“Some victims are more protected and valued than others.” Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
I killed a bird on my way home from work today. I was driving down the long, winding road through the small community that intercepts home and work, eating my Wendy’s chicken nuggets when a bird flew out from the wooded area to my right, in front of me, and boomeranged back toward the woods, thudding against something underneath my truck before reaching its destination, and falling dead to the ground. I looked in my rearview mirror, popping another nugget into my mouth. “Poor bird.” I thought. At least I thought it was a bird. It could have been a really large butterfly, or perhaps a bat. I mourned the small, flying thing briefly and reflected, momentarily, on the “thud” it had made beneath my truck. I quickly dismissed the fear that something had shaken loose beneath my vehicle. The thud wasn’t big enough to do any real damage.
I remember killing a puppy on my way home from work about a year ago. It was just after nightfall, and I was cruising down the familiar road, mildly alert when, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a flash of brown and then a “THUD”. My heart sank to my stomach, and I swallowed hard to push down the bile that had risen in my throat as a response. Tears welled in my eyes. I had killed a puppy. I thought of the children who would be waiting for him to return. For the parents who would mourn him as one of their own. I shared the news with my husband and my own children. My oldest son, Just’us, a self-proclaimed animal lover, dropped his jaw at me in condemnation. I apologized to him. He didn’t even know the dog, but he grieved the loss, nevertheless.
When I got to school that following Monday, I confessed to all of my students what I had done. They shamed me and even mentioned a few of the dogs that had gone missing within the last few days. They began to describe them: “Was it a black dog? Like a Rottweiler?” one asked.
“No, it was that brown dog, with the long tail,” another said.
“Yes, I think that was the one,” I admitted.
The room gasped. Again, I apologized. I apologized over and over trying to appease the guilt.
On July 15, 2017, Justine Damond was shot dead by a Minneapolis police officer after calling ‘911’ to report a possible sexual assault. The Root**, an online magazine which concerns itself with exposing injustice and inequality, recently quoted Robert Bennett, the family’s attorney, as stating that Damond was “the most innocent victim” of a police shooting he had ever seen. Although Bennett claims that Damond’s innocence rests in the fact that she was the one who had called the police, it’s hard to ignore the most glaring difference between Damond and many of the other victims of excessive force whose deaths have made national headlines. Damond is a white woman. This is not all we know about her. After her death, we have learned that Damond was a yoga instructor, spiritual teacher, bride-to-be, and savior of ducks.
Her name has not been dragged through the mud. She has not been criminalized in the media. Her death has been reported the way that it should be– as senseless, and tragic, and as an example of a police officer doing the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong time. No one has hypothesized scenarios where Damond could have responded differently. No one has tried to blame her or say that she must have done something the cops told her not to do or didn’t do something the cops told her to do. She has not been transformed into a mere hashtag that people mindlessly share until the next sensation or tragedy. No controversial or salacious images of her have suspiciously emerged. Why? Because she was innocent. She did nothing wrong. Her life was taken from her for no good reason. Period. But what about Tamir Rice? Was he not innocently playing in the park with a toy? What about Philando Castile? Was he not in compliance with the law? Was he not following the orders of the officers? What about Aiyana Jones? Was she not sleeping innocently in her home on her sofa when the police shot her during a raid?
I must argue that what makes Damond innocent is not what she was doing when she was killed, but the sound her death made in the ears of America. Every thud does not sound the same. Sadly, there are some deaths that barely get our attention, like the bird or bat that I killed this afternoon, and others create in us a sense of shame and sorrow, like the puppy I mourned for days.
Although the circumstances surrounding both of those incidents were virtually the same, my emotional response to them was different. One elicited sympathy and regret, one did not. One spurred me to action, and one did not. One felt like a loss, and one did not. Because some deaths are just unfortunate, while others are unacceptable. Some thuds are louder than others. And until we as a country care as much for the birds as we do for the pups, the birds will continue to be just a speck in our rearview mirrors whose thuds barely make a sound.