Two days after Philando Castile was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop, the National Rifle Association issued a statement.
Castile’s death was “troubling”, the group said, adding that it supported the right of law-abiding Americans to carry firearms, no matter their race. “Rest assured,” the statement added, “the NRA will have more to say once all the facts are known.”
On Friday in St Paul, Minnesota, close to a year on, the police officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared of all charges in the death of Castile, a beloved elementary school cafeteria worker who had a permit for the firearm he was carrying when he died. There were protests in St Paul. The NRA remained silent.
However, the group’s most prominent black commentator, Colion Noir, is speaking out about the decision.
“Yanez walking away from this case a free and clear man is just wrong,” Noir wrote in an impassioned online post on Sunday. Though he despised “race-baiting”, Noir wrote, “covert racism is a real thing and is very dangerous.
“Philando Castile should be alive today. I don’t feel [Yanez] woke up that day wanting to shoot a black person. However, I keep asking myself, would he have done the same thing if Philando were white?”
On Monday, Noir – who works under a pseudonym and requested his real name, though widely reported, not be used – was filming for his NRA News television show in Utah. In a phone interview, he said Castile’s death had touched him deeply. But he said he was speaking only for himself, not as a spokesman for the NRA or its leadership.
As a lawyer, Noir said, he understood why it was difficult to secure a manslaughter conviction in the Castile case. But as a young black man, he was outraged.
“It’s not a clear-cut case,” he said. “It’s not. [But] Yanez made mistakes that cost someone their life, period, and he didn’t take the steps necessary to prevent that.”
When Castile was killed, Noir said, he was 32 – the same age as Noir at the time.
“I had just gotten pulled over about a week prior,” he said, “the exact same way he had. It was almost eerie how similar, you know, the situation was … how easily that could have been me.”
In his online post, Noir wrote that while accusations of racism can be overplayed, there is a “problem with some people in this country dismissing racism wholesale when it isn’t overt racial slurs or crosses burning on front lawns”.
Since the verdict, critics have accused the NRA itself of racism, arguing that if Castile had been white, the NRA would have championed his cause.
Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Associated Press that for African Americans, the Castile verdict suggested that “the second amendment does not apply to them”.
In an editorial entitled “Gun rights for whites only”, the board of the Baltimore Sun wrote: “The NRA doesn’t advocate for the second amendment, it advocates for the second amendment on behalf of those who have the correct skin color and political leanings.”
Noir said he did not think the NRA needed to comment now.
“I don’t know what they would say,” he said, adding that any NRA statement on the Castile case would be used to stoke divisions and likely twisted or excerpted to make it seem anti-law enforcement or anti-black.
“I think for a lot of people it’s baiting,” he said, “it’s trying to cause a division, wanting them to say something [so] they can take a segment out and create a divide.”
The NRA has several reasons to be leery of wading into the debate over police mistreatment of black Americans. Even supporters acknowledge its five million members are overwhelmingly older, white, male and conservative. Its members also include many law enforcement officers and the NRA law enforcement training division has, it proudly notes, “trained more than 58,000 law enforcement firearm instructors” in the past 50 years.
Nonetheless, critics say the NRA, which calls itself the nation’s first and largest civil rights organization, should take a stand for black gun owners. Last year, grassroots outrage over Castile’s case was strong enough that the group took the rare step of making a public statement.
Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, did not respond to requests for comment. As of Monday evening, the group had not mentioned the case on its main Twitter or Facebook pages.
Noir said he became interested in firearms as a law student in Texas and built himself a brand on YouTube as an urban shooting enthusiast before being picked up by the NRA. He said he considered himself the NRA’s millennial commentator, not its black commentator, but said his perspective as a black man was sometimes important to share.
Noir has repeatedly defended the NRA from accusations that it is a racist organization. In a video released after Castile’s death, he said: “The NRA doesn’t need to make a statement about Philando, because they gave him his own show. I’ve been fighting for gun rights under the NRA brand for years.”
Over the years, he said, “countless black people, gay people, hippies, whites, Mexicans, Asians, you name it” had appeared on his show.
Noir said he was frustrated by accusations that as a black supporter of the NRA he was a sell-out or a token, pointing to the cases of Shaneen Allen and Josephine Byrd, black women championed by the NRA.
The mainstream media promoted conflict and division over race in America, he said, adding: “We need to have an open and honest dialogue about race … with sympathy or maybe empathy for both sides.”
The Castile case, he said, reminded him of a time in high school when he and his friends got lost while driving and tried to ask a police officer for directions – only to find themselves at gunpoint. First the officer pointed the gun at him, Noir recalled, then his friend.
“I could see the gun inches from his temple,” he wrote in his online post.
While no one was hurt, he wrote, “the whole ordeal messed me up. We were good kids who never got in any trouble. All we wanted to do was ask for directions. I couldn’t understand why the cop felt so threatened.”
- This article was amended on 20 June 2017 to fix a statement in the standfirst that Jeronimo Yanez was not charged – he was charged, but not convicted.