The hard truth is that we know very little about why Justine Damond was shot and killed by police near her home Saturday night.
What we do not know, we fill in with our imaginations, revealing far more about us as a community and a nation than about the victim or the officer.
From the reporting, the social media, and conversations among friends and church members, it’s like watching ourselves run around on stage with a script we’ve rehearsed a hundred times, yet thrown off by each new casting change and plot twist.
From every corner, we hear the phrase repeated, “we don’t know.” Our Mayor, our City Council members, and even our Governor are expressing frustration at the lack of reliable information after so many days of investigation. We are asked to reserve judgment until the facts come in – and there is high anxiety all around at the reality that we may never have all the facts we want.
My congregation, Mayflower United Church of Christ, is in the fifth police precinct of Minneapolis, just a few miles from the shooting. We are also next-door neighbors to Creekside Commons, the beautiful, thirty-unit workforce housing building Mayflower initiated with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and home to many Somali immigrants. We rejoice that barriers of “us and them” thinking has slowly eroded as trust is built and our children grow up together.
In recent years, we have been practicing looking through the lens of racial justice and healing. Minnesotans who live in whiteness have been challenged to see that our shocking racial disparities are not new, and invited beyond our comfort zones to organize for solutions.
Our outrage at yet another police shooting reveals the weariness of the wider community already traumatized by the killings of black men at the hands of police in recent years. If these reactions have become repetitive, it is due in large part to the frequency with which Minnesotans of color experience well-founded fear in interactions with the police. The fact that Philando Castile had been pulled over 49 times before the encounter that led to his death is a sobering illustration of the chronically unjust approach to policing.
But when we heard that a white Australian woman had become the latest victim of a police shooting in the Twin Cities, our script changed. Justine Damond was not the victim we expected. Many began to ask, will we care about this victim more than the others because of her race? Certainly, early media reports demonstrated this bias. Damond was described as a “bride to be,” a healer, and a yoga instructor.
And the deadly shot was fired in an affluent and predominantly white neighborhood near picturesque Lake Harriet. Community members expressed shock and sadness: “we never expected it to happen here.”
The next day was filled with white progressives demanding police reform. Conservative talk radio took calls from concerned citizens who questioned if Justine was “here legally.” Black Lives Matter organizers suspected that their cries against police violence would finally be heard after one of the victims was a beautiful white yoga teacher in a “nice neighborhood.”
If the identity of the victim messed with our script, the identity of the officer who shot her threw us yet again – Mohamed Noor, one of the first Somali American officers in the department. Noor is described by our newspaper as the pride of the Somali community in Minneapolis, representing a hard-earned battle for representation of a significant immigrant population. Meanwhile, even this fact is challenged by some; a Conservative radio show host suggested that Officer Noor was a “diversity hire” and that they had heard the Minneapolis police had to “lower their standards” to hire Somali police officers.
We immediately ask, why was Noor so afraid of this white woman in an alley, afraid enough to reach with his gun across the face of his partner in the driver’s seat and kill her? Is it misogyny? Trauma? Internalized patterns of police brutality? An accident? Where were the people Damond called 911 about in the first place? And, why weren’t the body cameras and dash-cams filming?
I too have been pondering these questions. Moreover, in the three days before we heard any information from the investigation, I had time to observe myself and all of us asking these questions.
Are we willing to approach this scenario with a more open mind about the unknowns because the victim is white… must have been an accident, a misunderstanding? Or are some white residents finding themselves outraged now, while the previous killings of black men went unquestioned?
Are white Minnesotans grappling with police reform in a new way because we have sympathy (or antipathy) toward a wave of African immigrants? Just behind that question is an even uglier one, already rearing its head: how will the Somali Muslim community be expected to pay for the sins of Officer Noor?
People of faith have something of value to bring into this dialogue – which still looks more like a tragic comedy of errors on the world’s stage.
Are we not prepared by the teachings of our faith to make creative use of the tensions? Bring them out in the open? Answer a question with another question?
One profound challenge in Minneapolis in these times is to engage in the deeper, life-giving questions in truly interfaith settings. I fear that the Somali community, so often having to confront police injustice, will now be shunned from the spaces of communal grief and problem solving.
It would be a shame. Because what use are our faith traditions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, yoga and meditation and more – if we fail in these moments of brokenness to draw upon the deep well of humility, creativity, and hope in human transformation that they offer us.
We are called to be steadfast in demanding fairness and justice in this specific case, and to be equally as steadfast in expecting drastic reform so that police stop killing unarmed people in our city streets.
Diverse racial and cultural representation on the police force is a step in healing the racial tension in our cities. Yet, as we are learning so painfully this week, that is not the end goal but one step in confronting the reality of a militarized police force in a nation with as many guns as people. To make of Noor a scapegoat will not absolve us.
While many are rightfully crying out, “who is to blame?” people of faith might respond, “what does our God require of us to transform our culture of violence?”
In a recent video of Justine Damond teaching a seminar on mind-body healing practices at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, she said that you can learn to impact the reality around you with your powerful self. She clarified that victims of violence are not to be blamed for what happens to them; rather it is about examining the stories you’ve believed about your life, and asking, “how can we begin to write a whole new story for our future?”
Our Christian traditions also compel us to believe this is possible.
If we believe in resurrection, a promise of new life in Baptism, the chance to die to old ways of seeing our world – surely, we can come together to transform the culture of policing in our cities. Surely we can expect more equity and accountability, and work to make it so.
Surely we can create communities where our police officers do not arrive on the scene of a sexual assault ready to shoot, because anyone could have a gun.
We can change the script ourselves, rather than waiting for another tragedy to wake us from our rote repetition of lines.
Jesus would teach that way, you know. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But truly I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
You have heard it said, “He feared for his life, he had to shoot.” But truly I tell you, there is another way. We will only find it together.