Policing at its Worst

Painting by Anjanette Miller following the murder of George Floyd

Sadly, too much of the news last week was about the police brutality that lead to the death of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year old black man who was beaten by five black police officers in Memphis on January 7 and died three days later. In his article in The New York Times, Charles blow called it America’s Shame and wrote, “As the world reopened (after the pandemic), elections approached and crime and inflation rose in tandem, interest in police reform and protecting Black lives from police violence melted away like ice cubes on a summer sidewalk.

“And with it, America was taught some horrendous lessons that do more harm to the quest for equality than the protests did to promote it.”

My son who was visiting yesterday told me that perhaps my mistake was in paying attention to the news, and maybe he’s right. However, I’ve been a news junky most of my adult life, and the injustices in the world always hit me hard. I can’t help it. It just happens, and then I turn to words to process it all and try to make some kind of sense of it. If there is any sense of it.

I’ve written about racism and police brutality before on the blog, and like my posts about gun violence there seems to be a never ending loop of the same events and the same responses by those in authority. Responses today in Memphis by law enforcement and the general public are different. Accountability for the officers involved in the beating and peaceful protests by people.

I just hope it continues on that path.

The video of the horror Nichols had to endure at the hands of 5 Memphis police officers was released over the weekend, and I have not been able to watch it. But I did watch an interview with his mother, RowVaugh Wells, and my heart broke for her when she described her reaction to hearing that he’d called out for her at the last. “No mother should have to go through this,” she said. “I’m still trying to understand all of this and trying to wrap my head around all of this. It’s still like a nightmare right now.”

In that same interview on CNN, Tyre’s stepfather said he watched the whole video of the officers using a retractable metal stick to beat the young man. His wife couldn’t watch the video. Seeing her son’s mutilated body at the hospital had been traumatizing enough.

Here’s how Rodney Wells described the beating:

“I saw them pull that out and started beating my son with it,” he said. “I saw officers hitting on him, I saw officers kicking him. One officer kicked him like he was kicking a football, a couple of times.”

He says he was shocked to see that although there were approximately 10 officers on the scene, no one attempted to intervene or offer Nichols aid.

“Nobody tried to stop it, or even after they beat him and they propped him up against the car, no one rendered aid to him whatsoever,” he said. “They walked around, smoking cigarettes like it was all calm and like, you know, bragging about what happened.”

“He was sitting there, and then he slumped over. And an officer walked over to him and said, ‘sit back up mother——’ while he’s handcuffed. So, he had to – they prop him back up, and he slumped over again, and they prop him back up again, but no one was rendering aid,” he continued.

In a story on CNN by Alisha Ebrahimji, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis is quoted, “I heard him call out for his mother, for his mom. (referring to the video) Just the disregard for humanity … That’s what really pulls at your heartstrings and makes you wonder: Why was a sense of care and concern for this individual just absent from the situation by all who went to the scene?”

That’s a really good question.

It takes a great deal of courage to intervene in a mob, whether 5 people or 25, that is infused with blood lust.

In an article The Disproportionality of Bloodlust on Maine Wire, a writer who posts anonymously wrote: “The natural individual inclination toward sympathy tends to morph to bloodlust when a mob encircles someone. There are academic studies that highlight this tendency toward mob action and the abandonment of reason and rationality that it creates. So many studies, in fact, that there is an entire branch of psychology — crowd psychology — devoted to it.”

One of the things that contributes to the brutality toward others is that the victim is dehumanized. No name. No person, Just an object of hate and rage. That’s why in BLM marches and protests we hear people calling out the names of the people who have died: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice Trayvon Martin, and too many more.

“Say their name.”

Saying a name makes them human, and we need to see them as people, not a statistic or a news item.

In Brutal Season, the soon to be released fourth book in the Seasons Mystery series that deals with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, Angel challenges Sarah. (These are the two main characters, Dallas homicide detectives.)

 “This is funny to you?” Angel pointed toward the television and the continuing news report.

“Oh God! No! I share your anger about that shooting. And the one last year in Minneapolis—”

“Say his name.”


“Say his name.” More force in the words this time and fire in Angel’s eyes. “George Floyd.”

“Okay. Okay. George Floyd. I haven’t forgotten his name.”

Angel didn’t respond and the fire in her eyes could’ve cooked steaks. Sarah softened her tone and leaned in. “Listen. I can’t begin to understand what this has been like for you—”

“Damn right you can’t.” Angel’s voice came in a loud hiss. And Sarah held up one hand palm out.

That is so true for all of us on the other side of the color line.

Many times while writing this series that has at it’s core racial issues, I’ve questioned whether I, as a white woman, could ever write the black experience with any sort of accuracy and truth. By interviewing people of color, I’ve gained insight, but I don’t know how close I’ve come to truth. I know what discrimination is like. I experienced it in my childhood. But today, nobody has to know unless I tell them.

As Angel points out to Sarah in Open Season, she can never get away from discrimination. It’s always there, just because of the color of her skin.

That is true for other black residents of Memphis who have spoken out about times they have been harassed, threatened, and even injured at the hands of police officers for minor or even no infractions.

All because of the color of their skin.

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