by Robert C. Koehler
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
February 2, 2023
America, America … God kicks thee in the head.
The twisted irony here — the irony of the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee last month — is that his killers were the ones hired and trained to keep the city safe. Instead, they created half an hour of hell for the young man, kicking and beating and tasing him to death a short distance away from his mother’s house, after a random, and perhaps unjustified, traffic stop.
One of the last words he uttered, as recorded on a pole-mounted police surveillance video of the incident, was a desperate cry: “Mom-m-m-m-m!”
Should we outlaw hell? Or maybe at least defund it?
My words of outrage right now are hardly the first such words expressed over the murder of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, a beloved man, father of a 4-year-old son, aspiring photographer — and victim of the phenomenon of police violence in a community of color, where the role of law enforcement isn’t so much protector as occupying army. And the primary role of an occupying army is to protect itself, not the occupied territory.
Here‘s what we need to defund: the nation’s us-vs.-them mentality, which accomplishes virtually nothing except the maintenance of a status quo of fear. And the death of Tyre Nichols — hardly the first such incident, hardly the last — is simply one more manifestation of the country’s flawed social infrastructure.
The five officers who were the initial perpetrators of Nichols’ gang-beating were members of a Memphis special police unit, now disbanded, called SCORPION, an ironic acronym (you might say) for: Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The unit’s mission wasn’t to issue traffic tickets, but to confront serious matters: gangs, drugs, etc. They were, indeed, at war with a perceived enemy, and the point of traffic stops was to find possible gangbangers and such. The five have been arrested and charged with, among other things, second-degree murder.
As David Kirkpatrick, writing for the New Yorker, explained:
“Convinced that they risk their life each time they stop such a driver, many officers approach each encounter prepared for a life-or-death struggle. Few may be as hyperaggressive as the officers who killed Nichols, but their fear and belligerence can still evoke a reciprocal urge in a driver to talk back or flee, sparking a deadly cycle.”
Kirkpatrick’s article also makes this telling point: Embedded in what he calls the “folklore” of American policing is the belief that an officer with a “warrior mindset” is safer than Officer Friendly. Friendliness, not to mention empathy, are forms of weakness, and a display of weakness can kill you. Thus, the cycle of violence is destined to continue — until there is a consciousness shift, both within and beyond American police departments. Is it possible?
Let’s be clear. Such a shift in awareness, followed by a change in attitude and procedures at the American street level, would not be simple, though perhaps it may, to a certain extent, seem that way.
For instance, a former New York City police officer, quoted by CNN, in response to the video of Nichols’ killing, noted: “It’s clearly excessive force. What’s even more troubling is, no officer was willing to intervene and say, ‘Stop.’”
The larger context, beyond those words, is that order and safety are not us-vs.-them in nature, and therefore official maintenance of public safety cannot and must not be limited to dominance, force and (when “necessary”) violence. What about a two-way relationship — respect and empathy that flow in both directions? What about …?
Warning. The following question — perhaps the largest question of all — is seldom addressed in a public context and is virtually taboo politically: What about disarming the police and completely rethinking the nature of public safety?
Time Magazine, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, did address this issue, noting that 19 countries worldwide have primarily unarmed police departments, and share this common thread: “officers will police by consent rather than with the threat of force.” The article, by Mélissa Godin, focuses primarily on Norway, but notes that there can’t be a simple, one-to-one comparison between Norway and the U.S., which is far more beset with the social turmoil created by such issues as poverty, gun prevalence and historic racism.
Nonetheless, there are things the U.S. can (must) learn, given that, in 2020 a total of 1,090 people were killed by police here, compared to zero in Norway (and in 2022, the U.S. total of police killings was 1,183).
Perhaps the primary difference between policing in the two countries, according to the article, is training. In Norway, the training process is a truly big deal: “Norwegian student officers must complete a three-year bachelor’s degree,” Godwin writes, “where they spend one year studying society and ethics, another shadowing officers, and a final year focusing on investigations and completing a thesis.” In contrast, she points out, average officer training in the U.S. is 21 weeks, “modelled on military bootcamps.”
She also notes that police officers in Norway and other Scandinavian countries work “in tandem with medical professionals, particularly psychiatric specialists that accompany officers when dealing with people who are exhibiting signs of mental illness.”
You mean it turns out that policing is complex — that boot camp isn’t enough? Perhaps the takeaway here is this: What if we envisioned policing not as the maintenance of order at the barrel of a gun (or the toe of a boot, the tip of a baton) but, rather, as something like social psychology — medical work at the social level? She quotes an Icelandic sociology professor at one point, who says he thinks the greatest skill a police officer can have is (are you ready?) … “critical reflection.”
In contrast, here’s a quote from one of the officers in the midst of the Tyre Nichols killing, caught on surveillance video: “Bitch, put your (hands) behind your back before I break them.”
What if we weren’t at war with so many enemies, including ourselves?
Robert C. Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound. His website is Common Wonders.
by Leslie Gregory, PA-C
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
February 2, 2023
When Tyre Nichols woke up the morning of the last day of his life, I feel certain that he wasn’t thinking about racism or the chance that it might be his end, though he’d likely had “the talk” from his parents at an early age. He’d pushed it back, seeking peace and joy in a life he shared with friends, family, and his community. To do otherwise would create a constant state of fear, precluding any quality of life, the ability to just get through it all and grow up.
I feel this as a Black mother.
Nor did the officers who committed those heinous acts consider that their role in the depravity would be met with much swifter repercussions than their white brothers in blue. To do otherwise would have precluded doing their jobs, having any quality of life, or the ability to just get through and support their families.
After all, denial is a coping mechanism known too well by people caught in the history of hate that citizenship in America entails. So, we view each devastating incident as its own individual hell. Rinse and repeat. In a few weeks, Tyre Nichols will go the way of Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Rodney King, ad nauseam.
The problem is the approach of looking at each victim, each perpetrator in vacuums of misery. Using a trauma-informed frame, we ask, “who benefits and who’s burdened?” and must take into account the broader picture of sustained racism under “Investigation” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of 2021.
To study is important. But when does an issue become a crisis requiring serious remedial action? When does a crisis become an emergency? Whose responsibility is it to finally take the kind of clinical action required in the face of mounting evidence and repeated violence?
Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of CDC, has recently written about how to fix that institution, stating it needs to be more nimble and less siloed, but when I wrote to him in 2015, some eight years ago when he was in a position with power to do something about this, asking that he declare racism a public health crisis, he forwarded it to the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity from which a Black woman refused to move on it, stating in essence, “Here’s what we’re doing instead,” and was actually irritated with me during a subsequent interview by phone.
Like the Black officers who murdered Tyre, this person clearly suffered from Internalized Oppression, a legacy of our American history of racism that is older than the US itself, a history that begins with slavery and needs a deep healing to eventually repair.
These issues are related when viewed in a clinical context. Racism has overtaken this country’s narrative but that’s where it ends. As committees, counties, commissions, and communities around the country begin to recognize the public health crisis of racism, the declarations are largely performative.
In Oregon, it’s taken three years of Zoom calls with public and private leadership; I have served in a steering role as a Black clinician to create a campaign, and finally, through team effort, we’ve seen the passage of House Bill 4052 making the declaration here in Oregon, resulting in a $1.275mil budget.
The process has been agonizingly slow and now the funding is under threat of being returned if it’s not spent in three months, though it took three years to get it approved. Had we health care professionals known from the beginning that a laborious bureaucratic process would present further technical barriers, with the lives lost and impacted in the meantime, perhaps we could have met all such unknown requirements, but we have employees of the health system on the task force who simply were unaware and overmatched.
Across the country, we who work toward racial equity, toward an end to oppression of any origin, toward the simple yet elusive goal of human equity in all our social relationships, are so hurt when our uncompleted work is revealed in heinous acts as we saw in Memphis. We beg our officials to see this, to prioritize this, and to join with us as we struggle to finally fix the sharp pain of racism in all its manifestations–including Black police killing our own in the predictable yet preventable perversion of internalized oppression.
America seems to have a fascination with Black culture, a fear of Black bodies, and a disregard for Black lives. This bizarre confluence of phenomena further advances mental health challenges to all Americans in the setting of our national identity as pluralistic and equitable.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that we have data to suggest evidence-based changes that can make a difference. From the American Psychological Association to Life Sciences, multiple strategies have been offered with little action taken by high level agencies. This includes the previous mandate for CDC to study the impacts of gun violence when that funding was withdrawn. Our national obsession with firearms is another aspect of disproportionate violence to be addressed.
When we take all appropriate measures, abide by the rules, and use every sanctioned method to create change using everything from nonviolent protests to voter registration drives, to petitions and speeches, board meetings and volunteering for years toward legislation and still face gaslighting, bait-switching and various methods of obfuscation, can we really claim ignorance and surprise when we again experience heartbreaking violence?
Leslie Gregory is a PA-C focusing on Preventive Cardiology and is Executive Director, Right to Health. Previously published on PeaceVoice on Feb. 1, 2023.
From the archives:
Lee Camp and Alex Vitale: Should We Abolish Police?
Cop City Is The Future They Want, Unwavering Resistance Must Be Our Answer, by Kenn Orphan
Chris Hedges and Boyah J. Farah: America Made Me a Black Man
The Racists Return to Kindergarten, by Robert C. Koehler
PSL Editorial: Democrats Deepen Embrace of the Cops with Police Funding Bills
Police Are a Lie, by David Swanson
Geo Maher: A World Without Police + Nonviolence and Restorative Justice (Must-see)
Abolishing Police and Abolishing Militaries, by David Swanson
Pingback: Lee Camp: How To Stop 99% of the Police State – Dandelion Salad
Pingback: Lee Camp and Alex Vitale: Should We Abolish Police? – Dandelion Salad
Violence is ingrained in the US psyche.
Those who experience enough Love in their lives can disassociate from the prevalence of violence.