Politics of Poverty

Say his name: Tyre Nichols

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memphis march
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr traveled to Memphis to support the sanitation workers who were striking for humane treatment. In 2023, Tyre Johnson was beaten to death by the Memphis police. Photo: Copyright by Richard L Copley with permission

As we stand full of pain and outrage, we remember that the US has a long history of dehumanizing people in order to justify exploitation and abuse.

For as long as I can remember I have been an early morning riser. My day usually begins around 4:30am. I enjoy this time of day because it’s quiet, and allows me to listen to the birds outside my window, collect my thoughts, and then listen to the news on the radio.

Late last week, during my morning ritual, I turned on the radio and immediately heard the announcer read: “City leaders in Memphis are calling for calm today as police officials prepare to release the footage of a brutal beating of a black motorist by Memphis police during a traffic stop. The man, Tyre Nichols, died three days later from his injuries. Nichols's family and local activists demanded the release of the video amid calls for justice for Tyre…”

I immediately thought, “Damn, here we go again.” I refrained from watching the video for a couple of days, because I wasn’t sure I really needed to see it. Over the next few days days, commentators used adjectives such as “heinous,” “savage,” and “horrific.” When I finally saw the video, I could only shake my head.

While watching the video, I recalled the beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police officers some 30 years ago. King’s case was supposed to be the seminal incident that finally forced LAPD and the nation to confront its bleak history of violent police encounters with Black and brown residents. Much to my chagrin, this failed to happen, and the world watched as parts of Los Angeles burned to the ground after the acquittal of King’s abusers.

In subsequent years, the list of victims’ names from police shootings and beatings only grew. Among them: Abner Louima, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake--the list goes on. The names now are too numerous to count, as are the grieving families who must endure long after the media spectacle has subsided.

In many of these incidents, police departments go on the public relations offensive by releasing disparaging information about the victims in an attempt to substantiate their version of events. This tactic is designed to delegitimize the victims’ humanity and cast doubt on a counter narrative in the court of public opinion. In years past, this tactic was successful in nullifying the need for an official investigation.

Sadly, this principle is taken straight from the pages of racism 101. Here, the underlying strategy is to dehumanize the subject to validate unlawful and sub-human treatment. This course was subscribed to by the Nazis towards Jews; it was subscribed by the US Congress in passing the Chinese Exclusion Act; it was subscribed by the US government in slaughtering indigenous Native Americans for the nation’s westward expansion; and of course, it was subscribed by the western imperialists who created the Atlantic slave trade.

Once de-humanization has been instilled, its evil twin, impunity, moves in with devastating consequences. The fact that the five Memphis police officers believed they could beat a lone man senseless suggests a lack of fear of accountability. If they believe prosecutors will fail to bring charges, and the police union will defend bad behavior, then why should they show restraint?

We in the US pride ourselves on being a nation of laws--yet the families of victims are left to hold press conferences and pray for the day when they may receive truth and justice.

The biggest obstacle to enacting police and public safety reform is indifference. I am not hopeful that the current leadership Majority in the House of Representatives could pass a sensible and comprehensive reform package. Even under more optimal conditions, the nation’s appetite to force such a move is not strong. This means that reform remains a state and local issue before some 2,500 policy jurisdictions nationwide. Yes, this is indeed a task.

Nonetheless, all is never lost. It is time for us to reimagine policing. We have to examine where reform has taken us and ask if it is far enough. It is also important to understand the history of policing and be open to honest public discourse that makes room for the diversity of experiences with policing.

We can start by demanding the prosecution of police officers who abuse their power. This includes calls for a fair, open, and thorough investigation of alleged violations, while families are properly informed throughout the investigative process. Tremendous care must be taken to instill trust with impacted communities.

Communities and activists have already made significant headway in this direction. Also, I am heartened by the large, diverse crowds that mushroom up across the country calling for meaningful police accountability, reform, and an end to racism and antisemitism. The younger generation appears ready to assume the challenge and push for change. The infusion of new energy, organizing techniques, and technology ensures the movement for social justice is fit to march on.

I decided to write this piece because I wanted to share my reflections and resolve that change is going to come. I encourage others to do the same. Through commitment and courage, we can have a positive impact.

While writing this piece, I constantly thought about the iconic NAACP anti-lynching placard, “I AM A MAN” Yes, indeed I am!

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