Time to Police the Police
(Also read: A Traffic Stop by Trinity Psychology Associate Professor Dr. Stacey-Ann Baugh)
Hideous. Grotesque. Obscene.
Do we have enough words in the language to describe what we have seen on the video of the Memphis police beating of Tyre Nichols?
Do we have enough outrage left to be stunned by the utter depravity of the sight of police officers kicking, punching, tasing, hitting with a baton, screaming impossible commands, piling on and abusing this young Black man whose only offense seems to be Driving While Black?
Is there enough whitewash in all of Memphis to hide the lies in the follow-up police report?
Once more, to our utter shame and penetrating sorrow as a nation, we stand aghast at the level of inhumane, cruel, murderous misconduct perpetrated by people supposedly sworn to uphold the law against a person who should be alive this minute and enjoying a Sunday afternoon watching football games with his family. Instead, his body lies at the morgue as his family prepares for his funeral.
The fact that the police officers responsible for the deadly beating are all Black adds to the shame and sorrow, but in no way mitigates the crime — if anything, the race of the perpetrators magnifies the crime many times over, exposing the harsh and malignant reality of what policing has become in this nation. The metamorphosis shaped through and with systemic racism has occurred over the years as police departments have become more militarized, as the ideological and social crevasses in our nation have widened. The police instinct to exercise enforcement powers in harsh, brutal, even sadistic ways surmounts race, ethnic and gender identities; brute power crushes all training, ethics and even common sense.
For the African American population in this nation, the change did not happen recently — policing has always been a brutal, cruel and inhumane reality of life for too many Black Americans. How many Black men have lain on the streets before Tyre Nichols, their lives draining away under the knees of rogue cops or beaten or shot when handcuffs would have been more than enough, if necessary at all. The video of Tyre’s last hours of consciousness expose the hypocrisy of the police action: he was not armed, he was surrounded by 5-6-7 police officers all big burly men who surely could have taken him into custody peacefully. Pulled from the car and brutalized immediately, he ran to try to save his life — and he paid dearly for trying to find safety.
Where do you find safety when the police are the perps?
Certainly, not all police officers are brutal, and our cities and communities need effective police presence for safety. I am not among those who chant “defund the police” because that seems utterly naive and unlikely to achieve greater security.
However, I am wholly in favor of finding an entirely new way to educate and manage police forces. The question, “Who will police the police?” is as old as Plato and demands forthright examination anew. We need to get police training to back away from SWAT team bravado and focus on effective interventions, dispute resolution, and methods of apprehending suspects that are not violent or provocative. Yes, there are times when the SWAT team is essential — but every encounter with suspects should not devolve into a murderous made-for-TV shootout.
Most of all, we need the police, the politicians, the media and the citizens of this nation to confront the murderous racism and lurking cells of white supremacy that have ruined the lives of too many Black persons and debilitated our society.
What happened to Tyre Nichols, and Keenan Anderson, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, and too many others is evidence of a sick, murderous society that has abandoned its foundational principle of justice for all.
What happened to Tyre Nichols and so many others is, sadly and shamefully, the logical outcome of a society whose political choices have moved from merely confounding to grossly immoral. The rise of the authoritarian state is well nigh, and its high priests are wreaking havoc on the foundations of our freedom and ability to live together in the most diverse society in human history. Consider Florida with an out-of-control governor imposing appalling restrictions on teaching Black History (the topic of my next blog), and Texas and Virginia and other states whose political leadership wages war against librarians and teachers who teach the truth about American history. Consider the failed former president whose vile rhetoric spawned a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and still he runs again and the media can’t wait to replay his every vicious lie. He pits citizen against citizen, speaking of all who disagree in the most degrading ways, spewing lies and basking in the adulation of his “base” while media delight that the klieg lights are back on the whole disgusting show.
No institution of higher education can sit back and say, well, glad that’s not us! In truth, if the nation’s colleges and universities do not stand up for justice and truth, who will? This is not about membership in one party or another, or being liberal or conservative, all legitimate choices. This is about the moral center of our society, the kind of nation we aspire to be, the quality of our lives together in communities. Too many of my brother and sister college presidents say we should have nothing to say about any of this, that we should be “above politics” and let the problems of our times sort themselves out. To them I say, find a spine! If we who are privileged to have great educations, and privileged to lead institutions whose mission statements all recite nice words about justice and building good societies — if we don’t confront the evils of racism and white supremacy and police brutality, who will?
Let’s start by proclaiming anew that Black Lives Matter! Let’s use our considerable stages and pulpits to raise up the demand for police and political accountability, for new ways of training and shaping the mindset of law enforcement. Let’s also do more — MORE — to open the doors of our academies wider to the children and families of color in our cities who can benefit so much from greater educational advancement. Let’s use our considerable university resources to hammer out solutions rather than sitting back and washing our hands of the gravest political and social challenges of our lives.