This week we saw what racist policing looks like in all its ugly detail. The video of Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols is a harrowing reminder that young black men are not safe on the streets of America. Yes, there are gangs, there is drug-related danger, there are the random acts of violence that we all are vulnerable to, but for this specific segment of our population, the police remain a clear and present danger.
One might object to my calling what happened to Nichols “racist policing.” After all, the five officers who inflicted the deadly beating were all black. How then can they be called racist? But racism is not the same thing as prejudice, though they often walk hand-in-hand. Racism has to do with power relationships; how do those in power treat racial groups with less power? How do governments and other power brokers design systems so that they retain their power over these less powerful populations? In the Jim Crow years, power was maintained through segregation, voting restrictions, and the terroristic threat of lynching. Today, power is maintained by use of mass incarceration, the renewal of voting restrictions, and punitive policing. And racist policing, as counterintuitive as it may seem, does not depend on all officers belonging to the dominant racial group.
The problem, it seems, is not the racial makeup of police departments but rather the organizational culture that predominates within those departments. Police culture seems to promote the idea that young black men are dangerous by default, and must be controlled through surveillance and force. Special crime units patrol minority neighborhoods and use ever more sophisticated military-grade weaponry (supplied by the federal government) to enforce control over black and brown people.
In Tyre Nichols’s case, we didn’t see that kind of weaponry, but we did see something else that is important in police culture (and American culture generally), and that is an emphasis on violence and retaliation. Nichols may have been guilty of reckless driving, but his real offense was running from the police. An officer who was present when Nichols ran, but who was not involved in the beating, apparently said, “I hope they stomp the **** out of him.”
He got his wish.
When it came down to it, it didn’t matter whether the offending officers were white or black or green. They were blue, and they followed the racist code of the “thin blue line.” A few years ago a sociologist whose name I cannot immediately recall coined a new word to describe the way the broader culture (and the police) view African American males: criminalblackman. If he’s black, the burden of proof falls on him to prove he is not a criminal. We’re finding out now that Tyre Nichols was not. He was a son, a brother, a father, a skateboarder, and an artistic photographer. He may have made a mistake by driving recklessly and an error in judgment by (understandably) running away from the cops, but he was not a criminalblackman. Unfortunately, that truth came out too late, and now he has joined the ranks of that other classification: murderedblackman.
I don’t know the solution, but I know where we might start. Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is hoping to revive the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which died in the Senate a couple of years ago. The bill would, among other things, end the militarization of local and state police, ban certain types of choke holds, increase the use of body and dash cameras, and ban no-knock warrants. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a step in the right direction. I believe we should support reform legislation of this kind, and, on a personal level, continue to root out racism and its ugly effects in our own homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and minds.
And churches. I hope you will join me in committing Community UCC to being a fully anti-racist church. And I hope we can continue the conversation about what that means and how we can make it happen.
Grace and peace,