Value stories equally, or face injustice

Crafting politicized narratives by prioritizing specific voices over others can’t lead us to the truth.

Alia Jeraj

Last Wednesday Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that his office will not bring charges against police officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze — the men responsible for the death of Jamar Clark last November.
 
 
When I initially pitched my idea for this column, I wanted to write about the lack of complexity in the many online debates and discussions surrounding this event, examining the broader societal contexts in which the officers killed Clark. Specifically, I wanted to write about the relative lack of conversation about gendered violence and domestic abuse, focusing on how they fit into both Clark’s case and larger systems of racism.
 
 
However, RayAnn Hayes — the alleged victim of Clark’s abuse — released a statement disputing any claims that she and Clark were in a relationship or that there was any abuse between them.
 
 
“No dispute. No domestic. None of that,” Hayes said. 
 
 
This leads me to wonder where the claims about an abusive relationship between Clark and Hayes originated. Moreover, why did we believe them? 
 
 
As MPR’s Bob Collins asks, “How do we know what we think we know?” Whose words do we listen to? Whose stories do we prioritize? And perhaps most importantly, whose narratives do we ignore?
 
 
Since Clark’s death, we’ve grappled with various conflicting accounts of the night’s events. It seems these discrepancies played a large part in Freeman’s decision not to charge the officers. 
 
 
One of the most important disputes surrounded whether Clark was handcuffed when the officers shot him. Of the 30 people interviewed after the incident, 10 police officers and paramedics, plus two civilians, said he was not. Twelve civilians were certain he was. The other six weren’t sure. 
 
 
What interests me about this breakdown is the equal number of people who were certain Clark was handcuffed and those who were certain he wasn’t. What’s even more interesting is to look at the types of people who made each of those statements and whose stories Freeman’s decision validated. 
 
 
Freeman ignored Hayes’ assertion that she was not Clark’s girlfriend and that her injuries were not the result of abuse, favoring a narrative that negatively cast Clark as an abusive partner. In doing so, he also ignored the claims of civilians who saw Clark handcuffed in favor of officers and paramedics who did not.
 
 
Both these choices construct a narrative of events by prioritizing certain voices over others. Specifically, they hold the accounts of white, male professional figures over those of women, people of color and non-professionals.
 
 
I cannot speak about what happened on the night of Clark’s death. But there are many who can, and to understand what happened, we need to listen equally to all of their 
accounts.
 
 
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].