Matt Driscoll

Teacher of the year’s advice to students: Film interactions with police

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School is trying to help his students make sense of the acquittal of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile. Gibbs-Bowling, the 2016 state Teacher of the Year, advocates taking video of encounters with law enforcement.
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School is trying to help his students make sense of the acquittal of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile. Gibbs-Bowling, the 2016 state Teacher of the Year, advocates taking video of encounters with law enforcement. Staff file, 2015

I was on the phone with Tacoma’s Nathan Gibbs-Bowling when 30-year-old Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle police Sunday morning.

At the time, the news had not yet been reported. We didn’t know.

But, in what can only be described as a cruel coincidence, Gibbs-Bowling and I were discussing police shootings.

Our conversation was centered on the recent acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile nearly a year ago.

Specifically, we discussed the power of the video Castile’s girlfriend captured of the interactions between Yanez and Castile. That video provided an illuminating window into Castile’s death.

Capturing video of interactions with police is a practice that Gibbs-Bowling, Washington’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, endorses.

“The Castile shooting … gained notoriety because it was filmed,” he told me.

Our conversation also touched on how Gibbs-Bowling, who brings coursework on civil liberties and advice on police interactions into his Lincoln High School classroom, was helping students make sense of Yanez’s acquittal — which, to many, is the latest example of a justice system failing black lives.

He’s become adept at the task, given the unfortunate frequency with which he’s forced address police shootings.

“We’re having small discussions about it on Twitter,” Gibbs-Bowling said of the Friday verdict and his student’s reaction.

“Black bodies are not sympathetic to juries because we don’t get the benefit of the doubt from society,” he said. “So the lesson for the students is … literally giving the students training on how to engage with law enforcement officers and how to exercise their civil liberties in a smart way.

“I talk a lot about how your goal with any encounter with law enforcement that’s involuntary should be disengagement, but you have to exercise that disengagement in a thoughtful manner, or you can end up dead. You can do everything right and still end up a victim.”

You can do everything right and still end up a victim.

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

Gibbs-Bowling’s seniors had already graduated by Sunday, but, in the wake of the Yanez verdict, many of them reached out to their former government teacher for guidance and perspective, he said. The same likely will hold true with Lyles’ confounding death.

“My students are pretty pessimistic about this issue in particular,” Gibbs-Bowling said.

He acknowledged that police work is exceedingly difficult, and the ranks of law enforcement are filled with many good cops. But the “fear-based” culture of law enforcement needs to be examined, he said, and law enforcement-reform policy needs to be addressed.

“I often talk about how optimistic I am about the future, and how much better my students are than our generation of people, and certainly Boomers,” he told me. “But when it comes to this issue of law enforcement and black lives,”students have largely resigned themselves to disappointment, he said.

It’s an understandable reaction, and one that, sadly, illustrates just how frequently we see interactions with law enforcement end in unfathomable tragedy for people of color.

It also illustrates how the divide between communities of color and law enforcement grows and calcifies when the justice system constantly reminds us that black lives don’t matter.

At least not when police officers take the stand and say they feared for their life before squeezing the trigger and taking one.

Which brings us back to Gibbs-Bowling’s suggestion that interactions with law enforcement be captured on video. It’s an approach that has made its way into his lesson plan.

Why?

“Because — we’ve seen far too many times that the first version of events, the police report written by the shooting officer, often is very, very different from the video that comes out afterward,” he said.

Gibbs-Bowling also said, “I practice what I preach.” It’s not uncommon for him to stop and film police interactions near his home on the East Side.

“I would just implore anybody, if you’re in an encounter with law enforcement, and you feel uncomfortable, No. 1, you should work on disengagement. And, if you don’t like the encounter, then you should film it,” he said. “Because — and this is so depressing — if you’re dead, the only version of events that’s going to survive is the officer’s.”

I would just implore anybody, if you’re in an encounter with law enforcement, and you feel uncomfortable, number one you should work on disengagement. And, if you don’t like the encounter, then you should film it.

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

Now Lyles, a mother of four, who was said to be pregnant, becomes the latest example of a black American killed by the police in a manner that raises gut-wrenching questions about why it had to end that way.

While we don’t yet know all the specifics, including why Lyles was holding a knife when police responded to her 911 call, it’s fair and appropriate to wonder if deadly force was the only answer, or if a white mother in the same set of circumstances would have met the same fate.

I have my suspicions.

And Gibbs-Bowling has his — including a prediction that Lyles’ death ultimately would be deemed justified.

“I’ve seen videos online of armed white guys with assault weapons negotiating with police,” Gibbs-Bowling pointed out, specifically referencing last year’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “But this 90-pound black woman somehow was a threat that called for the use of deadly force?

“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s just.”

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