It was not the waterfront he had envisioned.
In place of his daughter’s wedding on a Hawaiian beach, John Ruszczyk found himself eulogizing Justine Ruszczyk Damond, fatally shot last month by a Minneapolis police officer, at her Lake Harriet memorial service Friday, saying he felt “crushed by sorrow.”
“Justine should not have died,” said John, who flew from his home in Australia for the evening gathering in Minneapolis. “This is wrong on every level.”
Ruszczyk said it was his first visit to the Twin Cities.
“We should be walking arm-in-arm down the streets smiling and laughing,” he told hundreds of people gathered at the Lake Harriet Band Shell. “Justine was killed by a bullet fired by an agent of the state.
“We seek justice for Justine,” he said. “We are determined to get justice for Justine, because in getting justice for her, we will be getting justice for all of us.”
Damond, a 40-year-old spiritual healer and meditation teacher from Australia, had moved to Minnesota to be with her fiancé, Don Damond. The two met five years ago at a meditation retreat in Colorado and were to be married next week in Kona, Hawaii.
“Some would call it a cruel irony,” Don Damond said during the service. “The irony isn’t really lost on any of us I don’t think.”
Damond’s July 15 shooting sent shock waves through her Minneapolis 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 a 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 heady scent of sage during a ceremonial burning. The bundles of sage were passed through the crowd of about 400 people as a symbol of peace and healing.
Many wore blue, Damond’s signature color.
The gathering also featured flute and didgeridoo (an Australian instrument) music, an artistic performance involving a maypole and a poetry reading. Mourners signed mahogany boards with messages like “Her light shines forever” and “Lost but never forgotten.” Picture displays captured family vacations and childhood images of Damond wearing pigtails and thick red glasses.
Under the band shell, flowers bordered a large portrait of Damond, with three stuffed Muppet figures propped nearby — an ode to Damond’s love for the quirky characters.
John Ruszczyk said his daughter left a legacy of love and hope for her family.
“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.”
‘Led by her heart’
Don Damond also addressed the crowd, reading excerpts from his fiancee’s journal and reflecting on the night her life ended.
“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.”
“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.”
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 Justine was shot to death by a 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-area protests focused on racial injustice, was also present. “She should still be here,” he said of Justine 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, 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 Justine’s death. Kemna-Edner was working at a table where prayer flags were being distributed for people to write messages on.
Steve Sklar, who played the didgeridoo with Johnna Morrow, said Justine “was a bright, energetic, lovely person.”
It’s been an awful, shocking thing for everybody,” said Sklar, who had also been giving Justine didgeridoo lessons before 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 Don’s, 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.
Justine’s relatives and friends also held a private service this week at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, where she regularly led meditation.
During Friday’s gathering, many said they feel inspired to carry forward the lessons that Justine taught in life — and in death.
Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor and neuroscientist who informed her 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, is to live “our lives in joy.”
At the close of the service, people wended around lake walking paths in silent reflection, luminarias lighting their way through the night.