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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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Jayne: Take sober look in mirror, America

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

To be honest, I can’t bring myself to watch it. The written narrative is harrowing enough.

“ ‘I hope they stomp his a–,’ one officer says as they wait … ”

“This 30-minute clip … shows Memphis police delivered at least two kicks and two baton strikes, and five punches to Tyre Nichols’s face …”

“The same officer who did the kicking circles around and punches him in the face. That officer then punches him four more times, as the first two officers restrain his arms …”

“At this point, there are at least seven officers on the scene, patting each other on the back … one fist-bumps another …”

“The video shows an officer leaving his car and running up to Nichols, who is already pinned to the ground by two other officers. ‘You about to get sprayed again,’ the officer says as he gets to the scene. Then he pepper-sprays Nichols in the face, and Nichols screams in pain. ‘Mom!’ Nichols yells, shielding his face …”

Those are excerpts from The Washington Post’s detailed description of four videos showing Memphis police beating Nichols to death. Five officers have been charged with murder; two others have been fired, along with three first responders.

The death has renewed calls for police reform and rekindled demands for racial justice (Nichols and the five officers charged with murder are Black). Those calls are necessary. The drip-drip-drip of righteous protests may someday erode the entrenched citadel of injustice.

But there is a secondary, underlying issue surrounding the death of Tyre Nichols, and in the long run it might make America take a sober look in the mirror.

Because some 30 years ago, when Rodney King was national news and the acquittal of officers who beat him triggered riots in Los Angeles, a friend of mine suggested: “Television is evil. Without television, we wouldn’t be having these riots.” My retort: “Without television we wouldn’t know as much about police brutality.”

Television, of course, has been largely replaced by social media and online news as the preeminent visual media. What once would be seen on the evening news is now available around the clock on multiple platforms, the result of a society in which cameras are ubiquitous.

That, as painful as it might be, is a good thing. And it should lead us to question what used to happen in the shadows.

Take the Memphis case, which resulted in Nichols’ death three days after his beating at the hands of police. The first time Memphis police described what happened, they wrote that “a confrontation occurred” following a traffic stop. They said Nichols fled on foot, and then “another confrontation occurred.”

The Memphis Police Department’s Twitter account reported: “Afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath. The suspect was transported to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.”

There’s no mention of officers punching Nichols in the face while others held his arms. Or beating him with batons. Or making him wait more than 20 minutes for medical assistance.

Video, apparently, irrevocably disputes the sanguine description of what happened. And like the circumstances behind the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner and Philando Castile, video shines a light on the past.

If these killings can take place in an age when cameras are everywhere, what did rogue cops do with impunity in the past? How many secrets were buried in darkness? How much mistrust was fostered under the surface of our nation’s civilized veneer?

Perhaps most important, how many police killings were swept under the rug of ignorance because it was easier to accept the officers’ version of events?

The ever-present existence of cameras has exposed us to much of our society’s inhumanity — not only by police, but by others in positions of power and even by average citizens. And in a roundabout way we can be better for it.

But only, I suppose, if we are willing to keep our eyes open and take an honest view of what is happening — and what it teaches us about the past.

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