The grinding persistence of America's police problem
You will not believe the video that was released Friday night showing Memphis police officers beating — ultimately to death — a young Black man.
I don’t really mean that, of course. If you live in the U.S., and participate in society, you likely have no difficulty believing that a gang of violent police officers fatally pummeled Tyre Nichols in what the city’s police chief accurately described as a “heinous” attack. Indeed, if you have an internet connection or a television, you have probably seen similar videos of police officers killing Black men, and women too, in other American cities. By choking, for example. Or shooting in the back. You may have seen videos of police not killing Black men — merely assaulting them while they are prone or otherwise defenseless.
Occasionally, videos surface of police killing or beating a white man. Statistically, those attacks are less common. But they’re just as real. Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot more than 1,000 people per year in the U.S., according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. That's nearly three deaths per day.
America has a police problem. And its police problem is rooted in (though not exclusive to) its race problem, which is a problem, in turn, rooted so deep in our national character that it was written into the Constitution. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t arrested and thrown in jail by the Ku Klux Klan. Police did that. John Lewis was not beaten bloody in Selma by the Proud Boys of 20th century Alabama. The attackers were men wearing badges, wielding clubs, earning paychecks from the public treasury.
Things have changed. Except in all the ways that they haven’t. Philando Castile wasn’t shot to death by drug dealers. It was the police, again.
Black Lives Matter is a statement of aspiration, not of fact. That remains the crux of the problem. Many troubles of American policing, including the militarization of forces, flow from that reality, which is a continuing source of national unease.
That all five of the violent police officers in Memphis are Black had no bearing on the deadly outcome. Yet it’s nonetheless politically significant. It provides an opportunity for a more vigorous national discussion, one slightly less hobbled by the inevitable brandishing of claims of white racial innocence. It wasn’t white cops this time. But it was the same familiar system, yielding a familiar result.
Washington has proved a poor source of remedies. Meanwhile, the cities and towns where highly publicized police killings have taken place seem unable to grapple with the sprawling causes and consequences. We don’t see many regional congressional hearings anymore. But perhaps it’s time for Congress — or at least those elements of Congress that are willing and capable — to hold hearings in Memphis and other cities mired in police violence. In the role of a judge riding circuit, political leaders need to listen to cries for justice, and report what they hear to the nation.
In his remarkable book “Freedom’s Dominion,” Jefferson Cowie notes, “Historians have long recognized the oppressive tensions that gave birth to American freedom but have rarely addressed the grinding persistence of the problem.” Yet that grinding persistence is getting harder to ignore, which is why the forces of reaction are frantically banning the teaching of history and literature and anything else that threatens to make the friction louder, more visible and more difficult to pretend away.
Memphis is in many ways an apt place to begin the latest round of questions about why America can’t — won’t — get out of its own glorious way. The city is poor and broken. It is also a place of unparalleled verve that has heaped riches, real and cultural, upon America and the world. The city, a former cotton exchange, stands at the intersection of Elvis and B.B. King, Sun and Stax; it changed the world in ways that still reverberate. Its siren song was so vibrant and acute that Václav Havel credited it with piercing the dull brutality of communist Eastern Europe.
Memphis is also the city where Dr. King, arguably the most majestic American of the 20th century, was shot dead. It’s a city of bold beginnings and dread endings. Maybe we can start there, and work our way, north and south, east and west, toward freedom.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.