Valerie Castile: unbending, unbroken, unbowed

(Chris Juhn/MSR News) Valerie Castile (center) mother of the last Philando Castile at a candlelight vigil in his honor

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

It’s been nearly five years since Valerie Castile lost her son Philando at the hands of law enforcement. Since that time she can often be found standing with the families of others who have lost a loved one to police violence. More recently she stood with Daunte Wright’s family demanding that his killer be prosecuted, and before that she stood with the family of George Floyd as they sought punishment for his murderer, Derek Chauvin.

She has also worked as a change agent by advocating for police reform, providing services to the families of victims of police violence, and championing legislation that addresses the disparities Black Minnesotans face in comparison to their White counterparts.

Castile moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Minnesota in 1982 when Philando was three years old. She had visited her sister who was living in Minnesota years prior and found the state to be a suitable place to raise her son. There weren’t as many vacant cars or houses as there were back in St. Louis, and she was surprised to see minimal police presence at the time. 

Related Story: Valerie Castile keeps Philando’s legacy alive

While upon first arriving, Minnesota seemed promising as a new home, Castile can’t help but regret moving to the state in light of her son’s death. “That’s the worst thing I could have done,” she said. “I brought my son right into the lion’s den.”

On July 6, 2016, Philando was shot to death during a traffic stop by former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Philando was shot by Yanez after he told the officer that he was legally licensed to carry a firearm.

After her son’s killer was set free by a jury in June 2017, Valerie had a memorable reaction: “I am disappointed in Minnesota. My son loved this city and this city killed my son, and his murderer gets away,” she said in a press conference after it was announced that Yanez had been found not guilty of the charges against him.

Chris Juhn/MSR News Valerie Castile denouncing the not guilty verdict in the trial of former officer Jeronimo Yanez

In words that still ring true today, especially in light of current events, she said, “We are not evolving as a civilization. We are devolving. People have died so we can have these rights. We are going back to 1969.”

Philando was admired by loved ones and co-workers. The children at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where he worked as cafeteria supervisor, called him their “lunch man” who they referred to as Mr. Phil.

Nevertheless, Castile’s character was questioned during Yanez’s trial. “I never had to defend my son until he was murdered,” Castile said. “I knew that there was a battle coming and that I would be fighting for my son.”

During the Derek Chauvin trial, Castile called on prosecutors to hold Chauvin accountable and treat him like a murderer. “I hope that they’re courageous enough to really fight for Mr. George Floyd and go in there with the same aggression that the defense will have,” she said. She also calls for a plan that would proactively address officers with numerous complaints on their record before it’s too late.

In March, the City of Minneapolis settled a wrongful death suit with Floyd’s family. Castile recalled her own efforts in seeking accountability from local officials.

“The State of Minnesota sized me up,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of attorneys around me to guide me and make sure I wasn’t taken advantage of.” Castile received a $3 million settlement from the City of St. Anthony but was advised against suing the State and other local entities by her legal counsel. She was told that she might not live long enough to see the end of court dates and to just move on.

Community volunteer and charitable efforts

Since her son’s death, Castile has been pushing for reforms to help prevent more fatal encounters with law enforcement. In 2018 she participated in meetings led by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, where Castile and 50 other activists, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials created a toolkit to help prosecutors address officer-involved fatalities and “provide a path to accountability for unjustified force.”

The Minnesota Driver’s Manual was updated on the fourth anniversary of Philando’s death to include new guidance for motorists and police officers to help avoid fatal encounters. The manual instructs drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, while police officers are to inform them why they’re being stopped and follow established procedures.

Though she welcomes the change by the Department of Public Safety, Castile questions the timing of its implementation following the murder of George Floyd. “I was thinking to myself, oh wow, now they’re scrambling. ‘Let the community know that we’re working on fixing things.’ It took them two years to implement that change.”

(Chris Juhn/MSR News) Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile at the community meal, July 14, 2016.

Castile also leads the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to push for policy changes around police violence and has helped pay off lunch debts for students around the Twin Cities. It’s been Castile’s way of keeping her son’s legacy alive, since he was known to buy lunch for some students who weren’t able to pay.

The foundation helps provide support to families who have also lost loved ones to police violence by connecting them to grief counselors and providing them stipends for their needs.

While her life has changed since the loss of her son, Castile finds purpose in consoling mothers who have experienced that same feeling. “It’s bittersweet,” she said, “but just the mere fact of knowing that I’ve done something to help the next person has brought me joy.”

Philando Castile Omnibus Bill

A major focus in Castile’s recent work as a change agent has been pushing for passage of HF 784, otherwise known as the Philando Castile Omnibus Bill, which aims to combat systemic racism by investing millions of dollars in the African American and African immigrant communities. The bill was introduced by freshman State Representative John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul.

It seeks to address issues of housing, business resources, and police training. It’s received support from some Democratic members of the state legislature, but Republicans have opposed it. Part of the bill calls for the construction of five resource centers across the state of Minnesota.

Castile sees these centers as a way to connect the disjointed Black community and hold space for health services, town hall meetings, and financial services. She hopes to create a direct line of support to the Black community instead of having to navigate through non-Black organizations.

“Within these last 30 years of all these budget hearings, exactly how much of it went to the African American community and organizations?” she asked.

As the bill moves through multiple committees, Castile continues to build partnerships with other organizations. She recently reached out to PCs for People and secured 250 mobile hotspots for families in School District 287 to help lessen the educational gap faced by students of color.