‘Never been about race’ – Black Activists on How Minneapolis Reacted to Damond Shooting

 Valerie Castile, centre, mother of shooting Philando Castile, marches in memory of Justine Damond on Thursday in Minneapolis. Photograph: Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images
Valerie Castile, centre, mother of shooting Philando Castile, marches in memory of Justine Damond on Thursday in Minneapolis. Photograph: Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images

Some questioned whether activists had protested less over the death of a White Australian woman. Friday night’s anger at mayor Betsy Hodges and the departure of the city’s police chief answered that


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Never been about race’: black activists on how Minneapolis reacted to Damond shooting” was written by Jared Goyette in Minneapolis, for theguardian.com on Saturday 22nd July 2017 07.34 UTC

In the aftermath of the police shooting of Justine Damond, many on the right of the political spectrum asked on social media: “Where are the protests now?”

The claim was clear: when a black cop killed a white woman, Black Lives Matter, or other African American activists pushing for police reform, would not be quick to protest.

That narrative went mainstream on Wednesday, in a piece by CNN writer Doug Criss. Criss noted that a vigil was held for Damond the day after the shooting, but added that “there weren’t widespread protest marches, like the ones Black Lives Matter held last year after Philando Castile’s shooting death at the hands of an officer in nearby Falcon Heights”.

Criss went on to quote David Love, a journalist who writes on race issues whom Criss said had not “seen too many people from the movement express any anger or outrage about the shooting”.

Protests erupt as Minneapolis mayor announces police chief’s resignation

They spoke too soon. Any doubts about the diverse nature of the groups rallying around Damond’s case were answered on Friday, during a media conference Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges held to explain her decision to ask for the resignation of police chief Janeé Harteau in the wake of the Damond shooting.

Hodges was only a few sentences in when protesters began streaming in the door. One of them, John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile who has become a fixture at protests after Castile’s death, quickly interrupted her, asking her to resign. Soon afterward he and another community activist, Chauntyll Allen, were leading the now crowded room in chants of “If Justine don’t get it, shut it down”, echoing a similar cry used during the protests against Castile’s shooting.

Whatever one thinks about their tactics, the 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. Was this is a new trend that Criss and Love had missed?

The truth is that black activists have been at the forefront since day one.

Last Saturday night, Damond, a 40-year-old spiritual healer from Sydney, Australia, called 911 to report a possible sexual assault. She was in her pyjamas when she approached the Minneapolis squad car that responded. Officer Mohamed Noor, who was in the passenger seat, shot her through the driver’s side window.

About 300 people attended the vigil, near the crime scene, the next day. Cathy Jones, an African American woman who works as a mail carrier by day, was one of the organizers. Following the police shootings of Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile last year, she marched at protests with Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Last week, she went to South Minneapolis soon after hearing of the shooting, to see how she could help.

“I think it’s important because these are things that affect our community every single day,” she said. “It’s never been about race. It’s been about police accountability.”

Mel Reeves, an African-American man who has been a neighborhood activist for more than two decades, was also part of the group that organized the vigil.

“When these incidents happen it’s important to put as much pressure on the system as possible,” he said. “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.”

Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges tries to talk to the media as she is shouted at by protesters during her press conference on Friday night over the resignation of police chief Janeé Harteau.

Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges tries to talk to the media as she is shouted at by protesters during her press conference on Friday night over the resignation of police chief Janeé Harteau. Photograph: Aaron Lavinsky/AP

While it’s impossible to paint activists of color with one brush – they have different approaches, tactics, affiliations and ideologies – those rallying around the Damond shooting share a belief that her death was caused by the kind of police violence they have been working to stop. They also believe that as, community members, they have a duty to show up.

Jason Sole, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP, also attended the vigil. “We felt like just from a humanitarian perspective, we are not only for black people, we are for all people,” he said, “so that’s why it was important for us to come to the ground and just show our faces.”

The influence of such activists could have been missed by outside observers. While they support the larger movement for police reform and racial equity, they do not necessarily fall under the easily Googled banner of “Black Lives Matter”. BLM has a chapter in Minneapolis that has at times been hugely influential. But it is far from the only group working on issues related to police shootings.

Most black activists have also tried to balance speaking out with deference to Damond’s family and the residents of her neighborhood.

“When we are protesting and we rising up against injustice, we want people to support us and help us out but we don’t want them to take the lead,” Sole said. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate at the Minneapolis NAACP to try and take the lead on this.”

Shaun King, a columnist with the New York Daily News who covers police brutality and Black Lives Matter, says critics questioning the willingness of black activists to address police violence against white victims often do so in error.

“I see regularly, ‘Why don’t you speak out against police brutality that affects white people?” he said. “When people say that to an activist or to me, they clearly don’t have their ears to the ground.

“It didn’t surprise me at all that people from all walks of life showed up from day one there in Minneapolis, because people are bothered by injustice and when they see this, it wasn’t racial.”

The diversity of protesters in Minneapolis was impossible to miss on Thursday, as hundreds marched through Damond’s neighborhood. Also clear was the thread that so many saw connecting Damond’s death with that of Philando Castile. His mother, Valerie Castile, hugged Dom Damond, Justine’s fiance. John Thompson, a friend and coworker of Castile who became an activist after his death, gave an impassioned speech, as he has at many other protests over the last year.

An activist who goes by the name of King Demetrius Pendleton, another organizer of the 16 July vigil for Damond, was also present. He livestreamed protests related to the death of Castile. He was doing the same for Damond.

“The similarity is that the police are trigger happy,” he said. “They are too quick to discharge their firearm. They do not assess the situation.”

In the past two years, in response to community pressure, the Minneapolis Police Department has updated its training procedures and adopted body cameras. The officers who responded to Damond’s call, however, did not have their cameras turned on.

In a media conference on Wednesday, assistant police chief Medaria Arradondo, who is now set to become chief, addressed the “trigger happy” charge by pointing to a move the department made last year to require officers to use de-escalation tactics, and to resort to force only as as a last resort. The “sanctity of life” was a guiding principle for how Minneapolis police officers interact with the public, he said.

On Thursday, then police chief Janeé Harteau disavowed Noor’s conduct, saying Damon “didn’t have to die”. What happened was the result of an “individual officer’s actions”, she said, frustrating activists who believe systemic changes are needed.

Late on Friday, Harteau resigned from her role, at the request of mayor Betsy Hodges.

‘This should not have happened’: police chief responds to Justine Damond shooting

Another common belief among activists of color protesting Damond’s case is that it might lead to change that could benefit the city. Since Damond was a white woman who lived in a wealthy and influential neighborhood, and since the government of Australia is now supporting her family, they hope the case will at least force the city and police leaders to consider new reforms.

“I just hope that the people from that community rise up,” said Jones. “Her death does not have to be in vain, this tragedy can help the entire city take a serious look at how the police treat communities.

“I would just hope that they continue to speak out for their friend and rise up and say: ‘Enough is enough.’”

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