Death by Cop: Black and White Issues

Front pages of Australian newspapers featuring the story of the fatal shooting of Australian Justine Damond in Minneapolis by a police officer. (Kristen Gelineau / AP)

By Glen Ford / Black Agenda Report

Although little is known about the circumstances of her fatal encounter with Minneapolis police, Justine Damond’s death is worldwide news, a “tragedy” that sparked protests from Minnesota to her native Australia. The 40-year-old yoga and meditation teacher set the process of her demise in motion by calling the cops, at about 11:30 on a Saturday night, when she heard what she believed was a sexual assault in progress outside the home she shared with her fiancé in a “quiet” neighborhood dotted with shops and cafes. Damond was standing in an alley outside her house, wearing pajamas, when a young Somali-born officer shot her in the abdomen, reportedly after hearing a loud noise.

Damond had come to the United States seeking “a new life,” according to friends. She is near-universally presumed to be innocent — which is almost certainly true, although the assumption is based almost entirely on her race and class. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges quickly announced she was “heartsick and deeply disturbed” by the shooting.

On June 18, at about ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, 30-year-old Charleena Lyles also made a fatal call to the police. The Black mother of four, who was three-months pregnant, reported a possible burglary at her apartment in northeast Seattle. When the cops arrived, they claimed Lyles began talking about the burglary, but then suddenly lunged at them with a knife, yelling “You ready? Motherf—s.” The officers are required to carry nonlethal weapons, but chose to subdue her with bullets rather pepper spray or tasers. According to family members, Ms. Lyles had been struggling with mental health issues, but was not violent.

Ms. Lyles was also innocent, especially since the police were aware of her mental health problems. But she did not benefit from a presumption of innocence, nor was she treated as a person in need of help — because she was Black and poor. She was deemed a pathology, to be snuffed out.

Both women were killed by cops, but the two deaths are quite different, in political and historical terms. Charleena Lyles is one of the millions of victims of the mass Black incarceration regime — a U.S. government policy imposed two generations ago that is designed to terrorize and contain Black men, women and children through the full force of the State. Justine Damond’s death is the incidental, collateral damage that sometimes flows from that policy. Lyles’ death was premeditated, the result of calculated policy; Damond’s demise was a mistake, immediately depicted as such by the media and lamented by the mayor.

Charleena Lyles is one of five Black women killed by U.S. police so far this year, according to the body count kept by The Washington Post. At least two of them were pregnant. The African American Policy Forum’s “Say Her Name” campaign reports that, although Black women and girls make up only 13 percent of the U.S. female population, they account for 33 percent of all women killed by police. In raw numbers, white women outnumber Black women by five to one, but police kill nearly as many Black females as they do white females.

U.S. police kill more Black women every year than the total of all civilians killed annually by their counterparts in western Europe’s largest countries: the U.K., France, and Germany. These sisters’ male relatives and loved ones are slaughtered on an epic scale — with the connivance and consent of most of the Congressional Black Caucus, 80 percent of whose members voted to continue the militarization of local police when the issue came up for a vote on the full House floor in June of 2014.

Florida Congressman Alan Grayson’s bill would have halted the Pentagon’s infamous 1033 program, which transfers military weapons, equipment and training to local police departments. However, four out of five Black congresspersons either voted against ending the program (27 votes) or abstained (5 votes), which had the same result. Only eight members of the Black Caucus opted to end the Pentagon transfers, which increased 24-fold during Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House.

Voted to Continue Arms Transfers (27)

Karen Bass (Calif.)

Joyce Beatty (Ohio)

Sanford Bishop (Ga.)

Corrine Brown (Fla.)

G.K. Butterfield (N.C.)

Andre Carson (Ind.)

Yvette Clarke (N.Y.)

William “Lacy” Clay (Mo.)

Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.)

James Clyburn (S.C.)

Elijah Cummings (Md.)

Davis, Danny (Ill.)

Chaka Fattah (Pa.)

Al Green (Texas)

Alcee Hastings (Fla.)

Steven Horsford (Nev.)

Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas)

Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.)

Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas)

Robin Kelly (Ill.)

Gregory Meeks (N.Y.)

Gwen Moore (Wis.)

Donald Payne (N.J.)

David Scott (Ga.)

Terri Sewell (Ala.)

Marc Veasey (Texas)

Frederica Wilson (Fla.)

Abstained (5)

Marcia Fudge (Ohio)

Charles Rangel (N.Y.)

Cedric Richmond (La.)

Bobby Rush (Ill.)

Benny Thompson (Miss.)

Voted to Halt Arms Transfers (8)

John Conyers (Mich.)

Donna Edwards (Md.)

Keith Ellison (Minn.)

Hank Johnson (Ga.)

Barbara Lee (Calif.)

John Lewis (Ga.)

Robert Scott (Va.)

Maxine Waters (Ca.)

When the names of the dead are sounded (“Charleena Lyles … Rekia Boyd … Eleanor Bumpers…”), mourners and motivators should also say the names, and loudly curse, those Black politicians that have colluded in arming and encouraging the cops that killed them (“Rep. Bass … Rep. Butterfield … Rep. Beatty…”).

Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at

Glen Ford / Black Agenda Report

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