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Death in Memphis: Racism, dehumanization and the corrosion of America

Let’s put something in perspective.

In 40 years of covering the cop beat, I’ve never seen anything like the Memphis police murder of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old father of one who died on Jan. 10.

I’ve ridden with cops. I’ve been around them as they’ve arrested people for crimes ranging from having sex with chickens to mass murder. I’ve seen them take down serial killers.

I’ve ridden with cops. I’ve been around them as they’ve arrested people for crimes ranging from having sex with chickens to mass murder. I’ve seen them take down serial killers. I’ve never seen anything like the Memphis police murder of Tyre Nichols.

My very first day on the job as a reporter in Laredo, Texas, I did a “ride-along” with an officer who showed me two housing projects on the banks of the Rio Grande that would change my life. A rich white developer had subdivided land he didn’t own (he rented 1,000 acres) and then sold it — illegally — to undocumented workers he’d helped smuggle into the United States so he could exploit them. Many times I saw Border Patrol officers raid those subdivisions. The immigrants were deported, but the so-called landowner never faced any consequences until we started putting his story in the newspaper.

That first night I covered two shootings and a drug deal “gone bad” that ended up with one teenager losing his life after he lost his testicles in a shootout. My photographer threw up when he realized what the two lumps of flesh were sitting in a large puddle of blood.

I’ve witnessed gang fights and wars. I’ve seen good cops and bad cops. I’ve covered stories where cops shot and killed suspects. I’ve covered stories where suspects shot and killed cops. Each story is unique, often horrific and always gut-wrenching. My first book, “Shield the Source,” chronicles the story of a cop shot by two San Antonio brothers who were caught on the “wrong side of town” late at night. Police wanted to inflict “street justice” on the pair for killing the cop. It turned out that the cop in question was speedballing heroin and cocaine at the time of his death and started the encounter that took his life.

One of my favorite stories about a police officer doing the right thing concerns a cop I knew many years ago in San Antonio. He was a ruddy-complected man of German descent who spent his days on the beat on San Antonio’s segregated east side. He walked the beat among the icehouses and lower-income neighborhoods of a mostly Black community, and never had a problem.

One day my photographer and I were talking to him as I was working my beat and a teenager walked out of the 401 Icehouse and motioned to the officer with his finger aimed like a gun, signaling there was something going on inside. The officer didn’t call for backup, and didn’t draw his gun. He walked inside (with my photographer shooting video the entire time) and found a Black teenager pointing a gun at the clerk and arguing over the price of a soda. The officer talked the kid down, handcuffed him without incident and went on his way. In 25 years on the job, that officer told me, his greatest accomplishment in working that neighborhood was, “I’ve never had to draw my service revolver, I have never shot anyone and I have never struck anyone.” He was a neighborhood cop, respected because he respected the concept of “to protect and serve.” Even people I interviewed who he had arrested respected him. As far as I know, he retired without ever being in a gunfight or beating down a suspect.

Today if you look at TV cop dramas, gunfights are romanticized. “The Rookie” with Nathan Fillion, in its first season, spoke of “throwing bullets” as if that were a daily occurrence and one to be enjoyed. But popular culture only reflects real life — sometimes horribly so. 

In 1968 Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago cops were villainized and vilified for beating protesters at the Democratic National Convention. What the Justice Department did to Bobby Seale in the ensuing criminal trial was considered not only extreme but unacceptable. The only Black defendant in the infamous “Chicago 7” case (he was the eighth) was bound and gagged in court at the order of a judge who openly showed contempt for the protesters in his courtroom. 

Today, we applaud the bullies and forget those who do the job correctly. Millions cheer watching police beat a suspect to death. The suspects are usually Black. The police are bullies in uniforms, and they come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Harold and Kumar got it right: Many of today’s cops seem to be high school bullies who found a way to keep on playing that role after they left school.

It is racism. Most victims of police brutality are Black. That’s nothing new. Richard Pryor joked about it more than 50 years ago — and made Black and white people laugh. White people had a different relationship with police officers, who generally lived in their neighborhoods. White people went bowling with the cops. Black people knew they had to explain that they were just reaching for their wallets so they wouldn’t get shot. 

The officers who congratulated themselves for relentlessly beating a 29-year-old father of one who was just trying to go home also doesn’t seem new. Pryor joked about that too: “Check the manual: can you break a n***er? Yep. You can. Good job, men. Good job.”

But humor is exaggeration aimed to make you laugh at a point that warrants introspection. There’s nothing funny about this exaggeration brought to life. Watching the cruel and dehumanizing beating of Nichols, first by the police and then aided and abetted by the medical first responders — who have been fired for not rendering proper aid — reminds us that there’s more going on here than just racism. When those who are hired to “protect and serve” show so much disrespect, we must realize the problem is bigger than that. Racism at its core is a symptom of dehumanization, and accepting racism allows dehumanization to spread. Nichols’ beating and the reaction of paramedics is a dangerous example of mob mentality, and shows that dehumanization has spread far further than many of us want to admit.

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Those police officers wore body cameras — and yet they thought they could beat a man to death with impunity. Watching the tape shows you that this wasn’t their first rodeo. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Every single arrest made by this Memphis unit, and every action by the officers involved, will now face fierce scrutiny. The fact that the medical first responders had such a callous attitude also demands investigation into every action taken by that unit. Make no mistake: What we saw in Memphis takes a toll on the human soul. It breaks down humanity and destroys the bonds that tie us all together. Hey, bees and ants work in harmony. People apparently cannot. 

We have the gift of self-awareness, but sacrifice it to treat others cruelly and kill members of our own species without any apparent care for the harm that does to all of us.

Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, issued a statement after the Nichols videotape was made public. “The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong,” he said. “This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law.” 

It was a state-sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis canceled the SCORPION police squad to which the accused officers belonged, saying, “This is not just a professional failing. This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”

The chief is right, of course, but the toll will be heavy. Police who “protect and serve” are needed in all communities. They, along with firefighters and EMS, are supposed to be the first people we call upon when we’re in trouble.

What we saw in Memphis takes a toll on the human soul. It breaks down humanity and destroys the bonds that tie us all together.

But if you don’t trust them, of course you won’t do that. By allowing this type of behavior to persist, we further break the bonds of civility and humanity that bind us together, making further chaos possible and giving anarchy free rein. The police thought they were exercising control. The rest of us understand that they lost control — and there are signs our entire society is losing control.

Into that void step authoritarians. Enter Donald Trump — or for that matter his former attorney general, Bill Barr. I met Barr on an elevator in Sacramento Tuesday night. I was the morning keynote speaker to begin the conference of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Barr was scheduled as the luncheon speaker. He is on a tour promoting his new book and trying to flip the script on his record as the chief law enforcement officer under Trump. 

Barr has a lot to answer for, including helping to foster a climate that makes events like the Memphis killing inevitable. He lied about Robert Mueller’s report. He supported Trump, right up until the point where to do so could have led to his own indictment for obstruction of justice. We all saw it. If the top law enforcement official in the country can get away with it, why shouldn’t street cops think the same thing? Barr would not accept responsibility for anything he’s done in our elevator meeting, much less acknowledge that I’ve been trying to interview him since the release of the Mueller report.

We’ve seen it all before.

Unfortunately, if we don’t get a handle on those we have entrusted to protect and serve us, we’re going to see it again and again. This kind of rot starts at the top. Violence against innocent people for the joy of inflicting pain, whether it involves Bill Barr or a bunch of Memphis cops, is one of the reasons so many people buy firearms. They want to “protect” themselves — from the government — and have come to believe that we can only be safe when everyone is armed. In reality, the exact opposite is true.

I’ve been to places where everyone is armed. They’re called war zones.

With all the lying and manipulation by the former attorney general, added to mass shootings, police brutality and the overall divisiveness in our country, it may seem that the streets of America are a war zone. But this isn’t a civil war. It’s about as uncivil as it gets.

We’re at war with ourselves. We’re angry and desperate, and we cannot figure out why.

America needs to look in the mirror. And Bill Barr needs to answer my questions. 

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