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Kevin Cokley.
Kevin Cokley.

Kevin Cokley

Australian woman's death reveals the human toll of a police shooting Add to ...

Kevin Cokley is UT System Distinguished Teaching Professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

The death of Justine Damond is another tragic incident in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of senseless, fatal police shootings in the United States.

Ms. Damond, a 40-year-old Australian woman and bride-to-be, called the Minneapolis Police Department to report what she thought was a sexual assault. Approaching the police vehicle of Officers Matthew Harrity and Mohamed Noor while wearing pyjamas, she was shot by Mr. Noor and died 20 minutes later.

The obvious optics of this case – a white woman being shot by a black Somali-American police officer – complicate the narrative of white racist cops killing unarmed black people. To date, there have been 559 people shot and killed by police in the United States in 2017. This includes 235 whites, 121 blacks, 89 Hispanics and 114 “other” or “unknown” individuals. While it is well documented that black people are 2.5 times more likely to get shot than white people, the numbers of white people (and for that matter any other group of people), especially unarmed, who are shot and killed by police is higher than we should be comfortable with.

Related: Implicit bias against black people linked to police use of lethal force, study suggests

The shooting of Justine Damond provides low-hanging fruit for debates about racial bias in police shootings. One cynical writer observed that Ms. Damond’s death presents a dilemma among white people, in that they have to decide whether the “blue life” of black Mr. Noor matters more than the white life of Justine Damond. Intentionally polemical, this train of thought maintains that blue lives matter only when police kill unarmed black people, that white people do not get upset over the deaths of innocent black women and men, and that white people will often try to justify why a black individual was shot but never do this in the case of a white victim.

Others will argue that the fact a white woman was killed illustrates there is no systematic racial bias among police officers. They will say that the colour of Ms. Damond’s skin had no bearing on Mr. Noor’s reaction, and that police do the best job that they can given the stressful job they have. Still others will focus on the fact that Mr. Noor was black and a Muslim, and use this to perpetuate racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Fox News has been especially interested in the nationality of Mr. Noor, with over half of their segments on the story mentioning his Somali background. Juxtapose Fox News coverage with CNN mentioning his Somali background only twice (after prompting) and MSNBC not mentioning it at all.

To be clear, the shooting death of Ms. Damond is ostensibly not about race. It appears to be a very unfortunate set of events where a skittish police officer was startled and used deadly force on an individual he did not see. Mr. Noor was, by all accounts, a soft-spoken and humble man who left a better-paying job to serve his community and bridge the divide between the police, African Americans and the immigrant community. He had taken several training courses and passed all of his gun qualifications. Justine Damond was a beloved individual who worked as a spiritual healer, led meditation workshops and was characterized as being passionate and “the most loving woman.”

Yet, unsurprisingly, in a country stained by racism and constant media coverage of excessive police force against black people, what should be the inconsequential fact of the racial and cultural backgrounds of Justine Damond and Mohamed Noor has now been made consequential by the likes of Fox News and other conservative outlets. Some of these outlets have tried to politicize the shooting by using the race of Ms. Damond and Mr. Noor to further criticize the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that Black Lives Matter activists have not been as outspoken about the death of a white woman as they have been about the deaths of black people.

This has proven to be blatantly false, as Black Lives Matter activists were involved in organizing and protesting shortly after reporting of the shooting. One Black Lives Matter activist indicated that it was important to respond because the issue has never really been about race, but about police accountability.

Former Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann added her own racially inflammatory commentary when she talked about the growing Somali population in Minnesota and characterized Mr. Noor as an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis” killing a “beautiful, 40-year-old Australian woman” for potentially cultural reasons. Ms. Bachmann’s shameful response underscores the current climate in the United States, where the election of Donald Trump has resulted in the open expression of prejudice and a coarsening of public discourse.

Perhaps the saddest commentary is that instead of focusing on the shooting for what it really is – a police officer’s error that resulted in the tragic loss of life – some have chosen to instead score political points and make this about race and religion. This shooting was not about race. This shooting was not about religion. The fact that this even needs to be said says more about the climate of racial tensions and Islamophobia in the United States than it does about the tragic events involving Mr. Noor and Justine Damond.

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