United against police murder in Minnesota

July 27, 2017

Nicole Colson reports on the outpouring of anger after the police murder of an unarmed white woman in Minneapolis--and political questions raised in the aftermath.

THE STORY is, by now, a familiar one: An unarmed person is gunned down by police officers who shoot first and ask questions later.

But Justine Damond, who was killed by cops in Minneapolis on July 15, was white. Her murder has led to multiracial calls for justice for her and all victims of police brutality--and raised another dimension to the epidemic of police violence that is leading people on the left to consider new questions.

Damond--a 40-year-old white Australian woman who taught yoga and lived in a relatively upscale neighborhood in South Minneapolis--was shot and killed on the evening of July 15 after twice phoning 911 to report what she thought might be a sexual assault in the alley behind her home.

When police arrived, Damond approached the driver's side of the squad car. Reportedly "startled by a loud noise," Officer Mohamed Noor fired through the open window, hitting Damond, who died at the scene.

Although the squad car's dash cam was recording, the body cameras the officers were wearing were not turned on during Damon's killing--despite the fact that department policy requires officers to record video during any "critical incident."

Protesters show their solidarity after the police murder of Justine Damond
Protesters show their solidarity after the police murder of Justine Damond

Calls for justice for Damond and other victims of police brutality were on the minds of the hundreds of mourners and activists who gathered July 20 for a "Peace and Justice Walk for Justine." Explicitly connecting Damond's death to the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader fight against police brutality, the crowd chanted, "Justine. Matters."

Especially poignant was the presence of Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was killed by Minneapolis police officer Jeronimo Yanez in July 2016. That murder was caught on video by Castile's fiancée Diamond Reynolds as she and her 4-year-old daughter watched.

Yet Yanez was later acquitted despite the video--leading to a rally of some 2,000 people at the Minnesota state Capitol and a march through St. Paul, where protesters chanted, "Your fear is not a license to kill!"

That message is one that Minneapolis police have yet to learn, as Damond's killing makes clear.

As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported:

Marchers treated the procession through Damond's quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood as a sort of wake-up call--part of a broader revelation, they said, that a fatal police shooting had now occurred in their own backyard.

They chanted, "No justice, no peace, prosecute the police," which has been oft-heard over the past year in protests over Castile's shooting..."It is time for me and other white people to wake up," Sarah Kuhnen, who lives on Damond's block, said to loud cheers. "It's our reality now."

THE FOLLOWING day, at another protest that again drew hundreds to Loring Park, near City Hall, John Thompson, a member of the group the New North and a friend of Philando Castile's, drew the lessons of the fight for justice not only for Damond, but for all of those brutalized by police--and for the communities who face unrelenting racism as they are disproportionately victimized.

"I'm tired of fitting the description of a suspect. I should fit the description of somebody great," Thompson said.

As Michelle, a member of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, said, "Any issues we deal with in Black communities eventually trickle down into white communities, and then it becomes an emergency."

Sue Goodstar of Native Lives Matter also addressed the crowd, explaining that she was the only representative of the group at the vigil because the rest of the organization's members were in North Dakota, meeting with the parents of four Native people killed by police.

Speakers at the event, which drew some 200 people, repeatedly commented on the many new participants and welcomed them into the movement against police terror.

Later that day, protesters led by Thompson and others disrupted a press conference by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges as she announced that she had asked for and received the resignation of Police Chief Janeé Harteau. Calling on the "progressive" Hodges to resign, protesters drowned out Hodges' comments with chants that they "had been terrorized enough" and "Bye bye Betsy."

The protest represented the collective work of a broad, multiracial movement against police violence in the Twin Cities area. As community activist Mel Reeves told Britain's Guardian:

What you witnessed there was frustration. The frustration in this city is building over. The international community needs to understand that the Minneapolis Police Department has been a very abusive one. The killings are just the tip of the iceberg. People get brutalized on a regular basis.

Hodges' comments at the press conference that she shares "people's frustration about the pace of change in our policing and building community trust" ring hollow. While Hartreau's resignation was seen as a victory by many, it is also nowhere near enough--and the fact that it took Damond's killing to force the police chief to step down despite other high-profile cases of police brutality in the city is lost on no one.

That's why speakers at the protest continued to emphasize the disparity in treatment between Damond's case and others, as well as the need to continue building a movement for all victims of police terror, who are disproportionately Black.

As activist Sam Martinez said, "The police are here to oppress people, period. They were here to catch slaves, they were here to break unions, that's their role in society. It's a victory that Janeé Harteau resigned today, but we are not stopping there. Everybody needs to resign. How many people have died on her watch?"

THERE IS, of course, an obvious difference in the response to Justine Damond's death compared to other police killings. Damond has been humanized in the media--no one rushed to condemn her or question what she had done to "make" police kill her. No one combed through her personal history to bring up any criminal or legal infractions, or supposed personal moral failings.

The fact that the Minneapolis police chief was forced to step down--while the officer who murdered Philando Castile continues to walk free--only reinforces the double standard taking place in the media and among city officials.

Unfortunately, this double standard had been seized on by some to suggest that Damond's case doesn't deserve sympathy--because many whites did not express similar sympathy for Castile and other Black victims of police brutality.

In a statement circulated on social media titled "I don't give a fuck about Justine Damond," blogger Son of Baldwin commented:

I don't give a fuck because a Black woman (or a Native woman) in the identical situation Justine was in wouldn't garner support or sympathy from most white people...Most white people rely on this idea that Black people, in situations where white people are in pain, are only ever to be soothing and understanding...

When the situation is reversed, when we require empathy and sympathy, then suddenly we're all of the opposite things that these once-needy white people previously said we were. When the shoe is on the other foot, then they assess us as immoral, violent, criminal, subhuman, unworthy.

These sentiments may be understandable to some, but they are utterly corrosive to building the kind of united mass movement that can challenge police brutality and win justice for Justine Damond, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark and all of the victims of police in Minneapolis and beyond.

They play into the hands of the right, which seized on Damond's killing early on to repeat an ugly and entirely false smear: The Black Lives Matter movement doesn't care about other victims of police violence.

As Jared Goyette wrote in the Guardian, "[T]he group of protesters that interrupted that media conference on Friday was diverse, with a large contingent of young white protesters and several long-time Black activists in the lead...The truth is that Black activists have been at the forefront since day one."

Black Lives Matter activists were a central part of organizing the vigils for Damond. As Mel Reeves told the Guardian, "When these incidents happen it's important to put as much pressure on the system as possible. To get answers, to get justice. It's important to let the system, the power structure, know that people aren't going to just lay down."

As Goyette wrote, for anyone paying attention, "The diversity of protesters in Minneapolis was impossible to miss."

While there is no question that Blacks in particular, but also other people of color and marginalized and oppressed groups, are disproportionately targeted by police, the fight to win justice for Justine Damond does not have to diminish the struggles to make Black Lives Matter and demand justice for all victims of police brutality.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, wrote on social media in reference to Son of Baldwin's comment:

It is possible to oppose and be disgusted by all police murders. It is possible to want justice for Philando Castile and point out the hypocrisy and injustice of the criminal justice system that views Diamond sympathetically while demonizing all Black victims. But...mean-spirited blathering won't get us anywhere. I am a socialist because I am for the freedom and liberation of ordinary people and humanity in general. This article is anti-human. It's pathetic and disgusting while posturing as some kind of "radical" politics--when, in fact, it's neither.

Others pointed out on social media that James Baldwin himself once wrote, "There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain."

In a widely circulated photo from the July 20 vigil for Justine Damond, Valerie Castile embraced Justine Damond's partner Don Damond, offering him comfort in the face of a kind of grief that Black mothers in the U.S. are all too familiar with.

Castile marched with many others that day, holding a sign reading "Justice for Justine."

By the logic of Son of Baldwin, no one would have more reason to declare that they "don't give a fuck about Justine Damond" than Valerie Castile. But in taking a public stand, she made a statement about the need for solidarity in the face of such injustice.

It's that kind of strength and unity--built up by activists in the face of years of systemic abuse and injustice--that will be key to achieving lasting change.

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field contributed to this article.

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