What Justine Damond’s Shooting Death Tells us About America

The dark side of American policing once again became an international story late on July 15, when Minneapolis police shot dead Justine Damond outside of her own home, after she called 911 for police help.

The 40-year-old Australian woman and Minneapolis resident became an unlikely victim in a pattern of civilian shootings that are unheard of in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia.

Australian citizen Justine Damond was killed by Minneapolis Police on July 15, 2017. Her shooting has sparked international concern about the number of police shootings and prevalence of gun violence in the United States. (Source: website of the deceased.)

The intense global coverage of Damond’s killing was inevitable given the unlikely profiles of the deceased and the trigger man.

A Victim and a Cop—How Both Defied the Uncomfortable Normal

Damond ultimately shared a fate of African-American men killed by law enforcement in recent years. Such men are easily categorized as a potential threat or criminals to police or to the public who fear them.

No one could claim Damond had any resemblance to Ferguson resident Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man who was gunned down by white police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in August 2014.

Damond was white woman. She had blonde hair. She was unarmed and dressed in pajamas outside of her own house, on the eve of her marriage. Damond had called 911 as a good Samaritan, in response to sounds of a possible sexual assault she reportedly heard outside of her residence.

Damond was exactly the type of person all of want as a neighbor because of her concerns for others.

Damond also was a former vet and yoga instructor who moved to the United States in 2015 and was engaged to American businessman and Minneapolis resident Don Damond.

More importantly, she emigrated from Australia, where police seldom use deadly force and where there are strict gun control laws, first implemented two decades earlier.

The officer who killed her because of his alleged fear an ambush did not fit the profile of other officer-involved killings as well.

The policeman, Mohamed Noor, 32, is of Somali descent and a Moslem. Less than two years on the job, he was recruited by the Minneapolis police from the immigrant Somali community, where some young Somali-American men have been connected to the Islamic terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune provided detailed coverage of the killing and of the shooter, officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American recently hired two years ago by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Noor represented a model for others to follow and to bridge cultural divides.

In other words, a black man of Somali descent and Moslem American from a community that already was in the media crosshairs shot and killed an obviously attractive, white, middle-class, and foreign woman in a major American city.

Many observers were stunned the killing could have occurred to an innocent civilian who had called for police help to investigate a possible sexual assault—actions that police encourage every citizen to do in nearly every city in the United States.

Damond’s Killing: A Rorschach and Rashomon Study of Officer-Involved Shootings

The shooting death is already a Hollywood movie before all of the facts and fogs of conflicting stories will ever be known.

What little we know are the likely time of Damond’s death after her 911 call and that Noor, sitting in the patrol car’s passenger seat, shot her to death from the driver’s side window.

A witness reportedly has come forward saying he was biking home and filmed the effort to resuscitate her by Noor and officer Matthew Harrity. She was shot at nearly point-blank range in the abdomen, and the chances of survival would have been slim, even with the best medical help, were she even alive.

The more murky “facts” surrounding Damond’s death also call into question police accountability through the use of body cameras—an issue that has been hotly debated in the wake of repeated “officer-involved” shootings of minorities nationwide.

In this case, the two officers dispatched to Damond’s 911 call had turned off their body cameras, in violation of the city’s official and controversial video policy implemented a year earlier. To date, no explanation has been provided why the pair had not followed mandatory procedures to record their actions with body and dashboard cameras precisely to avoid the cloudy circumstances that now surround this killing. Police departments nationally have bristled at civilian demands for police-worn body cameras for years.

Officer Noor’s claim of being startled by a loud pop at the sight of a woman in pajamas has been lambasted by many who have voiced outrage.

Many minority activists demanding policy accountability for shootings of civilians allege non-white victims of police shootings often say they posed no threats before they were gunned down, like former Ferguson resident Brown. No jury has sided with the victims since Brown’s death.

The shooting had other ingredients for becoming an international incident:

  • The officer’s status as a Moslem man from an immigrant community potentially will attract the interest of Moslems globally. Many in that community are fearful and resentful of stereotyping, and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Moslems in the United States and his recent travel ban of Moslems from six Moslem-majority nations have alarmed many in the Moslem world.
  • Inside the United States, more white Americans, notably those who live in the suburbs and who are supposedly immune from heavy-handed, militarized policing, might become more alarmed that they too could be killed for engaging law enforcement for help. The shooting creates a PR barrier even among the police’s large and ready-built fan base.
  • Women in particular might be more fearful of ever calling any police officer for assistance, given the violence on display in Damond’s death. It would be fascinating to do a poll how many American woman who self-identify as middle-class and educated feel safe contacting local police for assistance, particularly in cases of domestic violence.
  • Foreign nationals, particularly international students and more affluent Asians and Europeans, might reconsider travel to the United States for travel, study, or business, given the racial dynamics of the shooting showing starkly that, yes, even white, blonde yoga instructors with charming Aussie accents are not safe in a secure area, from the local authorities.

Damond’s Death: Black, White, and Somewhere in Between

Within days after the shooting, troll commentaries in media stories on sites like Yahoo News were swift to describe the shooter’s ethnicity and religion as likely reasons why Noor killed Damond.

Other commentators on many news web sites mocked the irony that police thought the blonde female victim was accidentally mistaken for a large, scary black man.

Writing about the irony of the killing, The Root wryly noted, “Why is it that the one shooting that suddenly has white people fearing the cops is the shooting that takes one of their own? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they finally found their ‘perfect’ victim. She was white and blonde and rescued ducks out of sewers. She was the antithesis of the ‘superpredator’ image they want you to believe represents blackness. She didn’t deserve to die. But neither did any of the others.”

In Minneapolis, the response has defied some expected outcomes of those quick to frame the issue as black and white. Some who joined in protests a day after Damond’s death were African-American activists, who had protested the shooting of unarmed black motorist Philando Castile, 32, just outside of St. Paul by a Hispanic police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on June 6, 2016.

Only a month earlier, on June 6, 2017, a jury acquited Janez. The story drew heated debates and national coverage and framed the public response to the Damond shooting from the start.

Castile was gunned down reaching for his wallet—a killing caught on the police dashboard camera. It is profoundly troubling footage to observe. His killing at the hands of a uniformed police officer—Hispanic, not white—was just another in a series of high-profile shootings of African-American men in the past three years that helped to launch the national Black Lives Matter movement.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune covered the resignation of Minneapolis Police Chief, Janeé Harteau, who stepped down on July 21 following the firestorm that erupted less than a week after the shooting of Justine Damond by a police officer at point-blank range.

Following Damond’s slaying, nearly 300 people attended Damond’s vigil. They included Cathy Jones, an African-American woman who had marched at protests with Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She told The Guardian newspaper, “I think it’s important because these are things that affect our community every single day. It’s never been about race. It’s been about police accountability.”

Many of protesters on July 20 in Damond’s neighborhood connected Damond’s death with Castile’s. His mother, Valerie Castile, was shown hugging the widowed fiancé, Dom Damond.

On July 21, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned under pressure. The same day, protesters disrupted Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ press conference.

The two female leaders, both white women, had long been at odds. Harteau had publicly battled city and state officials, and in October 2013, she rejected proposals for body cameras by Hodges and other city council members—a month before Hodges was elected mayor.

Why Damond Stands Out Beyond Her Race

Damond, 40, also fetched a striking image, in the photographs of her that splashed on the internet and airwaves soon after her death.

She was by all measures athletic and very attractive, with blonde hair and a winning smile. She had been a vet, who then became a yoga and meditation instructor. She was the type of middle-class woman you might spot in yoga tights, carrying a yoga pad in a gentrified neighborhood, like my own, where I daily see many women who match this demographic profile take classes at two local yoga studios.

Damond’s shooting generated intense interest from the Australian media and its leaders. The level of interest was larger than what Americans might see of shooting victims in their own country.

In Damond’s native country, news of the meditation teacher’s baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians’ long-held fears about America’s notorious culture of gun violence. Philip Alpers at the University of Sydney, who has studied U.S. gun issues, said, “The country is infested with possibly more guns than people. We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence—and so does the rest of the world.”

The Daily Telegraph of Australia ran a banner headline and photo of Australian shooting victim Justine Damond that captured how many view the prevalence of gun violence in the United States outside of the country.

A front-page headline in her hometown Sydney newspaper summarized Australia’s reaction in blunt terms: “American Nightmare.”

Days after the killing, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball told Australia’s Today Show what many Australians were also saying publicly about the case and violence in the United States: “How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing. We are demanding answers on behalf of her family. And our hearts go out to her family and all of her friends and loved ones. It’s a truly tragic, tragic killing there in Minneapolis.”

Shortly after the Minneapolis shooting, the Washington Post reported that more than 520 people had been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the calendar year, well on pace to surpass 963 shooting deaths by police during 2016.

Deadly shootings by police are exceedingly rare in Australia, even though the police carry firearms. Only a handful are reported each year, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. By comparison, the United States has by policy prevented the creation of national database of deadly police-involved shootings. The body count has come from independent media monitors.

An AP story from July 18 also noted Austalians’ bewilderment with U.S. gun laws. By comparison, Australia implemented vigorous tough gun ownership laws in 1996 following a deadly mass shooting on the island of Tasmania that killed 36 people.

At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard—a conservative—warned Australians against following America’s lead on gun control, saying: “We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path.”

What my Reaction Tells me as Well:

Until this essay, I had not written any articles about the deaths of African-American and minority victims from encounters with the police. I have professional ties that now limit what I talk about on this blog. Also, I exhausted my energy writing and talking about gun violence in the United States, following the mass shootings in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, which took 12 lives, and in Newtown, Connecticut, which claimed 26 victims.

My efforts to frame that story through a public health lens left me feeling powerless and that I could not make a difference. I ultimately stopped writing and talking about gun violence and focused this blog and my energies in more positive directions.

Yet again I am drawn into the discussion of an issue that I feel I cannot change. This time, however, many more affluent white Americans now know such random violence by gunfire can happen to any of them, even those who are most privileged by every measure, at the hands of police they call on for protection in supposedly safe, secure neighborhoods. Perhaps now there might be some momentum to reduce gun violence in the United States—something I longed for and then abandoned five years ago after the Newtown massacre.

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Musings on slavery, abolitionist John Brown, and Hollywood’s clumsy embrace of human bondage

News stories continue to highlight the growth of human trafficking in the United StatesEurope, and especially Asia. One estimate puts the number of persons in captivity, either for forced bondage or sex trafficking and prostitution, at 12 million to 27 million. An increasing number of victims are young girls 18 and younger, who become infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDs.

Slavery seems to bring out the worst of humanity, and perhaps is a manifestation of our inglorious inhumanity. Sadly it is, well, about as American as the U.S. Constitution that not only enshrined it, but gave Southern states extra voting power–the notorious 3/5ths clause–for its slaves in the census allotment of Congressional seats.

I still remember when I visited the Philippines in 2003. Male and female pimps repeatedly accosted me within seconds of exiting taxis in front of my hotels in Cebu City and Manila, where I was working on a photo-documentary project. I was sure their workers were sex slaves. When I told them to go away, they mocked me and even offered me young children. It was sobering to realize that I represented a market, a lucrative market, that eagerly comes to countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos to exploit women, even young boys and girls. Though aware of the problem, and having seen evidence of its freewheeling nature in Asia, the unrelenting media coverage of sex slavery has become overwhelming.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation's capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.
Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation’s capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

In April 2013, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström lamented: “It is difficult to imagine that in our free and democratic EU countries tens of thousands of human beings can be deprived of their liberty and exploited, traded as commodities for profit.” The United Nations estimates human trafficking nets $32 billion annually—a major transnational business. The United States fares no better. There are slaves being trafficked and sold in my home city of Seattle right now. A local KIRO News story recently reported: “Child sex trafficking – as easy in Seattle as ordering a pizza.”

Visiting Osawatomie, and its place in U.S. history

So slavery was on my mind when I drove across the country in late May from St. Louis to Seattle. I wanted to take a road less traveled and see some out of the way places, including in Kansas. Most of my friends practically laughed at me when I described sight-seeing there. So, I pulled out my atlas and found Osawatomie on the map, about an hour southwest of Kansas City, along state Highway 169

Osawatomie is home to one of the most important battles of the violent pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas, which claimed 56 lives.

Specifically, it is where America’s most famous abolitionist and violent revolutionary, John Brown (1800-1859), fought pro-slavery forces to prevent the then Kansas Territory from becoming a slave state.  All told 30-45 free state defenders, known as Jayhawkers (the University of Kansas’ namesake) fought nearly 250 proslavery militia along the banks of the Marais de Cygnes River on Aug. 30, 1856. Brown’s son Frederick and others died. Many say the war actually began in this small Kansas town that pro-slavers burnt to the ground during the attack.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Ossawatomie, Kan.
Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.

In May of that year,  Missouri ruffians, numbering 800, had sacked Lawrence, Kan., and burned a hotel, killing one abolitionist. Their strategic goal was to keep an entire race of persons in human bondage and treated as nothing more than property, and expand the inhumane practice and trade into territories recently “ethnically cleansed” of its Indian population by the U.S. Army, based at Ft. Leavenworth.

On May 24 and 25, 1856, at the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown responded in kind, by murdering five pro-slavery settlers with a sword. The mass murder by Brown and his sons was inspired by Brown’s deep Christian faith that he had been called to undertake a divine mission to end slavery and contest its brutality and those of its violent supporters with force.

The repeated and well-publicized examples of slavery’s inhumanity in the United States enraged Brown to the point where he dedicated his life to crushing it and freeing the slaves. (Unlike most of his day, Brown also believed in the equality of races, including Indians, and of the sexes.)

Just two years earlier in 1854, a divided Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ending the fragile 24-year-old Missouri Compromise allowing a balance of pro-slave and free states to join the Union. With the 1854 act, settlers themselves would determine if that “peculiar institution” of slavery, which held in bondage an estimated 4 million persons, or 13% of all residents in the young country, would be allowed. Pro-slavery voters won, but the constitution was disavowed, the bogus legislature tossed out, and Kansas entered a free state in 1861.

One historic political outcome from the four years of fighting in the territory was the rise of a young Illinois politician of the nascent Republican Party, who noted in his political speeches, “Look at the magnitude of this subject! … about one-sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves!” Abraham Lincoln emerged from the turbulence of the era as the standard bearer of his party in the divisive 1860 election that set in motion the war to address what Lincoln accurately noted was the “the all absorbing topic of the day.”

As for Brown after Osawatomie, he travelled in and out of Kansas the next two years of violence before returning East to plan his failed Oct. 16, 1859, raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va.  The raid, with 21 men to trigger a Southern slave uprising, failed miserably.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.
A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

Brown was captured, tried in Charlestown, Va., and sentenced to hang to death on Dec. 2, 1859. During his trial he told the court, “Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.”

Southern politicians were terrified by Brown’s decisive and violent insurrection against the U.S. government and their “cherished traditions.” Their paranoia of either a slave uprising or further such “meddling”  precipitated their rebellion against the union.

All of that history seemed overblown and forgotten in modern-day Osawatomie (pop. 4,447). The memorial to Brown and the battle is the John Brown Museum State Historical site. It includes a cabin of a local minister and his wife used as an Underground Railroad station. The cabin survived the battle. The park features a bronze statue of Brown and historic battle markers. It looked a little shabby and unappreciated, like any small-town park without money for upkeep, except it has happened to have two presidential visitors who delivered policy speeches, by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 and Barack Obama in 2011.

Hollywood, Slavery, and the Battle for Kansas

For many of us, however, our perception of slavery is shaped by popular culture. One of two most recent Hollywood treatments of the subject was the scholarly costume epic Lincoln, by Stephen Spielberg. The film did not hide the brutality of slavery; in fact, the film opens with a vicious hand-to-hand battle pitting likely former slave Union soldiers locked in deadly embrace with their white Confederate adversaries. The film is basically a procedural drama how Lincoln’s administration passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to end slavery “forever” in United States, while the nation’s most violent war rages outside of Washington.

The more controversial rendering of slavery is the 2012 Quentin Tarantino blood and gore pre-Civil War spectacle, Django Unchained.  This shoot-‘em up racks up a huge body count in a gratuitously violent revenge fantasy that follows the actions of a former slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He kills perhaps nearly two dozen Southerners, blows up plantation mansions, and frees his true love. Unlike Lincoln, this film was heatedly debated. One review noted, “No single Hollywood film in the last decade has sparked the kind of controversy and wide-ranging response as Quentin Tarantino’s latest.”

The film triggered unrest not because of its brutal violence (nothing new for Hollywood splatter fests), but because of its rival view of history. “The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it’s a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood’s–and our culture’s–treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” according to Jamelle Bouie.

I have black friends who had a distinctly more positive personal reaction to the violent tale than did my white counterparts. While the film’s violence seems designed only thrill audiences, the violence of slavery and of efforts to expand it by pro-slavery bushwhackers in Kansas before and during the Civil War was every bit if not more cruel, if historical records are accurate. Reality actually trumps anything Tarantino could dream up.

The magazine Harper's printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.
The magazine Harper’s printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

According to one account, a bushwhackers’ raid during the Civil War on Lawrence, Kan., is considered one of the worst cases of mass murder by the pro-Slavery forces.

On Aug. 21, 1863, 450 pro-Confederates Led by Bill Quantrill staged an early-warning raid and mostly showed no mercy, slaughtering about 180 men and boys as young as 14. Most of the victims were unarmed and still in their beds when the killing began. Another famous bushwhacker in the region, a psychopath named “Bloody” Bill Anderson, reportedly scalped victims before he was tracked and killed, and then beheaded as an example.

The official Hollywood rendering of “bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s efforts to end slavery remains Michael Curtiz’s unsavory pro-slavery 1940 Western called the Sante Fe Trail (you can see the whole film here). The movie stars Errol Flynn as future Confederate General Jeb Stuart, then-actor Ronald Reagan as future Indian-killing General George Custer, and Olivia de Havilland as their mutual romantic interest. The film  renders a staggering historic whitewash of not only slavery and pre-Civil War America, but of John Brown’s actions in Kansas to contest the bushwhackers during the mid- to late 1850s.

Brown is portrayed by Raymond Massey as a bug-eyed, villainous psychopath bent on murder and revolution to end slavery, while Southern gentlemen like Flynn’s Stuart are true Americans who claim the South can work out slavery on their own terms.  There is no portrayal of slavery’s base cruelty, only abolitionist violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859--an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.
Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859–an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

In an even more bizarre twist, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis is rendered as moral voice of wisdom, telling the graduating cadets: “”You men have but one duty alone, America.” This was the same Davis who owned slaves and dedicated himself to ensuring slavery’s survival as head of the pro-slave states doing everything they could to break away from that country.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fel Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.
The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fe Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The only “black folk” seen in this disingenuous Dixie-cratic rendering of reality are powerless, witless slaves who cannot think for themselves. After a firefight that sent Brown fleeing, a husband and wife slave couple from Texas caught up in Brown’s violence reveal themselves to Stuart as misguided lovers of the white slaveholding class: “Well, old John Brown said he gonna give us freedom but, shuckin’, if this here Kansas is freedom then I ain’t got no use for it, no sir,” drawled the wife. Her husband added, “Me neither. I just want to get back home to Texas and set till kingdom come.” I suppose that means he’d get a good whipping if he fessed up for trying to win his freedom.

As one film commentator noted: “In the years before 1960 most portrayals of slavery in cinema were like it was in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. The slaves were happy and contented and too simple to live on their own. The Civil War was unnecessary and brought on by a handful of fanatics in the North.” The film’s final scenes show Brown before he is hung in 1859, followed by a happy kiss of the newlyweds, Flynn and de Havilland, all two years before the entire country entered its greatest conflagration that claimed more than half a million lives, finally “ending” slavery as a legal institution in the United States.

Former Klansman becomes part of Hollywood whitewash of Southern bushwhacking

The other noteworthy and historically inaccurate portrayal of Kansas-related bushwhacking violence is Clint Eastwood’s disturbing 1976 revisionist film The Outlaw Josey Wales. While supposedly based on a true Southern fighter, the film rewrites the script of historic events. Instead of violent Confederate bushwhackers who murdered indiscriminately, as they did in Lawrence, Southerners are portrayed as victims of murderous Jayhawkers and Union soldiers, who kill innocent women and slaughter surrendering prisoners, and hound Wales to Texas. The film was based on a novel, Gone to Texas, by Asa Carter, also author of a popular kid’s book called the Education of Little Tree.

At the time the film was made in 1976, it was unknown that Carter had reinvented himself. Instead of being a Cherokee Indian as he claimed, Carter was in fact a former Alabama Klansman, avowed racist, and speechwriter for Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. The books served as a clever reinvention for a man preaching against “government intrusion,” as Carter did for Wallace with racist hate language. Even his supposed Cherokee words were fiction. As for Josey Wales, the film helped to reinforce Southern stereotypes of Northern aggression and Southern innocence (despite its holding 4 million in captivity), while boosting Eastwood’s maverick filmmaking career.

In 2013, in an era when slavery seems to be as thriving an enterprise globally as it was in the antebellum South, perhaps it is time reexamine on the big screen the complex events in Kansas and Virginia and that fanatical revolutionary who committed his life to ending the institution forever. I just do not want the filmmaker to be Eastwood, Tarantino, or even Spielberg, nor a vampire camp production. Time to let someone else tell a tale that still needs to be told. Love or hate him, Brown was right about slavery’s stain on the nation. Brown’s enemies “could kill him,” wrote freed slave and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “but they could not answer him.”