Waking to news about a governor canceling the teaching of advanced placement African-American studies courses in Florida, and five Black policemen beating to death a single unarmed Black man in Memphis, was not how I imagined kicking off Black History Month 2023. Most Americans probably had not. Those, however, were the headlines none of us could ignore because of the razor-sharp edges of anxiety they placed against our collective throats.
Having so often declared “We’re better than this,” experiencing re-occurring evidence to the contrary does not get any easier.
Reflections of The Past Seen in the Present
When gifted novelist George Dawes Green invited me to participate in a twentieth anniversary Moth storytelling event at Savannah’s Gingerbread House last summer, I said there was only one story I would consider sharing for the occasion. It was that of my brother Robert Lee whose life, when he was an adolescent in the early 1960s, was ended by a policeman’s bullet fired into his back.
With anguish still fresh from viewing videos of George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s horrific endings, sharing my brother’s, and his heartbroken family’s, story was one way to reclaim the value of his short physical existence. It was a way to assign it meaning more substantial than a discarded footnote on America’s persistent problem with racial tensions in general, and race and policing in particular.
Green agreed with me and Robert Lee’s was indeed the story I shared. As good and right as that felt, I can’t claim it brought questionable shooting deaths by policemen in America to a screeching halt.
Bloody Saturday, Bloody Sunday
More recently, the world had to contend with news that 29-year-old Tyre Nichols had died three days after being beaten by five Black policemen on January 7, 2023, a Saturday, in Memphis, Tennessee. The initial shock of the announcement was further magnified after seeing photographs of the officers’ postered all over social and mainstream media.
The faces of Tadarrius Bean, Emmitt Martin III, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith and Desmond Mills Jr. did not align with locked-in images of policemen assaulting protesters on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. Nor did the racial dynamics match what has been seen in most high-profile cases of questionable deaths resulting from the use of extreme physical violence.
Then came the January 27 release of the first startling short video. Within 24 hours, compilations of more footage from different surveillance cameras stirred more outrage. In an extended recording, we see police take Nichols from his car and force him to the ground while he yells “Alright, OK!” And then, “I didn’t do anything.” He seems genuinely unaware of why he’s been stopped and no one is heard offering a reason.
Minutes later, Nichols runs. He is apprehended again and we then, next, see officers standing over him. He is pepper sprayed, pummeled repeatedly with fists, seemingly hit with a baton, restrained and held up while two policemen take turns hammering him with their fists.
All of the policemen were members of the Memphis Police Department’s “SCORPION Unit.” The division was established in 2021 to conduct: “Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” Yet they are seen on video behaving more like gang-banging criminals themselves than peacekeeping officers of the law. The SCORPION division has since been dissolved and the five policemen charged with aggravated kidnapping, second-degree murder, and official misconduct. In their first court appearance on February 17, they pleaded not guilty.
NEXT: Confronting Complexities of Race and Policing in America (part 2)
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.