As I mentioned in my last post, I was out all day Friday and didn’t see the body cam videos of the murder of Tyre Nichols until almost midnight. At least I was spared the media’s countdown clock, which turned the brutal beating of an innocent young man into some kind of dystopian gameshow. Charles Blow referred to the choice as, “a damning indictment of American perversion.” Yes.
What is wrong with us?
These cases of police brutality against Black Americans occur with such frequency that we can recognize the same pattern of responses that are used to deflect blame from the officers, shift it onto the victim, and also to change the subject. We hear that:
1. The victim didn’t comply.
2. The response was provoked or the officer/s were in fear of their lives.
3. Those who committed the violence were “bad apples.”
4. This problem has nothing to do with systemic racism.
We don’t yet know why Mr. Nichols was pulled over but—unless you can tell me there’s a traffic crime an unarmed man can commit while alone in his car that deserves the punishment of death without benefit of indictment and trial—it doesn’t matter.
We do know that Mr. Nichols was violently dragged from his car and immediately surrounded by five screaming police officers, some of whom had their weapons drawn. Why didn’t Tyre Nichols just do what he was told? Well, what exactly was he told? According to a New York Times report, over the course of thirteen minutes the five police officers shouted 71 commands—many of them overlapping and contradictory. Nichols tried to do as he was told and then, terrified, half blind with pepper spray, and realizing the futility of it, ran at the first opportunity. When the officers caught up with him, there was literally nothing he could have done to stop the vicious beating that would eventually end his life.
This was so blatant, the officers’ conduct so egregious, the beating so brutal and unprovoked that surely the murder of Tyre Nichols will be enough to force the issue of reform? We thought the same thing after the horrific beating of Rodney King in 1991, the first to be caught on video, was made public. Apparently, we needed more—more proof that the violence of the police could not be justified by the behavior of the victim; more proof that the problem isn’t a few unfit individuals but a deeply corrupt institution rooted in white supremacy that is working exactly as intended; more proof that white privilege poisons everything and makes it possible for even the best-intentioned white person to hide behind ignorance.
The eight-minute-and-forty-five-second-long video of the murder of George Floyd should have moved the needle. But no. Instead, we marvel at the similarities across atrocities and go on to have the same conversation. Politicians neglect to tackle practical issues about training, diversity, and qualified immunity. The last, a legal principle that, thanks to its application, has, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, led to "disturbing trends" allowing police officers to use excessive force with impunity. It is "sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing."
Calls to defund the police made perfect sense in the context of even the most basic, incremental reforms—like ending the practice of cops making traffic stops, disbanding local, hyper-aggressive, heavily-armed units, like the SCORPION [Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods] unit in Memphis—failing to be enacted.
Instead of doing the hard work, politicians decried the slogan without giving any meaningful thought to why some Americans had come to the conclusion that defunding the police was the only solution to an entrenched problem. Cowardly Democrats ran away from the conversation, worried more that the slogan was going to have a negative electoral impact than the fact that Black Americans keep getting murdered by police officers.
Conor Friedsdorf, in an Atlantic article called “Public Outrage Hasn’t Improved Policing” (the outrage is the problem apparently?) posits that it is the Black Lives Matter movement’s approach to police violence that has failed. The great Sherrilyn Ifill’s brilliant take-down of his thesis (which would be embarrassing if it weren’t so cruel) is a must-read:
I suggest that what Friedersdorf sees as failure, is instead his own inability to recognize the power and resilience of white supremacy, and its hold on the institution of American law enforcement. Those of us in this work have long explained the systematic and cultural hard-wiring of racism in policing, while so many leaders in the white community have insisted that it is only “bad apples.” We explained that so deeply-imbedded is the culture of white supremacy in policing that even Black police officers can participate in brutality against Black victims, because they too are responding to the messages of white supremacy in their profession that promotes and rewards officers who know whose lives matter and whose don’t.
White supremacy is wily in its ability to shift the focus away from itself, often enlisting the very people it so effectively oppresses, as was the case with the killers of Tyre Nichols. To blame the oppressed for their oppression is a tired perversity.
Of course, the worst examples of abusive treatment of Blacks at the hands of whites have been happening since the first ship made the journey through the Middle Passage. After the tragically short post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, when torturing and killing Black people were no longer legal, this country made a choice to undermine the very cause for which that war had been fought. It took only twelve years for Reconstruction to run its course, as if in that short span of time a still deeply divided country could unite after over two and a half centuries of hate and prejudice and reimagine the culture, institutions, and lies that perpetuated them. While Northern Republicans deferred to the prerogative of white men, including Southern traitors, newly-freed Black Southerners were blamed for their poverty, their illiteracy, and their lack of representation even as whites withheld the means by which they could procure wealth, education, and political power.
The commitment to racial hierarchy was too deeply entrenched and, for many whites, even anti-slavery Northerners, psychologically necessary. As the Equal Justice Initiative points out, “‘Freeing’ the nation’s masses of enslaved Black people without undertaking the work to deconstruct the false narrative of white supremacy doomed those freed people and generations of their descendants to a fate of second-class citizenship.” Or worse.
The line from slavery through Jim Crow to the overlapping crises of mass incarceration of Black men and the epidemic of police murders of innocent Black men, women, and children remains unbroken—a line largely unacknowledged by those who have the luxury of pretending that such injustices don’t have any impact on their lives.
The story of America is deliberately told in a way that preserves the color divide. In Florida, Ron DeSantis is doing his level best to erase Blackness completely. The path to the Civil Rights Act, like much of the fight for Black equality, was fraught with crimes of violence, untold violations of rights, loss of property and opportunity, and a vanishingly small amount of accountability. American ingenuity is never more ingenious than when finding new ways to promote white supremacy. The narrative promoted about the American civil rights movement—simple, linear, the heroes obvious —stands in stark contrast to the almost nonexistent narrative about the legions of white men and women, private citizens, law enforcement officials, and legislators, who used any means at their disposal—from the Senate filibuster and threats of intimidation to the most vicious acts of violence and domestic terrorism—to impede the progress of the fight for civil rights. It is as if civil rights activists were combating a system entirely devoid of actors, other than a few public figures like George Wallace, Bull Connor, and David Duke, rather than the majority of the white population. It is a whitewashed story for easy (white) consumption that, more than anything else, is designed to make white people feel good about themselves. It avoids having to tell the often-brutal history by carefully selecting its heroes, downplaying the racist tactics, and eliding the role white citizens played during Jim Crow.
The forces, unequal but opposite, keep pushing against each other and there continues to be an interaction between the unhealed wounds of the past and wounds inflicted daily on Black Americans in every sphere and circumstance of social and civic life.
In his article “The White Space,” the sociologist Elijah Anderson writes, “White people typically avoid black space, but black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.” Black people in America never forget this; white people never have to think about it. Our racism is often thoughtless so, as our children grow up, they come to inhabit (and benefit from) the same system. In the end, they become just as culpable as the we, and the people before us. The cycle continues. It is a passive experience, until it’s not. The more we exercise our privilege, the easier it gets to cross that line between doing so unconsciously and doing so because we feel entitled to it. It is so easy to get used to the luxury of forgetting and the luxury of never having to know.
As a result, we have an identity that is limited to that unearned power and privilege. We live in a fearful, controlling, and often violent society of our own making, and unless we take the necessary steps, we’ll remain trapped by it. White Americans worry that by acknowledging the atrocities of the past, the guilt of the actual perpetrators will somehow attach to us. Meanwhile it is the failure to acknowledge those atrocities that makes us complicit.
We can’t keep moving on without first digging in our heels and demanding what’s right, even if it hurts. Nothing will change in an America that values whiteness above everything else if we, those of us who can, refuse to make a different choice. This is what happens when we come to believe that a few murders, no matter how brutal, no matter how inevitable, are a price worth paying as long as white people don’t have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
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I grew up in housing projects and they were at first segregated, in SF of all places, then when I was about 10, we they were integrated, and we move to Potrero Hill. Way before that the schools were already integrated. I went to school with all colors of children, and it didn't bother any of us kids. It is true, racism, bigotry is taught. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home, with a Southern father in SF, who would not tolerate racism. 1961 I join the military and was station in the South and I saw what my father told me I would see: 'Whites Only', 'Colored' and you could feel the tension in the air. Although I knew about, I was floored. I was equally floor when I felt that same tension when my partner and I drove around the U. S., and we both felt it in the South, it was a terrible feeling in 1993. It is up to every one of us to rid our country of racism and bigotry. no one is born with the two hates, we are taught them.
But gun violence, police violence is another story, at least I think it is, at least in part. Chief Justice Warren Burger said it best, and I am paraphrasing, the misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment is a fraud committed on the people. We do not have the right to bear arms. This is an easy fix, but we and our elected officials have to have the will and also stop telling the same fraudulent lie. So, maybe we start by banning the manufacturing of firearms in our country. Then we have to have the will to ban mail order sale of firearms to citizens. Then we confiscate what is out there, that should not be too hard, because most of us don't own a firearm. When you unarmed citizens; the police no longer have an excuse to 'fear for their life', 'I thought he had a gun', you eliminate police officers' excuses and then we can demilitarize the police, and once again look like 'normal' police officers on the beat. OK, maybe that all would be hard, it would certainly take a lot of planning, cooperation, and tact. I don't know the answers, but I do know there was a time, when I grew up, that the police did not look like military police, you never saw a gun. And you know what you didn't hear of mass shooting every day.
Your writing is heartbreakingly powerful and true. Thank you for living the pain that it must take to write it.