Editor’s Note: Van Jones is a CNN host, political commentator and the founder of Dream.org, a national nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Note: On Friday evening, the city of Memphis released graphic video of Tyre Nichols’ arrest to the public. Nichols died three days after the arrest.
Three decades ago, when four White Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, the public outcry was heard around the world. In fact, I got arrested for the first time in my life during protests that followed. And I subsequently dedicated my career as a lawyer to helping to sue rogue cops, close prisons and reform the criminal justice system. It was a defining moment for the nation and the world.
What happened to King was horrifying — but at least he survived the ordeal. Tyre Nichols, tragically, did not survive his: The 29-year-old Black man died earlier this month after a police traffic stop and violent arrest in Memphis, Tennessee. According to preliminary results of an autopsy commissioned by attorneys for Nichols’ family, he suffered “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” On Friday, Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells told CNN, “It’s still like a nightmare.”
Since the news of Nichols’ death was made known, the world has been holding its collective breath in anticipation of the release of video that captured the violent assault, and the possibility of a new outpouring of protests spilling into the streets across the country. That video is expected to be released Friday evening.
Five former Memphis police officers, fired for their alleged actions during Nichols’ arrest, have now been indicted on charges including kidnapping and murder. On Friday, Memphis police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told CNN, “I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident, and it’s very much aligned with that same type of behavior. I would say it’s about the same, if not worse.” On Thursday, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director David Rausch described being “sickened by what I saw.”
By all accounts, Nichols was a good guy: a 145-pound skateboarder, an Instagram photographer, a Starbucks aficionado. Learning that your child’s life was senselessly stolen from him is every Black parent’s nightmare. But — surprisingly to many people — the five officers charged with viciously beating him were also Black.
How do we explain Nichols’ horrific killing, allegedly at the hands of police who looked like him?
From the King beating to the murder nearly three years ago of George Floyd, American society has often focused on the race of the officers — so often White — as a factor in their deplorable acts of violence.
But the narrative “White cop kills unarmed Black man” should never have been the sole lens through which we attempted to understand police abuse and misconduct. It’s time to move to a more nuanced discussion of the way police violence endangers Black lives.
Black people are not immune to anti-Black messages
One of the sad facts about anti-Black racism is that Black people ourselves are not immune to its pernicious effects. Society’s message that Black people are inferior, unworthy and dangerous is pervasive. Over many decades, numerous experiments have shown that these ideas can infiltrate Black minds as well as White. Self-hatred is a real thing.
That’s why a Black store owner might regard customers of his same race with suspicion, while treating his White patrons with deference. Black people can harbor anti-Black sentiments and can act on those feelings in harmful ways.
Black cops are often socialized in police departments that view certain neighborhoods as war zones. In those departments, few officers get disciplined for dishing out “street justice” in certain precincts — often populated by Black, brown or low-income people — where there is a tacit understanding that the “rulebook” simply doesn’t apply.
Cops of all colors, including Black police officers, internalize those messages — and sometimes act on them. In fact, in Black neighborhoods, the phenomenon of brutal Black cops singling out young Black men for abuse is nothing new. Back in 1989, the rap group NWA highlighted the problem in a classic hip-hop anthem, in which Ice Cube rapped:
“But don’t let it be a Black and White (cop)/
Coz they’ll slam ya/
Down to the street top/
Black police showing out for the White cop.”
When it comes to police violence, race does matter — but possibly not the way you think.
At the end of the day, it is the race of the victim who is brutalized — not the race of the violent cop — that is most relevant in determining whether racial bias is a factor in police violence. It’s hard to imagine five cops of any color beating a White person to death under similar circumstances. And it is almost impossible to imagine five Black cops giving a White arrestee the kind of beat-down that Nichols allegedly received.
Stricter oversight is needed — regardless of the race of the officers
In short, racial animus can still be a factor, even when the perpetrators are all Black. And that’s especially true if these actions are a part of a broader pattern and practice within the Memphis Police Department.
It’s a sad fact, but one that’s old as time itself: People often oppress people who look just like them. The vast majority of human rights abuses are committed by people who look exactly like the people they are abusing.
Wells, who has not watched the video of her son’s beating, told CNN through tears that she feels sorry for the officers: “They have put their own families in harm’s way. They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community…I really feel sorry for them, because they didn’t have to do this.” Regarding the officers’ race, Wells also noted to CNN that violence like what happened to her son is about how some bad cops use their power over Black and brown victims.
The key to reducing the incidence of police violence is stricter oversight and swifter punishment. I am glad that the offending officers were quickly fired and charged. We need more of that — and not just when the cops are Black. Civil rights advocates once pushed for more racial integration in police departments, in hopes that more Black cops would lead to less police brutality. But while racial integration is important for basic fairness and opportunity, it is not a panacea against police abuse.
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Any system needs to put into place adequate checks and balances. Without meat inspectors, you would see a lot more food poisoning. Without building inspectors, you would see a lot more buildings falling down. And policing is just as much — even more — in need of rigorous internal monitoring that roots out bad cops and holds the entire police department to the highest standards of conduct.
Unless there is real oversight, with real consequences for wrongdoing, bad actors will take advantage, lower the practical standards for everyone and put all of us at risk. And without aggressive oversight and swift punishment, we’ll continue to see stomach-churning acts of police violence against Black men — by cops of every color.