What Tyre Nichols, Rodney King tell us about race, policing

Lora Dene King had no intention of watching Memphis police beat up Tire Nichols for five minutes.

“Honestly, I have to take care of my mental state,” she told me. “It’s a lot for me to process.”

Like many of us, she had heard warnings that the roughly hour-long video released Friday would be far more violent, far more brutal and far more savage than the grainy footage of Los Angeles cops beating up her father, Rodney King 1991

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis suspected it was “about the same, if not worse.”

And Ed Obayashi, a Northern California sheriff’s deputy and use of force expert, concluded it was “much worse,” telling The Times, “In all my years of use of force cases, I’ve never seen it happen.” [seen] one where they hold him up to hit him.”

But on Friday, King went into Leimert Park anyway and forced himself to watch video of five police officers dragging Nichols out of his car and then punching, kicking, grabbing, pepper-spraying and attempting to hit the defenseless 29-year-old black man to hit tasers. And then laugh about it.

Her mouth regularly dropped in shock, and King reflected on what has and hasn’t changed in policing over the decades — including the delusions far too many Americans seem to share about how change actually happens.

Note: Black police officers are no longer being hired.

“The only difference between being with my dad for 30+ years and now is that now we have hashtags, clear videos and phones,” she told me.

King was just 7 years old when her father was stopped and beaten a few feet from his car by four white Los Angeles police officers in the San Fernando Valley.

As they took turns beating him with their batons, lit by the lights of a police car, more than a dozen other LAPD and other agency officers gathered in a loose circle to watch. Later, no officer at the scene made a formal report of the misconduct. They even joked about it.

Back then there were no body worn cameras on smartphones with high resolution cameras with instant access to social media. A stranger with a camcorder using audio cassette tapes brought the gruesome scene out of the darkness.

It was so cruel and so callous, a majority of non-black Americans looked at the footage and saw racism, pure and simple, nothing more, nothing less. And so many of these people thought — and many mayors and councilmen agreed — that if we just diversified the ranks of police departments, that would solve the problem of police brutality in communities of color.

But it was never that pure or that simple.

As numerous researchers have told my Times colleague Jaweed Kaleem, diversity is not a panacea.

“Studies show that black officers are just as brutal, and sometimes even more brutal, against black bodies than their white counterparts,” said Duane Loynes Sr., an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, who studies the relationship between black communities and police. “If a system is problematic, it doesn’t matter who you plug into it. You get the same result.”

Of course, this is nothing new for black people, let alone Lora King.

“I know my father’s situation,” she said of King, who died in 2012. “And [some of] the bystanders were African American cops doing nothing.”

That’s why when Black Lives Matter activists take to the streets to demand justice for an act of police brutality, the race of the officers involved is almost never mentioned, it’s so irrelevant.

And yet, nearly 32 years after Rodney King’s caning, many still seem confused and shocked that Nichols was beaten by five black cops in a city where more than half the police force is black and most residents are black .

Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith were all members of the Memphis Police Department’s Aggressive Violent Crime Unit “SCORPION.” They have since been released, arrested, charged and released on bail.

Her deadly encounter with Nichols began like so many do — with a traffic stop.

“You’re going to blow your ass,” an officer yells at Nichols, who is sitting in his car. Then an officer pulls him from the driver’s seat with guns pointed at him.

“I didn’t do anything,” says Nichols. “Alright, I’m down.”

A few minutes later, an officer tells Nichols, “Look out, I’m going to crush you with the baton!” Then another officer punches him in the face. Others hold him up while more punches are thrown.

“All right, all right,” Nichols groans, trying desperately to follow orders.

During the beating, he yells for his mother, who was at home not far away. Towards the end of the recording, officers can be heard laughing and joking as Nichols collapses while leaning against a car.

“Hey, sit up bro,” an officer says to Nichols, who was on the floor in pain at the time. “Sit up man.”

I wouldn’t advise anyone to watch the video, not even the clips, but if you do you’ll see what looks more like someone being jumped on in an alley outside a pub than cops trying to arrest someone.

That all five found it convenient to carry out such mindless atrocities while not only wearing body cameras, but doing so under a pole-mounted police surveillance camera is indicative of a toxic police culture. A “groupthink,” as Chief Davis called it, that’s bigger than “bad apples.”

Sure, it’s utterly disappointing that none of them looked at Nichols and saw a reflection of their own blackness — and a recognition of the brutality so many black people have endured over the decades at the hands of people with a badge and a gun.

“They brought shame on their own families,” Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, told CNN on Friday. “They have brought shame to the black community.”

You have also betrayed the civil rights activists who have been fighting to protect black lives for more decades than I have lived.

Rev. Al Sharpton, who has also drawn comparisons between Nichols and King, acknowledged that “the fact that these officers are black makes it even more egregious for us in the civil rights movement.” But “these officers should not be allowed to hide their actions behind their blackness. We are against all police brutality – not just white police brutality.”

And at its core, police brutality is about systemic racism, not the racism of individual officers. It is about enforcing a system of power built on white supremacy and implemented by over-policing low-income black communities like an occupying power.

Anyone, even black cops, can be a tool of this system because anyone can be a tool of white supremacy.

So, no, diversifying police departments isn’t going to help. What will help are new laws that fundamentally change the way police departments operate, whether it requires more active monitoring of officers’ mental health or somehow changes their role in conducting traffic stops. We need to specifically prohibit and punish behaviors that need to stop.

“Whatever we do, it’s not working,” King told me. “It doesn’t work because we’re still in the same place and going into the infinity sign. So the whole thing has to be rebuilt.”

Nichols, who died days after his beating, swollen and bleeding from a ventilator, in a Memphis hospital, had lived in Sacramento until a few years ago. He leaves behind a 4-year-old son.

Like Rodney King’s daughter, his son will one day have to understand a system of policing and power that the majority of Americans do not want to change meaningfully for the benefit of it — even if it continues to destroy black lives in some way or a other.

“It’s sad that we have to compare this at all. It’s sad that it’s even happening,” King said, trying to find the right words. “It makes no sense. I can never understand. It’s disgusting.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-28/tyre-nichols-rodney-king-race-memphis-police-beating-reform What Tyre Nichols, Rodney King tell us about race, policing

Alley Einstein

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