What Justine Damond’s death tells us about American police and race

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There was no good reason for the death of Justine Damond. It is inexplicable, though it could easily have been avoided. She was killed by an American police officer for the crime of having called the police for help. That is horrific enough, but in America these things happen so often that we are engaged in an increasingly polarised debate about whether there is in fact a problem with American policing, and if so what to do about it.

I reported from Ferguson for weeks back in 2014, as protests turned to unrest in the aftermath of the police killing unarmed black teenager Mike Brown. During the day, police were affable and even charming. Once night fell the air began to feel malevolent as the mood turned. I watched uniformed law enforcement violate peoples’ rights with reckless abandon. One woman was charged with assaulting an officer for bleeding on his uniform. Reporters were arrested. Every night, police would taunt protesters and then arrest them if they reacted.

I was not watching the enforcement of law nor the preservation of peace; I was watching the Zimbardo experiment in real time. In the three years since, there has been little effort at systemic reform, though thousands more civilians have been killed by police. We make some of their names into hashtags: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Philando Castile. And others. 

Americans have become desensitised to visceral death, accustomed to watching the videos autoplay and the photographs of the corpse splashed everywhere. We are used to postmortem media swarms, where for a few days we will learn all about this person who is now dead; now, when it will do nobody any good.

We will learn about their dreams and their misdeeds and their triumphs, and we will hear from their families, who will be as stoic as they can manage. So far this year, 554 people have been killed by police. Not every death goes viral. But the more senseless or brutal ones do, and we have become used to the life cycle of the news along with the deaths of our people.

Apologists for the current style of policing often talk about the dangers of the job and the psychological pressure of the inherent risks, though policing still doesn’t crack the top 10 most dangerous professions in the nation and police mortality rates are dropping.

Nobody is forcing officers into this admittedly demanding profession. But nobody’s properly screening or training them, either, and that’s how we came to a place in America where we have videos of police shooting people in the back and police shooting people who are complying with their demands and police shooting children without even saying hello. We even have video of police shooting an off-duty police officer who was helping with an arrest.

America is a place where you have to wonder if, when you call the police, you’ll be killed. No matter your skin colour or postcode, whether urban or rural. When you dial emergency services, you are gambling that the responding officer is a calm and well-trained sort.

That is not a good thing, but is it true. It is 2.5 times more true if you are black than if you are white; still, it’s not as though anyone in America is safe.

It is a dangerous time in our history, when we are easy prey for demagoguery and the politics of fear. We are a nation in disarray, caught in a mad spiral of mutually assured destruction where nobody realises the point is to not use the weapons. For as long as this communal madness continues, the utterly needless deaths will too.

The chief of police in Minneapolis has already resigned over the killing of Justine Damond, partially due to pressure from protests led by the local Black Lives Matter chapter. Damond’s family has hired the same lawyer that Philando Castile’s family did; the cases are remarkably similar. In both instances, police killed innocent civilians for no particular cause other than their own misjudgment.

Both were the kinds of people we want more of in the world, too. Philando a beloved school employee, Justine the sort of person who saved ducklings trapped in a sewer. But the similarities end there; Castile was killed just over a year ago, and no officials resigned as a result. The officer who shot him was cleared of all charges a few weeks ago.

Damond was a white woman, and Castile a black man. We cannot ignore the disparity of official response to their deaths, though Minneapolis residents are becoming horribly used to demanding justice in front of their police stations, chanting: “If Justine don’t get it, shut it down!” in a heartwrenching echo from last July when the chant was the same, only with Castile’s name at the fore.

We say Black Lives Matter because there is no humanity in saying otherwise. We say it because, unlike white lives, it is not one of the unspoken assumptions in our culture. Because a police officer will still snarl a racist epithet at a teenage girl just so she knows who’s in charge, and he will feel entitled to do so with cameras rolling.

We say it because we do not believe that black people are 2.5 times more worthy of summary execution by armed agents of the state. We say it because it is in living memory that black people had to use different drinking fountains than white ones and too many of our countrymen still secretly wish for a return to those days.

We say it in grief and celebration, because we believe that we can and will be a better society.

We will remember Justine Damond. We will grieve her loss and add her name to the list of the dead. We will honour her for being the sort of person who tried to help people who needed it. We will demand justice for her even as we know that most victims of police shootings will never see justice.

Pundits will extrapolate and use her death to score their points, playing at outrage while ignoring the outrageous. They will justify this chain of atrocities, use Damond’s death out of context to excuse other outrages – See, it happens to white people too!

They will add to the noise, but it will bring no justice, and no peace.

And we will keep insisting on change, fuelled by the kind of grim rage and resigned determination that only ever comes when you are fighting for the lives of innocents. Because there was no good reason for the death of Justine Damond.

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