It’s a story we have heard too many times. On Saturday, a Minnesota woman called police to report a crime near her home and was killed by responding officers. They conveniently had their body cameras turned off. It’s the kind of tragedy the Movement for Black Lives erupted to illuminate and resist. If the police are supposed to protect us, they should not be killing us, and so often they do just that, generally without ever facing any consequences.
This time, however, there are two important distinctions: the woman killed was white, and her killer was Black. These realities provide critical insights for assessing how the state denies human treatment to Black people, even and especially when agents of the state are Black themselves, and even when white people are collateral.
According to Star Tribune, Justine Damond called 911 on Saturday night to report a possible assault in an alley behind her house in what the media is calling “one of the city’s safest neighborhoods.” She was unarmed when officer Mohamed Noor shot her in the abdomen through his car door.
If you listen closely to these accounts, you might hear the foreign sound of empathy rustling under the far more familiar descriptions of high-profile police shootings, like a snake beneath dead leaves. Safest neighborhood. Unarmed. Mother. Fiancé. The stories surrounding the shooting thus far have emphasized the impossibility of Damond deserving what happened to her, her white womanhood providing a cloak of humanity people like Philando Castile, who was also killed by Minnesota police and his murderer was acquitted last month, could not access.
If you listen closely to these accounts, you might hear the foreign sound of empathy rustling under the far more familiar descriptions of high-profile police shootings, like a snake beneath dead leaves. Safest neighborhood. Unarmed. Mother. Fiancé.
Noting the different tone in the media coverage of this act of police brutality than those centering on the Black dead, some activists have hoped to use this newfound empathy for a victim to lead to real action against police violence. “Maybe, just maybe, with the shooting death of Justine Damond, millions of white people, for the very first time, will now see a victim of police brutality, and see themselves,” New York Daily News reporter Shaun King wrote.
But King misses what many of Black people—who still have hope in reformative solutions to anti-Black state violence—continue to miss: Black people are not victims of “police brutality.” Black people are not understood as “victims” of anything, and so when white people connect to the shared victimhood of other white people it is a connection that stops there. Empathy is not extended to Black people because we are cast as casualties even before we are killed.
Black people are not treated to a double standard that can be illuminated when a white person finds themselves in a similar situation to us. Anti-Blackness is the standard. As Timothy DuWhite opined at RaceBaitr, anti-Blackness is “not hypocritical, but rather it is history.”
Police aren’t supposed to protect Black people, they are supposed to protect Damond. Anti-Black violence meted out by police is the job of the police. Protecting white people from Black people, protecting white people’s properties, as well as protecting white people’s ability to exploit us has always been the job of modern police. And that police failed to do their job in this one instance is behind a vast majority of outrage and new energy being targeted at the Twin Cities police department now.
This does not mean the state is not implicated by this case, or that we should ignore this incident because the victim was white. No. Damond’s death highlights a crucial distinction between killing portrayed as a mistake, and killing portrayed as justified, and how both rationalizations serve the purpose of protecting the killer. In the case of the state, the killers––the police––always need to be protected in order to continue their job of justifiably killing, enslaving and profiting from Black people. These killers––officers––will at times make mistakes that inadvertently harm those the state is designed to protect.
But with a mistake, the killer is still not wrong, just imprecise. And though we may be able to solve such imprecision with reform, what about when anti-Blackness is precise? Any white person just now “see(ing) a victim of police brutality, and see(ing) themselves” in the victim is only interested in a salve––a salve which is not a cure for all.
But with a mistake, the killer is still not wrong, just imprecise. And though we may be able to solve such imprecision with reform, what about when anti-Blackness is precise?
As opposed to mistakes, justifications––like those which were relied upon to turn Mike Brown into a “demon”-like “hulk” who runs through bullets after his death, or turn 12-year-old Tamir Rice into a grown man after his, or Korryn Gaines into a mentally-disturbed lead-poisoned person after hers––have no solution because they are always already right by definition. Justifications for anti-Black violence are always at hand, can always be pulled out of thin air, are always believable, and therefore cannot be reformed––and certainly not reformed when white people tap into the empathy they have for one another.
Reforms meant to ease the mistakes of the state––or the way the law inadvertently sometimes harms “innocent” “white” “non-violent” people like Damond––never reckon with how the state is anti-Black at its core. Black people are never innocent, never white, always violent. This is why Black liberation relies on entirely rethinking how we demonize criminality, not in emphasizing innocence. These reforms, including body cameras, more police trainings, and even the integration of police forces that allowed Mohamed Noor his badge, can do nothing for a Black person whose life doesn’t matter in the first place.
In fact, Noor’s own Blackness makes it easier for the police department and public to throw him under the bus as an anomaly to the largely white, and certainly white-protecting police force. The uniqueness of Noor’s Blackness gives even more cover to the idea of this incident as a reformable “mistake,” even while his identity can also be used to discredit against the idea that police brutality is uniquely anti-Black.
But Noor’s Blackness is no less a scapegoat for the state’s violence in his mistakes than it is when he and other Black officers do their jobs––protecting whiteness––properly. As James Baldwin famously recalled, “we feared black cops even more than white cops, because the black cop had to work so much harder— on your head— to prove to himself and his colleagues that he was not like all the other n*ggers.”
The purpose of the state is to punish whomever is like all us other n*ggers, us regular n*ggers, us criminalized n*ggers, and that purpose will continue whether those who experience inadvertent violence gain distance from us or not. We cannot continue trying to use reform to clean up after the state’s mistakes, or putting our hope in protecting its collateral as though its intended targets are any more disposable. At the same time, we have to recognize that whenever the state operates, even when its operation harms a white person, even when a Black person does the operating, even when the operation is reformed, it still operates to harm Black folks. And wherever it is operating we should be resisting.
Hari Ziyad is an artist, writer and the editor-in-chief of the literary and media publication RaceBaitR. They are also Deputy Editor for Black Youth Project, an Assistant Editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose, and writer for AFROPUNK. You can find them on Twitter @hariziyad.