The father of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, the Minneapolis woman fatally shot last month by a Minneapolis police officer, told a crowd of several hundred people at her public memorial gathering Friday evening that he feels “crushed by sorrow.”
“Justine should not have died,” said John Ruszczyk, who flew from his home in Australia for the evening gathering at the Lake Harriet Band Shell in Minneapolis. “This is wrong on every level.”
“From the cosmic — Justine was exploring our spiritual nature and teaching loving compassion — we need that kind of person … to the mundane — Justine was killed by a bullet fired by an agent of the state,” he said. “I don’t understand. I should have been on a plane to her wedding, but we were flying to her funeral. This is our first visit to Minneapolis. We should be walking arm-in-arm down the streets smiling and laughing. And now each step on the footpath is so very painful.”
Damond, a 40-year-old spiritual healer and meditation teacher originally from Australia, was killed July 15 by officer Mohamed Noor after she called police to report an apparent assault outside the south Minneapolis home she shared with her fiancé, Don Damond. The two met five years ago at a meditation retreat in Colorado five years ago, and were to be married next week in Hawaii.
Her shooting sent shock waves through her neighborhood and sparked a number of protests. In its aftermath, Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned amid renewed debates about body camera policy and a grief that some say felt all too familiar in city still grappling with previous officer-involved shootings.
But the ongoing investigation and details from that July night slipped from view at Friday’s gathering, which focused on healing and unity.
It began with the ceremonial burning of sage, which was passed through the crowd of about 400 people as a symbol of peace and healing. Many in the crowd wore blue, Damond’s signature color.
In addition to speeches, the gathering featured flute and didgeridoo music, a maypole dance, a solemn chant of “om” and a reading of a George Saunders poem.
“We seek justice for Justine,” her father said. “We are determined to get justice for Justine, because in getting justice for her, we will be getting justice for all of us.”
He said his daughter left a legacy of love and hope for her family.
“Before [we] left Sydney, we visited a good friend who spoke of many things, and of Justine’s journey,” he said. “One statement stuck with me more than the others. He said, ‘John, nothing is ever lost.’ I thought about that, and tried to understand its meaning.
“In May of this year, Justine and I sat at the kitchen table talking. I said, ‘I love you. I miss you.’ She said, ‘I love you, Dad.’ That love was real and present. Then she flew back to Minneapolis. We spoke on the phone and [again] I said, ‘I love you’ and she said, ‘I love you too, Dad.’
“Now she is gone,” he continued. “I still can say, ‘I love you, Justine.’ And that love is real. … I now understand nothing is ever lost. I am reminded by Justine’s death that love is not bulletproof. We must work hard to protect the people we love.
Don also spoke to those gathered. “The night of July 15, Justine went into that back alley, back lane, because she wanted to help somebody in need,” he said. “… She was led by her heart. Although within five minutes of going out there, we know what happened.”
“I can’t accept that the love stopped nor that it ever stops,” he said. “I know it won’t. I feel it. We all feel it. Look at the turnout — this is about love and care. … I want her example of how she lived to allow us to be inspired to becoming greater people.”
He read excerpts from Justine’s journal that spoke of her visions and dreams for her life.
Earlier, Don and other family members hugged person after person who approached them to express condolences.
They included John Thompson, a close friend of Philando Castile, who like Damond was shot to death by a Twin Cities police officer.
“It is important for me to be here to gain more solidarity,” Thompson said. “Because, it is going to happen again.”
Longtime activist Mel Reeves, a regular at metro protests focused on racial injustice, was also present. “She should still be here,” he said of Damond after the event.
Gov. Mark Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, and a representative from the Australian consulate were also in attendance.
A ‘lovely person’
Tears flowed freely at the gathering, especially when speakers referred to the dashed dreams around Don and Justine’s wedding plans.
“I still can’t wrap my head around it,” said Julie Kemna-Edner of Damond’s death. Kemna-Edner was working at a table where prayer flags were to be distributed for people to write messages on,
Steve Sklar, who played the keyboard during Johnna Morrow’s performance on the didgeridoo, an Australian musical instrument, said Damond “was a bright, energetic, lovely person.”
“It’s been an awful, shocking thing for everybody,” he said of her death. “This kind of thing [police shootings] happens way too often.”
Habtamu Badaso, who works with Don Damond, was solemn as he examined the colorful photo boards set up by family and friends. “My heart is broken for him,” he said of Don.
Jeannine Hall, of Seattle, and Eve Evidon, Edina, friends of Damond and her family, came because, Evidon said, when there’s a tragedy, “you come together [with community] — that’s what you do.”
A seeker of mysteries
Lake Harriet, which formed a serene backdrop to Friday’s event, had special meaning to the engaged couple, Don Damond told the Star Tribune in a recent interview. The pair often walked there. It was the last spot they took a picture together.
“It felt the most appropriate place that would represent who she is — open, beautiful, joyous,” he said in an interview.
Still, it was not the waterfront the Damonds had most envisioned together. The two had planned to exchange wedding vows on a beach in Kona, Hawaii, next week.
Damond’s relatives and friends also held a private service earlier this week at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, where she regularly led meditation.
At the close of Friday’s gathering, people picked up luminaries and quietly carried them out onto the path around Lake Harriet. Many said they feel inspired to carry forward the lessons that Damond taught in life — and in death.
Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor and neuroscientist who inspired Damond’s work, had expressed the feelings of many of them when he said in his eulogy that “she was a leader and a true exemplar in the way she lived her life, uncovering the mysteries along the way.
The best way to honor her going forward, he said, to live “our lives in joy.”
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