ST. PAUL, Minn. — “We knew him as Cheddar,” said Danny Givens, a pastor and lifelong resident of St. Paul, Minnesota. “It’s been so long since I called him by his name, it didn’t register for some reason.”
Givens was referring to Philando Castile, a man shot and killed by a police officer on Wednesday evening. That same night, his girlfriend Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds livestreamed the incident on Facebook. Her 4-year-old daughter was in the backseat of the car they were stopped in. Castile lay next to Reynolds, his shirt bloodied while she pleaded into the camera for help. The Falcon Heights officer stood outside the car window still pointing his gun at Castile’s limp body.
Givens recalls watching the video while he was driving, coincidentally, to a Black Lives Matter meeting in Minneapolis. Distracted and overwhelmed, Givens didn’t recognize the face in the video. And then it clicked. It was Cheddar, aka Philando Castile.
On Thursday, hundreds of people, including the Castile family, gathered outside of J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, the St. Paul school where Philando worked serving food in the cafeteria to more than 400 students a day.
Reynolds addressed the crowd on a loudspeaker: “How can he put his hands in the air and also reach for his ID at the same time?” Behind her stood about a dozen of Philando’s family members. Some were crying, others looked dazed. Givens stood in the center coordinating with volunteers for the march that would take place in just a few minutes. “I’m leading the march,” he told me, and disappeared into the crowd.
“Say his name,” Givens yelled into a bullhorn. “Philando!” the crowd yelled back. “If Philando don’t get it,” Givens chanted, “Shut it down,” the crowd replied.
The crowd walked a few blocks from the school to the governor’s mansion, where they vowed to stay until the police officer is charged with the death of Philando Castile.
I met Givens just a block away from the center of the protest. He’d just returned from escorting the family members away from the scene.
“In St. Paul we’re a close-knit, intimate community,” the pastor said. “The Castile family is very well-known. We all kinda grew up together.” Givens and the Castiles grew up in the Rondo section of St. Paul, a historically black neighborhood that was blighted and displaced in the 1960s after the city erected the I-94 freeway through its center.
“I was just with Philando last week, and my little brother,” he told me. “We were over at a friend’s house.” While Philando and Givens’ brother played chess, they talked about their lives. Givens said Philando was praising him for the work he was doing in the black community in the Twin Cities, and with his church. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Givens remembered Philando telling him. “He was the kind of person who people say, 'If you knew him you would love him.’ And that’s not people trying to be nice—seriously, he was one of them type of brothers,” Givens said. “His smile, his eyes were so inviting. I mean, he was a warm person to be around.”
As we talked, passersby stopped to greet Givens. He knew the community well. The pastor, who was incarcerated for 12 years for shooting an off-duty police officer during a nightclub robbery, reformed in prison. He started his non-denominational church, Above Every Name Ministries, in 2011 and has recently made a concerted effort to do social justice work.
“To see the family go through this, for me to go through this, again,” Givens told me. “This is the third time.” Givens mentioned the deaths of 24-year-old Marcus Golden last January, the death of Jamar Clark, which led to weeks of protests spearheaded by Black Lives Matter in the Minneapolis area, and of Philip Quinn, a Native American who suffered from depression and schizophrenia. “We see this stuff continue to happen. I’m speechless, I really am,” Givens said. “And it’s so close to home this time around, I just would have never imagined it being someone I know. Someone I know know,” he repeated. “I know Philando.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Danny Givens served time for killing a police officer. He shot the officer, but didn't kill him.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.