Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has suddenly become interested in police accountability now that media is following the story of Justine Ruszczyk, the White Australian immigrant killed by police on July 16. In the media, the late 32-year-old’s lawyer described her as “the most innocent victim ever.” One outlet published a video of the meditation instructor saving baby ducklings. And instead of using the common clinical tone to describe Ruszczyk, the headlines almost uniformly identify her as the “bride-to-be.”
Aiyana Stanley-Jones was an 8-year-old-to-be.
Trayvon Martin was an 18-year-old-to-be.
Jamar Clark was a 25-year-old-to-be.
The narrative surrounding Ruszczyk, who was fatally shot by Officer Mohamed Noor, is humanizing. She was automatically afforded this grace because she was a White woman killed by state-sanctioned violence. That portrayal is elusive to Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other marginalized people victimized by law enforcement again and again. When police kill us, their versions of the story are automatically accepted as truth by our elected officials and by media who reflexively dig for victims’ criminal records. For us, the burden of proof is on our communities.
This is White supremacy.
White supremacy manifests in many ways, including neglecting the lived experiences of oppression that communities of color face, presuming the guilt of victims of color and supposedly progressive politicians who proclaim “Black lives matter” but make dubious alliances.
Over the last week, the nation has watched Minneapolis with anticipation and disbelief, riveted by more fatal police violence unfolding here. Our city has served as one of the major battlegrounds for the sanctity of Black life over the last four years, as Black organizers and activists have pushed to show the world that the Midwest is not only just as racist as the rest of this country, but that this racism is intentional, insidious and often carried out by the very liberals who claim to respect, care for and want to protect Black lives.
In the case of Ruszczyk (who used her fianceé’s surname, Damon, professionally) we did not expect accountability from the Minneapolis Police Department. In fact, we saw the city and the police open their usual playbook. The public had to wait more 12 hours for information about the shooting. And the police were, yet again, investigating themselves, as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—the same organization that found Jamar Clark’s killers innocent—is leading the investigation into the Ruszczyk killing as well.
It was not until more details emerged about Ruszczyk that this particular case of police violence showed itself to be different from previous ones. Hers is the kind of shooting where much-deserved justice and accountability might be achieved. Not because officials recognize that police violence is a serious problem, but because this system works exactly as it is intended to: to protect Whiteness in general and White womanhood in particular.
The long history of the state protecting the supposed sanctity of White womanhood is one of the primary functions of U.S. institutions, systems and culture. From the violence visited upon Black youth in the name of White womanhood, as in the case of Emmett Till, or in the use of Black women’s bodies for surreptitious and dangerous medical experimentation, like in the case of Henrietta Lacks, White woman are protected at the expense of the lives of Black people.
Like other cities in the U.S., poor and young Black women and femme activists in Minneapolis have created space over the years for people to take action, organize their communities and change the material conditions of Black folks. Their work has created a national platform for Minneapolis, but whenever there is a spotlight on our city, politicians co-opt our movement, taking our language and occupying space that was created for change. They push their own agendas, riddled with so-called reforms don’t actually protect or serve our most vulnerable folks.
Case in point: Early this month, during the Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor Convention, Alondra Cano—a city council candidate that the party endorsed—declared White, male, moneyed, straight mayoral hopeful Jacob Frey to be the “Black lives matter candidate.”
When Cano, who is not Black, presumed to speak for any part of The Movement for Black Lives, it illustrated how some progressives devalue the voices and opinions of Black organizers. The co-option, erasure, misinformation and outright lies are harmful to movement work and our communities. This is especially clear because Cano endorsed Frey, someone who reportedly said, “Don’t bring those people to my office again,” about his own constituents following a Black Lives Matter protest, and who has accepted campaign donations from the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.
And this is just one part of the dynamic that plays into the case of Justine Ruszczyk. When I consider the political circumstances surrounding this case, that 53 percent of the nation’s White women helped elect President Donald Trump, and that it took the police slaying of a White woman for many in Minneapolis to even consider that the police are a problem, the situation is especially harrowing and painful for Black people who put our bodies on the line for liberation.
It is difficult not to take note of the 7,000 Minneapolis residents who showed up for the impromptu anti-Trump rallies after election day, or the thousands who showed up for the Women’s March, but were nowhere to be seen when police used a chemical that was likely pepper spray on 10-year-old Taye Clinton at a protest or when 17-year-old Tania Harris was shot by the police but somehow found herself charged with assault.
While we unequivocally demand justice for every single person harmed by the state, it is astounding to witness the response to Ruszczyk’s killing. There have been actions, vigils, marches and rallies almost every day.
Mayor Hodges not only condemned the way the police handled the Ruszczyk case, but went as far as to ask Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau to resign because she’d “lost confidence in the chief’s ability to lead us further.” In stark juxtaposition, the mayor made no changes after Jamar Clark was killed by the same police department roughly a year and a half ago. Even after police attacked protesters, including a dragging a Black trans youth by their hijab and punching a Black femme in the face, Hodges’ response was simply, “I fully support the chief’s determination in this case, that Officers Schwarze and Ringgenberg did not violate city policies … I trust the thorough process that the department followed, and I trust Chief Harteau’s judgment.”
As a part of the local Black Lives Matter chapter and someone who was present when Hodges refused to support the Clark family’s request for the release of tapes of the shooting, I know that the difference this time is not a change of heart. Hodges has repeatedly shown a clear disregard for Black life while in office, and forcing Chief Harteau to step down is a politically motivated action of self-preservation that comes as she feels pressure from community members and other mayoral candidates in an election year.
And where are the people who usually advocate for police in these cases? As mainstream media keeps reminding us, Ruszczyk was shot and killed by a Black, Somali, Muslim immigrant police officer, a man whose social identities explain the lack of vocal support in his case. Officer Noor is not being protected in the same ways that Officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwartz were after they killed Clark. Harteau told press that, “Justine didn’t have to die.” I urge her to consider that neither did Clark, just 61 seconds after officers arrived on the 1600 block of Plymouth Ave N.
Media outlets are playing their role as well. Using “Damond” instead of her harder-to-spell and pronounce legal name Ruszczyk ensures that the victim reads as a “real American,” despite her recent immigration. This portrayal also creates a more stark contrast to Noor, whose name sounds more foreign, Muslim and Black.
The automatic demonization of Noor is not surprising to Black organizers because hypocritical hashtags like #BlueLivesMatter are intended to protect Whiteness and White supremacy, not individual officers. We have long said that the root of the problem is not individuals, regardless of their race. The policing system in its entirety targets Black people for death and destruction and we need to replace it with something completely different, something that defunds the police and invests in local initiatives led, executed and evaluated by our communities.
As time moves on and Minneapolis inches closer to election day, we are seeing more and more mayoral and city council candidates use the language of the movement, saying that they wish to see “transformational change.” I challenge the candidates to provide their definition of transformational change when it comes to Minneapolis policing and release their plans to reimagine law enforcement in our city. Our lives depend on it.
Miski Noor is an organizer and writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they work as a communications strategist for the Black Lives Matter Global Network.