By Sarah Jasem
I sat with a room full of strangers, listening to the formal and consoling hum of the news in the background of a surgery waiting room in rural Australia. Small talk radiated like warmth throughout the room due to the close-knit nature of people in small rural towns. Many of them had lived in the same town throughout their lives; a travel time of two hours to get necessities meant they never had a need to leave. I felt little alienation because we were all listening to a popular news channel in Australia, so the fact that I was merely a visitor and not part of the community did not affect me. When the news is on, there is an assumption that we all feel quietly sympathetic, outraged, confused and worried by the same things uniting us in the quiet knowledge that we are all members of the same public body.
The death of a 40-year old Australian woman in Minneapolis, USA, has been treated as a main story for a few days. Justine Damond – who called 911 regarding a sexual assault she thought might be happening behind her house – was wrongly shot by a police officer. I can tell you that she grew up by the sea in Sydney. I could tell you the name of her fiancé who can no longer have a wedding but desperately wants her burial to be on her home soil, that she practiced meditation and had a meditation website, that she was loved by many and that she did not deserve to die. I can tell you the name of the man that shot her, his credentials, and that he had relatively little experience as he had been on the force for only 2 years, but that his field tests were good. I can tell you that he sat in the passenger’s seat, and did not have his body camera on when he fired the fatal shot out of the open driver’s side window as Mathew Harrity, his partner of a years’ experience, claimed he heard a loud, startling sound near the squad. I can tell you that Justine approached the police car in her pyjamas in the dark – not an ambush – probably just to let the police know she was glad they were there.
Why can I tell you so much information about a case of police misconduct which is not even uncommon in America? Why are you being drawn into sympathising with the story of these two people, whilst many other people’s stories are untold? Because this particular police shooting was by a black, Somalian Muslim man named Mohammad Noor, and the civilian victim was a Caucasian woman named Justine Damond.
The facts should still determine how you feel about this tragedy, it should still allow sympathy due to the fact that you should want justice for all involved, in whatever way the truth will determine the justice served to them. To say the police officer is Somalian and the woman is Caucasian is a fact, but the context of colour in the news is often used as less of a fact and more of a statement. Unlike cases such as the shooting of Philando Castile on 6th July 2016 – which was livestreamed by his partner Diamond Reynolds whilst their 4-year old child sat in the back of the car – evidence is being actively searched for in the Damond case. The Mayor of Minneapolis asked: “Why was Mohammad Noor’s body camera shut off?” (ABC News). People want evidence because they want justice. The video livestreamed onto Facebook by Diamond Reynolds was nit-picked and invalidated as insufficient evidence, as was the video evidence of the fatal shot being fired by the two police officers which killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year old. Nonetheless, the evidence was not valid enough, and the two officers were given paid administrative leave. Both the victims – Jamar Clark and Philando Castile – lived in Minneapolis and were African American.
There is a reason that juries know the racial background of the accused, as seen in the 9 month trial and subsequent acquittal of OJ Simpson in 1995, where the jury was mostly people of colour, and the acquittal of the police officer charged with the manslaughter of Philando Castile, where the jury was mostly white. The colour of people’s skin is a factor in determining innocence and guilt, because we live in a society where the media – which can be so casually watched in surgery waiting rooms – alienates people on account of their ethnicity, religion, race, sex. For example, more coverage of brutality and injustice to one group, such as middle-class white Caucasians by people of colour, but less coverage of brutality and injustice towards people of colour is what propagates fear of minorities, and invalidates the events that may happen to them, because the image of criminality has a greater effect in our everyday lives than actual criminal acts. By doing this, the justice system and the police system remains intact, because it justifies the fear within police culture of minorities, or those of lower class backgrounds; feeding the typical dark representations of black and brown neighbourhoods.
The news has always been colourful, even when the news was just black and white. The communal feeling of helpless ‘civilian-ship’ and an acceptance of the harsh realities representative in the news is what makes the power of the media something which needs to be assessed and taken in, especially in light of this unusual case.
When minorities are shot, a blurry picture of the patriotic police being victimised by mental health issues and the constant fear for their safety against aggressors is being produced, whilst minorities are stereotyped on account of their race. However, in this case, ‘killer cop’ Noor, has been taken out of the usual safety of the police force usually present in civilian shootings, by being separated from the force entirely, as the police attempt to distance themselves from the shooting. It is simple to say that when the police officer is a minority, and can be presented with the negative connotations of his race, he will be antagonised whilst the shot civilian is martyred. The roles are reversed in this case; tragedy is told through the narrative which uses colour to best protect any changes and damage occurring to a police system whose foundations to ‘serve and protect’ were established before minorities had the same rights to freedom as civilians. The chief of police has been forced to resign by the Mayor of Minneapolis, as coincidentally during her speech, in which she separated the police force from the actions of Noor, the building became filled with Black Lives Matter protesters, who have and continue to form the roots of the movement for police accountability. They join others protesting for the cause of a trustworthy, better safer police force. Philando Castiles’ mother walked with Justine Damond’s fiancé during the protest.
The racial categorisation of the victims of police shootings via the large voice of the media has had the power to alienate individuals from each other for so long, rather than together against a system where the lines between prejudicial influence of the media and justice have been blurred. All life is precious. It has taken yet another innocent life for the media to decide that it was fit to sympathise, and decide to exercise pressure on the police system. “Body cameras must always be worn” (PoliceOne) is a new rule in light of this tragedy.
The media can be very powerful, but it picks its battles.