They’re an unlikely duo, Justine Damond and Heather Heyer, on opposite sides of the country but wed by circumstances and tragedy, the new hashtag saints in the American victimography, anomalies, outliers, everyday people, two who made history by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the wrong time.
The fact that they’re both white women who died via an agent of institutional power (a police officer acting on a mistaken assumption) or at the hands of a white supremacist driving a car through a crowd (and maybe really intending to kill a person of color instead) complicates the established narrative of 21st-century race relations, simply by undercutting the rationale for its continued oversimplification. The circumstances of their deaths are inimical to the received wisdom of American race relations, the customary equations of the histories of black and white Americans alike.
Not least of all because of Damond and Heyer’s tragic, sudden visibility in the culture, the perceived calculus of who lives and who dies in racially-impactful situations is a little different now — and you dismiss the social importance of perception at your peril. The notion of “skin in the game,” actionized faith in the principles basic to the fight for social justice, looks to be more of the ecumenical civic experience it’s always been.
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Another wrinkle in the equation we thought we knew backwards and forwards: Justine Damond was shot to death by Mohamed Noor, a black police officer, outside her home in Minneapolis early on July 15, as Noor and partner Matthew Harrity investigated a possible assault behind Damond’s home. Noor, who joined the Minneapolis force in 2015, was the Fifth Precinct’s first Somali officer. In May 2016, Noor was praised by Mayor Betsy Hodges, who said Noor’s assignment was a “wonderful sign of building trust and community policing at work.”
Commenting on Damond’s death in the context of the usual cop-victim scenario, Shaun King, writing July 17 in the New York Daily News, said “I think Eric Garner, who was choked to death by the NYPD three years ago today, is the perfect face of police brutality victims. So is Sandra Bland. So is Tamir Rice. So is Amadou Diallo. So is Rekia Boyd. So is Jordan Edwards. So is Philando Castile.”
That is dangerously ridiculous. There is no “perfect face” for a victim of police brutality. The notion that we as a society can try to templatize the identity of the victims of unjust police shootings is precisely the problem we have now; too many people in America, and not a few of them police officers, do that already.
The idea of a “perfect face” for a police victim makes officers who are inclined to act unlawfully that much more susceptible to doing their own victimization at gunpoint — made perversely comfortable in their actions by confidence in judicial precedent, and the fact that getting away with it once is contagious, and makes it easier to get away with again and again.
We can no more conjure a “perfect face of police brutality victims” than we can devise a perfect face of police brutality assailants (most of whom wouldn’t look like Mohamed Noor).
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The death of Justine Damond deserves to resonate in this country the same way as the deaths of other people — African Americans and other minorities — at the hands of police. The incident in Minneapolis reveals something that was never less than a national experience from the jump. Her case proves (to a national population that’s never seen this) that white people can be terminally victimized by cops who imagine a threat or a danger that wasn’t there, just like African Americans have been for generations. The same pattern and practice of deadly police misconduct, and reliable police-departmental inertia, that African Americans and other minorities have endured.
But many Americans ain’t havin’ any common-ground talk. Various flavors of reaction surfaced almost immediately after Damond died. #freegraysbae weighed in, at The Root: “No, I don’t give a fuck about this white woman being killed by the police. Spare me the, ‘Don’t be mad when somebody black is killed by police and white people don’t care!’ You fuckers have shown us repeatedly that you don’t care. For centuries. The next one won’t change your mind because Judy here lost her life.
“Black people are killed all the time by police and when we ask for just a bit of sympathy and understanding we’re met with overt racism, ignorance, and indifference. Sucks for her family, but I doubt their settlement will be called the ghetto lottery.” #freegraysbae taps, fairly I think, into a broadly-held sense that outrage over black people dying at the hands of police is in oddly short supply in the media, the culture and, no question, the government. It’s an empathy shortage that has persisted for decades, coincident with the anger #freegraysbae expresses.
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The passing of Heather Heyer can’t be so angrily dismissed. Her death, in a protest against the white supremacist movement that’s trying to take hold in this country, came on August 12, when she was struck and killed by James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old white Nazi sympathizer driving his Dodge Challenger though a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va. Her death pushes us past the comfortable, zero-sum-game racial catechism white America has been self-conditioned to believe — that street-level activism on behalf of equality is always performed by the ones most likely to be the beneficiaries of that equality.
The circumstances of her death couldn’t put her more on the front lines of the pursuit of social justice in Trumptime. Heyer decided to be there, she chose to represent something outside herself; she made the conscious decision to potentially put herself in harm’s way on behalf of a principle, in support of people who didn’t look like her, people who didn’t share her life experience, for the purpose of making this country better than it is. If that’s not the living, working embodiment of being Woke, what is?
Her commitment kicks to the curb the disturbingly alienating notion that white Americans have no place at the ramparts, that they can’t work to redress the injustices of the past with action today, can’t act in concert with black Americans — that white Americans, however many or few, can’t deeply believe that black lives matter, just because they’re white Americans. Heyer’s death by white supremacist undercuts the convenient, us-versus-them thinking, the lazy racial arithmetic that more and more people, many of them African American, have embraced (to go by the incendiary comment threads on various race-related stories in The Root and other news publications).
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Too often, we fight these vast social battles in a relative vacuum; we do this combat in a way that conforms with our longstanding, gut-level expectations about friend and foe, ally and enemy. Intellectually, we know better, but we do it anyway. But in spite of our inclination to tribalize, our temptation to compartmentalize, events like these show just how wide and deep this social struggle really is now and has always been.
The deaths of Justine Damond and Heather Heyer tell us what should be obvious: All the usual bets are, now, necessarily, off. The old assumptions are being overturned. In the current national climate, one in which the president* can panoramically run roughshod over civil liberties and historical precedent; use the executive order to complicate and damage the lives and welfare of millions of people; aggravate old cultural and racial divisions; stigmatize people according to their religion; hamper the exercise of the right to vote; espouse policies that retard progress toward healing a fragile environment; seek to negatively impact health-care of tens of millions of Americans; and circumscribe a woman’s right to her own reproductive agency — in a nation like this, there’s no time for blindly observing old racialist pieties, or engaging in fortress thinking a la Game of Thrones.
The forces that would destroy our way of life aren’t playing favorites. Despite how inconvenient it will be for some people, neither can we. Winter is here. It’s all hands on deck. This is not a matter of black against white, and it never was. This is a matter of justice versus injustice. This is a case of right against wrong. And right needs all the allies it can get.
Regardless of race, color or creed.