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How could they? That’s not a question for the head, but the heart

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Picture: ANA files – Two men walk in front of a police car the day after violent clashes between police and protesters broke out on streets overnight in Memphis. Five Black police officers were fired after the death of Tyre Nichols. The failures in the country’s police forces cannot be reduced to a matter of race, even as race is fundamental to the way in which people experience both law enforcement and criminal justice, the writer says.

By Robin Givhan

In their mug shots, the five Black officers who were fired from the Memphis police department in the aftermath of Tyre Nichols’s death and who have been charged with second-degree murder, stare flatly into the camera. They’re wearing civilian clothes – hoodies, crewnecks – and no longer have the power that their police uniforms and badges once afforded them. They have lost their weaponized positions of authority. They’re five men, young and brown-skinned, who have been accused of levying a heinous atrocity against another Black man – one they had the audacity to call “bro”.

How could they?

Systemic racism does terrible, dehumanising things to the souls of those who are caught in its net. And it’s impossible to watch even a few minutes of the video footage captured during Nichols’s arrest and not weep over the cruelty and disregard with which he was treated.

The videos from police body cameras and an overhead street camera offer a limited look at what transpired on that night in early January. The public can see that the tragedy begins with the officers exhibiting angry contempt for Nichols as he is pulled from his vehicle while officers hurl curses at him. He is lashed by a barrage of impossible and confusing orders, waves of profanity and verbal threats, and a litany of deadly blows from a baton, fists and feet.

By the time the officers step away from Nichols and prop his limp body against a vehicle, they’re panting from their efforts. It’s exhausting work beating another man down, breaking his spirit so that one can stand over him, pounding the life out of an unarmed man and calling it one’s livelihood.

“Sit up, bro,” one officer is heard saying on the videotape. He uses the same term of easy familiarity with Nichols as the cops employ with each other, as if to suggest that the fight was somehow fair, as if Nichols must surely be fine. “Sit up, man,” an officer says, using a word that rings both hollow and cruel. If only these officers had seen him as a man when they were beating him, instead of as some inanimate object, some detritus.

The failures in the country’s police forces cannot be reduced to a matter of race, even as race is fundamental to the way in which people experience both law enforcement and criminal justice. Race helps distinguish whether a person has faith that the police will see them as citizens worthy of respect, will empathise when they call for help and will act when they plead for aid. The police are part of the substructure that helps hold up the country’s social hierarchy, its strict delineation of power and privilege that is stubbornly unyielding to money, education and politics. As the author Isabel Wilkerson noted, America’s caste system “is about the deadly dehumanisation of the subordinated caste that allows almost any atrocity to be inflicted upon them by anyone in any group, including their own, to uphold the caste system and to maintain one’s own place, however marginal, within it.”

History long ago defined Whiteness as an invaluable asset, affording one a foothold on the top rung of the ladder. Just one drop of Blackness was an inescapable burden. The order was set. Over time, the caste system has encouraged colourism. It has caused some Black immigrants, hoping to stay at least one rung from the bottom of the social hierarchy, to carefully distinguish themselves from Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. It drives the Black cabbie to pass up the Black man just trying to get a ride home. It helped spawn the old saw about only having to do two things in life: stay Black and die.

Still, it’s hard to look at the five officers accused of causing a mother’s heartbreak and not feel the pain more acutely. The accused killers are Black, just like her son. And if these young Black men can’t see through the scrim of history and race and policing to salvage a shred of empathy, then who can? Perhaps that’s demanding that they carry a community’s burden with them. So be it. Their ancestors carried much more. “It makes it even harder to swallow, because they are Black and they know what we have to go through,” said Nichols’s mother RowVaughn Wells about her son’s killing. “I don’t understand why they had to do this to my son.”

How could they? That’s not a question for the head, but the heart.

To look at those mug shots, to look at the video and to hear the vicious words is to feel a deep sorrow and pain. Why were they so belligerent in the face of Nichols’s calm? How could they fail to notice that he didn’t return their foul-mouth shouting with his own stream of profanity? Why did every command seem to be a further humiliation of a man already on the ground?

Intellectually, one knows that every man is an individual and makes his own choices. And yet, there’s still faith in a Black community. It’s not something defined by a geographic voting bloc. It doesn’t mean being in lockstep in a political viewpoint that’s liberal or conservative. It’s having access to a communal well of cultural knowledge, history and experience that serves as a common language, a fundamental understanding of what Blackness means in this country. A person is born into that community; they’re steeped in it. It is by no means a preventive to crime and violence, neighbour against neighbour. And people can be exceptionally hard on their own, meting out punishment that feels personal because, perhaps, it is.

But this? In the video, they called him a “boy” when he was a man. They called him a man when they had long ago proved that they barely considered him human.

The cops stood around in the glow of streetlights and torchlights and discussed the havoc they had wrecked on Nichols. Dressed in their uniforms, they checked on each other and showed concern. They were police officers, and they were Black men. Neither had empathy for the community.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.