that same epithet. Reynolds cried out.
“Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone! He don’t deserve this! Please, he’s a good man. He works for St. Paul Public Schools. He doesn’t have a record of anything. He’s never been in jail, anything. He’s not a gang member, anything.”
She began praying aloud.
“Allow him to be still here with us, with me… Please lord, wrap your arms around him… Please make sure that he’s OK, he’s breathing… Just spare him, please. You know we are innocent people, Lord… We are innocent. My 4-year-old can tell you about it.”
Reynolds asked one of the other cops if she could retrieve her phone.
“It’s right there, on the floor,” she said.
The cop replied that he would have to consult with a supervisor.
“It has to be processed,” he advised.
The cop could then be heard speaking to Dae’Anna.
“Can you just stand right there, sweetie?” he asked.
She had apparently started back toward the car.
“No, I want to get my mommy’s purse,” the girl replied.
She wanted to help her mother in some way, any way.
“I’ll take care of that for you, OK?” the cop said. “Can you just stand right there for me?”
The cop then called to one of his comrades about the mother.
“Can you just search her?”
The cop’s attention had shifted to the mother and Dae’Anna had the opportunity to step away for a moment. She could not get to her mother’s purse, but she apparently could get to her mother’s phone.
The proof came as Dae’Anna’s face suddenly appeared. The young child who had looked so happy scampering through the park on the Fourth of July Live video now had a furrowed brow and wartime eyes.
“Come here, Dae Dae,” her mother said tenderly.
Mother and daughter were placed in the back of a radio car, Facebook Live again recording with video as well as audio, the emergency lights of the surrounding vehicles flashing in the dimness.
“Mommy…” Dae’Anna can be heard saying.
“Don’t be scared,” Reynolds told her.
The mother then said to Facebook, “My daughter just witnessed this.”
Reynolds tipped the phone so the girl’s face appeared again, the brow a touch smoother, the eyes still much too old. Reynolds shifted the camera to the side window of the squad car.
“That’s the police officer over there that did it,” she said.
The video showed Dae’Anna gazing out at the cop, her right tiny hand resting on the inside of the squad car door, her eyes gone wide. The camera shifted back to the dim interior.
“I can’t really do shit because they got me handcuffed,” the mother said.
Reynolds seemed to be approaching a limit. Dae’Anna spoke to Reynolds as tenderly as Reynolds had been with her. The child had her own preternatural calm.
“It’s OK, mommy,” Dae’Anna said.
“I can’t believe they just did this!” Reynolds exclaimed.
The mother cried out, sounding trapped, grief-torn. Dae’Anna spoke again, mighty with love, a child whose quiet magnificence commands us to do more than just let such horrors happen again and again and again.
“It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”