Black Memphis police spark dialogue on systemic racism in the U.S.
MEMPHIS — For the mother of Tyre Nichols, the fact that five Memphis police officers charged with beating her son are also Black has compounded her sorrow as she tries to cope with his violent death at age 29.
“It makes it even harder to swallow,” RowVaughn Wells said in an interview last week, “because they are Black and they know what we have to go through.”
The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has prompted a complex grappling among Black activists and advocates for police reform about the pervasiveness of institutional racism in policing. Nichols died three days after he was pulled out of his car Jan. 7, kicked, punched and struck with a baton on a quiet neighborhood street by Black officers, whose aggressive assault was captured on body-camera videos released Friday.
The widely viewed videos of the Nichols beating provided fodder for right-wing media ecosystems that routinely blame Black America’s maladies on Black America, and spawned nuanced conversations among Black activists about how systemic racism can manifest in the actions of non-White people.
The Memphis Police Department, which has nearly 2,000 officers, is 58 percent Black, the result of a decades-long effort to field a police force that resembles the city’s 64 percent Black population. Unlike in several recent high-profile police brutality cases, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who is Black, and other officials acted swiftly in firing, arresting and charging the Memphis officers in advance of the release of video footage.
Though some studies have shown that police officers of color use force less frequently against Black civilians than their White counterparts, analysts say the improvement is marginal.
“Diversifying law enforcement is certainly not going to solve this problem,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, president of Mapping Police Violence.
He pointed to many factors in the policing system that lead to a disproportionate response against people of color: directives to work in neighborhoods where more people of color live and a system that relies on the discretion of the officer to enforce things like traffic stops, opening the door for internal biases to play a role.
Conversations on Fox News over the weekend were less academic.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” guest Jason Whitlock, a conservative sports culture blogger who is Black, blamed “young Black men and their inability to treat each other in a humane way,” as muted footage of the Memphis officers beating Nichols played side-by-side.
“It looked like gang violence to me. It looked like what young Black men do when they’re supervised by a single, Black woman,” Whitlock said, referring to Davis, the Memphis police chief, who is married.
Focus on the individual officers in the aftermath of police killing and not the institution the officer belongs to perpetuates the belief that policing’s problems are the result of a few bad apples — a narrative embraced by police, said Jeanelle Austin, who runs the George Floyd Global Memorial in Minnesota.
“This is what I fear: What’s going to happen in Memphis is what happened to Minneapolis — is that when Derek Chauvin and the other [three] officers were charged, the narrative turned from an issue of the police department to an individual issue,” Austin said. “That was a PR strategy.”
“What we’ve been screaming from our lungs for years is that the system and the culture of policing trains people’s minds regardless of the color of their skin to behave a certain way,” she said.
Systemic racism can be more difficult for the general public to grasp than explicitly visible White-on-Black crimes, said Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School who studies policing and civil rights.
“We’d like to think in the binary — the good guys and the bad guys,” he said. “It’s far easier to consume the story in an uncomplicated way seeing a White officer shoot 14 shots at a young Black boy laying on the ground,” he added, referencing the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.
From the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 through those in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, activists have long sought to reform policing. But the lack of centralization between local, state and federal police entities, along with failures in congressional action, has not resulted in widespread changes.
More than two weeks after Nichols was killed after being pulled over for what police said was reckless driving, Ayanna Robinson drove 6 1/2 hours from Indianapolis to Memphis to join demonstrations she thought would include thousands of protesters angered by his recorded beating by officers. She arrived to find dozens, not thousands, of protesters and they seemed calm.
Robinson, 28, a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, said the turnout was nothing like what she saw in Memphis after Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020. In a way, the city seemed too peaceful after the Nichols killing, she said.
“In order to get a reaction, there has to be a reaction, and right now there’s no type of action,” she said, looking around a park where 100 protesters gathered Friday evening.
Robinson said one of the major reasons she thought many people seemed more subdued in response to the Nichols death was that the five officers charged in beating him are Black. If the officers had been White, “All hell would have broken loose. The city would have been in war.”
Nikki Owens felt a similar frustration in the aftermath of the death of her cousin, William Green, who was shot to death while handcuffed by a Black officer in Prince George’s County, Md., in January 2020.
“In America we’re taught that racism is black and white,” said Owens, who now works with the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability. “And we are not taught about institutional or systemic racism, even though we see it everywhere. We are taught that if a Black person kills another Black person, it can’t be racist. It’s ‘Black-on-Black crime.’”
Owens said that attitude contributed to her struggles to inspire activism among area residents and in getting national and local media coverage of her cousin’s killing.
“There wasn’t the outrage,” she said. “Even when George Floyd passed away, nobody reached out to us.”
Owens said she felt as if the world viewed her cousin’s death as somehow different than other police killings. The officer’s criminal trial begins this year.
“When I was out in the community and I would talk to people, I could see their reaction when I told them the officer was Black,” she said. “And some people would ask what color the officer was, which is another indication of that lack of understanding.”
Some protesters said that while the racism isn’t explicit, Nichols’s death could be a moment for the nation to understand the way pervasive, institutional racism functions, and how it can compromise individuals.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator, civil rights attorney and CNN contributor, said the Nichols beating made him recall the Black Minneapolis police officer, J. Alexander Kueng, who knelt on Floyd’s back as Derek Chauvin suffocated him.
“He talked about how he thought he could make a difference in policing,” Sellers said of Kueng. “And then like three days after his hiring, he’s there watching George Floyd being brutalized and doing nothing about it.
“For many Black folks, the race of a cop is cop.”
Jason Sole, a community organizer in Minneapolis and former head of the local NAACP, said he’s never felt a sense of relief when encountering Black officers.
“I never had that feeling of ‘Oh great, it’s a Black cop, yay.’ No. I was born in ’78 and I never had that feeling, not once,” Sole said. “All your skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”
Regardless of color, Sole said, “we need people who are loving, people who are showing we care, people who understand that grace has to be shown to everybody.”
Foster-Frau reported from Washington."
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