Don Damond sat under a hulking white maple tree in his backyard, 4 miles from where less than two weeks ago a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
A cardinal trilled cheerfully. Dusk began to fall, and the mosquitoes descended in force.
The days since Floyd’s death have been disorienting for Damond. In one way, he feels a sort of spiritual connection to the Floyd family.
It was less than three years ago that Damond’s fiancée, Justine Ruszczyk Damond, was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in southwest Minneapolis.
The past couple weeks have made his fiancée’s killing fresh again: “I just find myself crying, and I haven’t cried in a while.”
Damond knows that Floyd’s family’s pain will not subside in the coming months as the judicial process runs its course.
The situation will only get worse. That’s what Valerie Castile — the mother of Philando Castile, shot and killed by a Twin Cities police officer in 2016 — told Damond after his fiancée’s death.
Damond plans to reach out to the Floyd family and offer his sympathies as well as his empathy of having experienced a loved one killed by a Minneapolis cop.
It’s a club no one should have to be a member of.
He gets how the two deaths are different. Ruszczyk Damond was a white woman; Floyd was a black man. Mohamed Noor, believed to be the only officer in Minnesota history convicted of murder for an on-duty killing, was a black Somali-American.
Derek Chauvin, the fired officer charged with murder in Floyd’s death, is white.
One was a freak occurrence; the other symbolized centuries of American racial history.
Damond’s fiancée’s death was an in-the-moment reflex by Noor: If only the police officer had taken a breath before firing his gun, Damond thinks.
Floyd’s death appeared to be about Chauvin exerting control and domination: He didn’t want to let Floyd breathe, Damond thinks.
When Damond watched the video of Floyd’s death, he focused on Chauvin’s face.
“I just watched him,” Damond said. “What’s going on in his face? Is it fear? No. There’s no fear. It’s like a sociopathic killer. There’s no remorse, no guilt, no anger. There’s nothing.
“It’s like he could be sitting there drinking a beer with his buddies. The look on his face was, ‘I’m just going to snuff this guy and not even bat an eye.’ ”
There are two things at the heart of the nationwide protests after Floyd’s death.
One is about police departments becoming too militarized, too “us-versus-them.” That, and they often have bad hiring policies, shoddy policing and poor training.
“To me we’re so united in solidarity around excessive use of force, and the reckless and inappropriate use of force, that left us losing a loved one needlessly and tragically,” Damond said.
In that way, George Floyd and Justine Ruszczyk Damond are intertwined symbols of a police culture that’s lost its way, and of police officers who aren’t given the emotional tools to deal with a difficult job.
This part of the story is about how police departments must focus more on training, on changing use-of-force guidelines, on officers treating citizens with more humanity.
But the other thing driving nationwide protests — the reality of life as an African-American in 21st-century America — is something Damond understands he will never know.
In another way, though, Damond feels Justine has been invisible during local and national protests after Floyd’s death.
Last Sunday morning, six days after Floyd’s death, Damond visited the memorial outside Cup Foods. Nobody noticed him.
He was in awe of the sheer number of flowers. He looked at the mural of George Floyd on the wall, and he was overcome by loneliness.
“SAY OUR NAMES,” the mural reads, above a portrait of Floyd. There was Castile’s name. There were also the names of Jamar Clark, killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2015, and Eric Garner, killed by a New York police officer in 2014, and Tamir Rice, killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014, and more.
His fiancée’s name was not on the mural.
“I’ve suffered the same loss — the same loss, at the hands of the same police department — tragic, reckless use of force,” Damond said. “I get it. It is so complicated, and I get it.
Damond fears what is to come for the Floyd family. He knows the police officers’ defense attorneys will “try and tear down the victim” to sow seeds of doubt.
“They’ve already started,” Damond said: Reports that Floyd had COVID-19, that he had recently taken fentanyl and meth, that he had a violent felony conviction 13 years ago.
He thought of what Valerie Castile told him after his fiancée’s death: “It’s going to be a long haul, honey.”
On Friday morning, while Damond was at work, his mother went to the memorial set up at the scene of Floyd’s death. She spoke with protesters who were painting on the street the names of people killed by police officers.
The man running the project promised to paint Justine’s name on the street, too.