Ways of Seeing, Joanna Colwell: We must refuse to ignore injustice

Last week in Minneapolis a police officer killed a forty-year-old white lady named Justine Damond. She was a soon-to-be married meditation teacher from Australia, who called the police because she thought she heard an assault taking place behind her house. There are many unanswered questions, and because neither police officer had their body cameras activated, we will probably never know exactly what happened. One thing is definitely true, though. Instead of the wedding that was planned for August, there will be a funeral.
Outrage in the twin cities, and across the ocean, in Australia, where police shootings are rare, was swift. The mayor of Minneapolis forced the police chief to resign. Marchers carried signs reading “Justice for Justine.” Newspaper articles refer to the victim as “bride-to-be.” The photograph being shared with each news story is one in which she is the smiling face of white innocence. Are people looking into whether she ever used drugs or whether there were traces of marijuana in her system? Are people questioning her judgement in approaching armed (and notoriously trigger happy) police officers?
The smiling photo, the tragic descriptions, the assumption of innocence. It seems these are rarely, if ever, afforded to Black victims of police violence. Also rare? White people demonstrating against police brutality.
It may very well be human nature to more easily empathize with people who look like us. So it must have been jarring for a lot of white Minneapolis residents to see a photo of someone who looked like their wife, their sister, their daughter as the latest victim of a police inflicted lethal gunshot wound. But this killing is right on the heels of the non-indictment of the police officer who took the life of Black motorist Philando Castile, shooting him exactly 74 seconds after pulling him over for a broken taillight.
After the decision not to indict the officer who killed her son, Philando Castile’s mother expressed her anger and heartbreak. “My son loved this city,” she said. “He had one tattoo on his body, an image of the Twin Cities. My son loved this city, and this city killed my son.”
The reason police officers are so rarely indicted for killing citizens, is a clause in the law that makes lethal force illegal UNLESS the officer fears for their life. It turns out to be impossible to prove whether anyone “feared for their life.” It becomes the living officer’s word in court against the silence of a dead victim who cannot tell their side of the story. It turns out that it doesn’t matter if the killing is filmed, witnessed by a crowd, live-streamed on Facebook, or even televised.
In the case of Philando Castile’s murder, the gentle school cafeteria worker (who is said to have memorized the names, food allergies and preferences of hundreds of elementary school children) told the officer that he was licensed to carry a gun. Seconds later, the officer used lethal force, shooting Castile in front of his fiancée and her daughter. One might think that the gun rights lobby, who show up en masse whenever any firearm regulation is proposed, might have had something to say about a licensed permit holding gun owner being killed after informing the police officer that he was armed. Silence.
And in the case of this latest killing, one might think that the Blue Lives Matter people, who consistently fundraise and advocate for police officers that shoot Black people, even children, would have something to say in defense of Officer Noor, who shot Justine Damond while she was speaking to the officer driving the car. But that is not at all what happened. No one is going to bat for a Somali-American cop.
So this is a complicated and toxic web of violence, white supremacy, gun culture, bias and fear. This is our country. Facebook tells me that in the United Kingdom, police have killed 52 people in the last 115 years. Meanwhile, in the land of the free, home of the brave, police have killed 369 people in the past 115 days! I would guess that most law-abiding white people don’t experience a massive blood pressure spike when we see a police car. The same cannot be said for most people of color, who know their skin inspires fear and bias and that their lives are not held sacred by courts and juries.
So let us address this crisis of empathy by refusing to look away from injustice. Whether the victim looks like our family members or not, let us intensify our efforts to uphold the value of human life. Instead of feeling hopeless and helpless, can we educate ourselves about the historic roots of this crisis, and refuse to be silent about what is happening in every state in the nation. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is what we are called to do.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]

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