Hundreds of people gathered Friday evening to remember the life of Justine Damond, filling the rows of benches at the Lake Harriet Bandshell and spilling onto the grass beyond.
For Damond’s friends and family, some traveling to the service from her native Australia, it was a surreal detour from plans set months earlier. They expected that night to be onboard their flights to Hawaii, where Damond was to marry her Minneapolis fiancé, Don, in less than a week’s time.
Instead, they were sharing their memories of Damond, who was killed by police July 15 after calling 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her Fulton neighborhood home. Damond approached the police vehicle when it entered an alley near 51st & Washburn and was shot by one of the two responding officers.
“Justine should not have died,” her father, John Ruszczyk, said. “This is wrong at every level.”
It was the first visit to Minneapolis for Ruszczyk, who runs a bookstore in the southeast Australian coastal city of Sydney. He thanked her neighbors “for the outpouring of love and support which has engulfed us.”
Ruszczyk, who seemed to be fighting back tears as he spoke, said his daughter had been killed “by an agent of the state.”
“I feel crushed by sorrow,” he said, adding that his family was “determined to get justice for Justine.”
The service began with a smudging ceremony inspired by Native American spiritual practices. More than a dozen people moved through the crowd holding bound sticks of burning sage, and attendees were invited to waft the smoke over themselves in a ritual cleansing.
As the sweet-smelling smoke drifted over the crowd, so did the droning music of the didgeridoo, performed by two musicians on the bandshell stage. The wind instrument, a long, hollow wooden tube, was developed by Australia’s indigenous people.
A video that circulated widely online in the weeks after Damond’s death played on two monitors on the bandshell stage partway through the service. It showed Damond climbing into a storm sewer near her home to rescue eight ducklings that had fallen inside. She reunited them with their mother, and neighbors filmed the duck and ducklings safely reaching the water.
“She came home that night and she said, ‘I just reached utopia,’” Don Damond recalled.
He said it was that same desire to help that drove his fiancée to call 911 on the night she died.
“She wanted to help somebody in need,” he said. “She went there and she was led by her heart.”
The service included a maypole dance and ended with everyone in the crowd rising to chant “om” together three times, a recognition of the yoga and meditation practices that were an integral part of Damond’s life. Scores of people, including her family members, then joined in a silent walk around Lake Harriet that began just after sunset. The pedestrian path was lit by glowing luminaria.
Interspersed in the crowd were many people who came to know Damond during her time in Minneapolis.
Johana Sand of Eagan said she met Damond several times through their mutual involvement in the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community. Their social circles overlapped enough that they had friends in common in Ecuador, where Sand lives part of the year.
“I really felt she was an enchanting person,” Sand said. “A light. You know, radiant.”
She said they shared an interest in the teachings of Joe Dispenza, who spoke at the memorial service, and concepts like breatharianism. Sitting on a blanket in the grass at the back of the memorial audience with her husband reclining next to her, Sand said her spirituality was guiding her in the wake of Damond’s “beyond horrific” death.
“You have to see a bigger picture, and I think that’s what Justine’s life was about,” she said.
Before the service began, Sam Simmons walked through the crowd handing out stickers printed with the image of a heart outlined in blue. At the request of the family, most of those who attended also wore blue clothing, but Simmons’ yellow T-shirt marked her as a member of the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community. When asked to describe Damond, Simmons, too, used the word “radiant,” adding that she saw in her friend a “childlike wonder.”
“She was just a thoroughly good person and a thoroughly good laugh,” said Simmons, who is from England and shared with Damond the experience of being an expat in Minneapolis.
The two met through the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community when Simmons signed up for one of Damond’s workshops. Damond’s absence still did not feel quite real to Simmons, but she said the many lives Damond touched would be “her legacy.”
“I haven’t made sense of it, but I’ve made peace with it,” she said of Damond’s death. “I don’t think it will ever make sense, but there’s no point in hanging onto anger.”
Among the maypole dancers who helped to close the ceremony was Maria Turnblöm of Roseville, who described herself as a close friend of Don Damond’s mother. Turnblöm said she first met Justine shortly after she arrived in the U.S., and recalled an early conversation about astrology, cosmology, neuroscience and other topics in which the two shared a keen interest.
Turnblöm got the news of Damond’s death in an email from the Minnesota chapter of the Association for Global New Thought. Justine had begun using Don Damond’s last name, but Turnblöm still knew her as Justine Ruszczyk. It took a moment, but the news sunk in.
“How many Justines are there in the world?” she said.
Damond’s death drew international news coverage and intensified scrutiny of police conduct and accountability in Minneapolis. Turnblöm said she’d been struck by a photo she’d seen in the newspaper of Don Damond embraced by Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by police in St. Anthony during a traffic stop last summer.
Castile’s death had inspired Turnblöm to join a small racial justice group in Roseville. While Damond’s death was personal to her, she said she also recognized its larger significance in a national debate on policing.
“It really puts it in our faces,” she said, adding that many people could “distance” themselves from concerns over police violence when the victims did not look like them.
“I hope there will be less of that now,” she said.