After five Black Memphis police officers were fired and charged with murder in the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, William Jones, a 48-year-old Black man, told NBC News that, when he was a teenager in Memphis, the police routinely used violence to break up their pickup football games. “And a lot of times,” he said, “it was the Black officers who beat us worse than white officers.” When he heard the identity of the officers charged in Nichols’ murder, Jones said he “was not surprised at all.”
If it doesn’t surprise us that a gang of officers would beat a Black man to death, then it shouldn’t surprise us that the gang of officers who did so were Black.
Nor should we be. Police are trained the same way no matter their race. They are judged by the same standards no matter their race. They typically have a union to defend any lawless behavior they engage in, no matter their race. And no matter their race, they belong to an increasingly militarized profession that engages the American public like enemy combatants.
If it doesn’t surprise us that a gang of officers would beat a Black man to death, then it shouldn’t surprise us that the gang of officers who did so were Black. We give police an awesome amount of power and discretion. And we make it near impossible to hold them personally liable for any constitutional violations they unleash while in uniform. There’s nothing about being Black that stops a person given such power from running roughshod over someone he judges to be without power. And it’s a safe assumption that a random Black man pulled over in a city as Black and poor as Memphis has little power.
Granted, this is not what Black people hoped would happen when police forces were integrated. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said when he eulogized Nichols Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while he fought for Black city workers in Memphis (in that case, Black men in the city's sanitation department.) "There is nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us who worked to open doors," Sharpton said as he rhetorically addressed Nichols' accused murderers, "that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight to get you through them doors!"
Sharpton added: “You didn’t get on the police department by yourself...People had to march and go to jail, and some lost their lives to open the doors for you, and how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing!”
In addition to patrol officers, we were also hoping that having Black people running departments would make a difference, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Cerelyn Davis, the police chief in Memphis, has come under fire for creating the Scorpion unit (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) that appears to have falsely accused Nichols of reckless driving to justify its officers pulling him over. You shouldn’t name a police unit Scorpion and not expect it to inflict the kind of damage on people we saw those officers inflict on Nichols.
Davis also ran the Red Dog squad, whose officers the Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob correctly described as “dirty Red Dogs” in 1995, 16 whole years before it was finally disbanded. Speaking of the Red Dog squad, an Atlanta defense attorney said, “They were traditionally a unit that did what it wanted to do and found a way to justify it afterward.”
After Nichols was mercilessly beaten, footage captures Scorpion officers trying to justify their brutality.
After Nichols was mercilessly beaten, footage captures Scorpion officers trying to justify their brutality. A police report attempts to do the same, according to The New York Times. But the written claims — that Nichols started fighting them and reached for one of the officer's guns — aren't supported by video evidence.
Maq Claxton, of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, told Reid on Monday night’s program, “It is unprecedented, as far as I can tell, that you would have the victim be Black, and that’s common, but the multiple perpetrator officers are Black, and the police chief, the commander of the police forces, is Black.”
It’s not unprecedented, though. Baltimore had a Black police chief, Anthony Batts, in 2015, when police officers there (Black officers among them) took Freddie Gray, who was Black, on a “rough ride” that left him with a fatally severed spine. New Orleans had a Black police chief in 2005 when a Black police officer kicked and stomped a Black man to death. And the same Black chief was in place later that year when officers (two of them Black) unleashed a blood bath on innocent Black people stranded in the city after Hurricane Katrina. When that chief was fired and another Black man from the department was elevated to take his place, the successor showed no interest in investigating any officers linked to that slaughter.
Whether it’s Peter Liang, the Chinese-American police officer convicted of manslaughter in the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn housing project, or Jeronimo Yanez, the Hispanic police officer acquitted in the 2016 shooting death of motorist Philando Castile in Minnesota, or the Black and Hmong-American officers on the scene as George Floyd was killed, we’ve seen a disturbing rainbow coalition of police officers involved in killing innocent Black people.
The police committing crimes against Black people and often going unpunished was a main reason the phrase “Black lives matter” caught on the way it did. But soon enough police apologists reacted with “Blue lives matter,” which made a mockery of a civil rights issue.
We’ve seen a disturbing rainbow coalition of police officers involved in killing innocent Black people.
Those of us who called out the racist, reactionary phrase and fumed at the retrograde legislation it spawned were quick to point out that the law already assigns extra value to police officers’ lives and that, more significantly, blue is not a race.
Even so, for those who belong to racial groups that are relatively powerless, the blue uniform grants them a power to dominate others that they wouldn’t otherwise have. So what if it’s a power that can generally only be used against others from relatively powerless groups?
There’s a reason you so rarely hear of Black police giving Tyre Nichols-type treatment to white people. It’s generally not white people Black officers are expected to police.