“We should ask ourselves, what step do we want to take to begin to move in a different way? Make certain that your life and your energy are engaged in the task of resisting the venom in our society with a quiet no.” — James M. Lawson, Jr.
The torture and murder of a young Black man named Tyre Nichols by a gang of five Memphis police officers, caught on camera, outraged the nation. The fact that it was Black people who brutalized Tyre and did nothing to save him added yet another level of outrage. How could this happen? What is going on in Memphis?
Black journalist and historian Otis Sanford at the University of Memphis put it this way: “We are in trauma.” The trauma of Memphis is our trauma too. Police violence haunts America. Tacoma police, now charged with murder, killed young Manual Ellis by holding him face-down on the pavement, the same way police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. As in Memphis, racially impacted poverty, crime, and homelessness play out every day on our streets. America’s trauma of socioeconomic dislocation, racial terror and gun violence affects us all.
In Memphis, the existence of racial terror and trauma goes back as far as history can remember. Back to stolen lands of indigenous people and the stolen lives of African slaves. Back to deadly white race riots after the Civil War, to the burning and dismemberment of young Ell Persons in a mass lynching in 1917, to police brutalization of labor and civil rights advocates in the 1930s, to the police murder of teenager Larry Payne in 1968. The list of racial terror goes on and on. This is not to mention the gun violence that took Martin Luther King’s life during the Memphis sanitation strike.
I was an activist in Memphis in the aftermath of King’s death, when over a dozen white police beat to death young Elton Hayes in 1971 after a car chase. We got a law passed that banned police use of deadly force except to save someone’s life and when no other means were possible. Later, the city integrated its police force, which is now 58 percent Black. But that was not enough. Policing is itself a problem, and whoever wears that blue uniform can still save you or kill you.