Two weeks ago, a Minneapolis woman named Justine Damond was shot and killed by a police officer responding to her report of an assault outside her home. The reaction to the death of Damond, a 40-year-old yoga teacher from Australia, was swift and clear: Within a week, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned amid pressure from the city’s mayor, and the officer who shot her was placed on administrative leave. While Damond’s death was tragic, the official response, it seems, has been satisfactory.
But the juxtaposition of Damond’s death with almost every police shooting of a black person shows the painful disparity in how these deaths are responded to. The officer who last summer shot and killed Philando Castile, a nutrition services specialist for the St. Paul public school district, was recently acquitted of all charges in Castile’s death and offered a $48,500 buyout from his police department.
Arguments about these killings tend to focus on whether or not they were “justified,” missing the bigger picture. For as long as America has existed, its criminal justice system has maintained the supremacy of white people. In a recent New York Review of Books piece, the lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson paints a through line from the Reconstruction Era to police violence in black communities today. He describes how, as a way of maintaining what they believed was the proper racial order, Southern lawmakers created “Black Codes,” which made a separate class of crimes specifically for black people, in order to effectively criminalize large portions of the black population. These crimes were often intentionally vague, so scores of black people were arrested for offenses like “loitering” and “vagrancy.” Some of the original “Black Codes” persisted until a 1972 Supreme Court decision, which found that the laws were too vague to be enforceable. Even so, enforcement of minor criminal acts has historically landed heaviest on black communities.
“In too many situations, black men are considered offenders incapable of being victims themselves,” he writes. “As a consequence of this country’s failure to address effectively its legacy of racial inequality, this presumption of guilt and the history that created it have significantly shaped every institution in American society, especially our criminal justice system.”
This imbalance can also be seen from the people who are purporting to help victims of shootings. The attorney for Damond’s family, Robert Bennett, called her the “most innocent” victim of a police shooting he’d ever seen. Bennett, who also represented the family of Philando Castile, contrasted the cases in an ill-thought-out statement: “I’m not saying Philando [Castile] wasn’t innocent, too…but here is someone who called the police and was trying to stop someone from being hurt and ends up being shot in her pajamas.” Castile, mind you, was pulled over driving home with his girlfriend and daughter from the grocery store by officers who thought he looked like a robbery suspect; the officer who killed him, Jeronimo Yanez, claimed he smelled marijuana in Castile’s car and that the man had “no regard for human life,” meaning his toddler daughter, who was strapped in the backseat. A subsequent search of Castile’s car found no marijuana.
Despite Castile’s innocence, he was assumed to be a criminal before law enforcement even pulled him over, much like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice before him. The media exacerbates this assumption in its reporting on these deaths. After Martin was killed it was reported that he had, in the past, smoked marijuana, Brown had once committed “strong arm robbery” and thus was “no angel”; Rice, who was 12 when he was killed, was the son of criminals. No such inquiries have been made into Damond’s past.
Despite the injustice of her son’s killer going free as a matter of course, Philando Castile’s mother has rallied alongside Damond’s family, calling on the police department to enact long-demanded reforms. It’s the type of grace that black people, especially black women, often have to exhibit out of necessity. Grasping at goodness where there is only evil. Damond’s family doesn’t necessarily need the support, as there have been no reporters digging into her past, or inconspicuous leaks of unrelated police footage to disparage her character. In Damond’s case, it seems, calls for reform are actually reaching receptive ears.