Thursday, February 02, 2023
Opinion | Five Years Ago, I Wrote a Fictional Disaster That Is Now Playing Out in Real Time - The New York Times
Five Years Ago, I Wrote a Fictional Disaster That Is Now Playing Out in Real Time
"A makeshift memorial for Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in the forest.
By Richard Powers
Photographs by Joshua Dudley Greer
Mr. Powers is the author, most recently, of the novel “Bewilderment.” Mr. Greer is an artist and educator based in Atlanta.
What could make a person die for trees?
About five years ago, I published a novel called “The Overstory,” the tale of several characters who come together to protect an old-growth forest. The book follows these characters as they put their lives on the line in increasingly aggressive confrontations against powerful interests in the hope of saving trees. In the story, decent and principled people cross over the edge into retaliatory violence while trying to defend the living world.
Now a similar story is playing out just a four-hour drive from where I live. Atlanta has been shaken by an apparent shootout that occurred two weeks ago when law enforcement officers tried to clear protesters from South River Forest, a wooded area just outside of the city that has been designated as the site for a controversial new police and firefighter training center. A Georgia state trooper has been hospitalized with a bullet in the belly. A 26-year-old protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, is dead, gunned down by law enforcement in what they are calling an act of self-defense.
South River Forest is one of Atlanta’s largest, richest and most enjoyable urban woodlands. It borders a predominantly Black, underprivileged neighborhood. The battle for its future erupted over a year ago when the City Council, in a decision met by much public resistance, approved plans for a $90 million, 85-acre training center in the middle of the woods. It would be one of the biggest centers of its kind anywhere in the country, containing not only a shooting range and driving course for practicing high-speed chases, but also an entire simulated village where police would train to conduct raids.
City Hall calls it the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. On the street it’s known as Cop City.
The choice of site could not be more politically charged. The Indigenous Muscogee people, from whom the land was taken 200 years ago, revere that forest, which they know as the Weelaunee. The training center is slated to be built over the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, in operation for much of the 20th century, where decades of human rights abuses took place. And the forest has long been part of an ambitious plan to piece together an ecologically rich greenbelt of protected parkland stretching across southeastern Atlanta and neighboring southwestern DeKalb County, a project that would provide numerous environmental benefits to an increasingly heat-stressed city.
After the City Council approved the project, local environmental and social justice groups joined forces to oppose the decision. Destroying part of South River Forest, they rightly argued, would harm Atlanta’s residents, especially those in the mostly Black neighborhoods nearby. The lush tree cover of South River Forest helps clean and filter Atlanta’s air and water. It provides defense against storm water surges. The trees cool the concrete and buildings that make Atlanta hotter than its surroundings, and they raise the value of surrounding real estate. The diversity of wildlife and the ancient quiet of the groves improve the health of city dwellers in profound ways.
These local activists, joined by protesters from around the country, then took action. Over the past year, they have mounted a largely successful defense of South River Forest, resisting the proposed training center through tree-sitting, blockades, demonstrations and direct confrontation that at times has caused property damage. Two weeks ago, increasingly frustrated law enforcement agencies swept into the woods and tried to shut down the forest defenders. Predictably, the violence spiraled into tragedy.
The kind of fictional disaster I wrote about in “The Overstory” is playing out in fact.
Following the shooting of the state trooper and the death of the protester, the atmosphere in Atlanta is tense. Property in the downtown area stands damaged and dozens of people have been arrested, some held without bond. Idealistic young people building barricades and living in tree houses face charges of domestic terrorism, with the possibility of spending decades in prison. Last Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia declared a state of emergency, empowering him to bring in a thousand National Guard troops who could further escalate the crisis.
The battle over South River Forest is our national crisis in microcosm: environmental anxiety, racial tension and ethnic animosity, the growing gap between rich and poor, concern for public safety, suspicion of the police, the reckoning with our symbols of historical injustice. The issues are complex and do not lend themselves to easy answers.
But there is a solution to the city’s immediate crisis: put the issue of the training center to a public vote. In the short term, a referendum would allow both sides to cool the conflict. In the long term, it offers the best hope for restoring trust in the city. Those who breathe Atlanta’s air and walk its public spaces must decide whether the southeast of their city should remain a living greenbelt or become a state-of-the-art training center.
A citywide vote might seem like an obvious answer to the citywide turmoil. But it could be a hard pill to swallow for both sides. Would a passionate, loosely organized protest movement really stand down if a majority of voters were to decide that they don’t care about the fate of the forest? Could City Hall, keenly aware of the vast amount of outside money committed to the training center, be big enough to walk back its prior decision and accept the wishes of Atlanta at large?
A referendum is a risky approach for all parties. And the practical challenges would be considerable: Not only would the City Council have to suspend its approval of the plan, but the referendum also would have to bridge two counties — DeKalb, where the forest and the neighborhood bordering it are, and Fulton, home to most of Atlanta. But in a city divided by fatal confrontation, only the will of the majority has the moral force to resolve the showdown.
A character in my novel “The Overstory” comes to realize that nothing in this living world has an independent existence. As she puts it, “Everything in the forest is the forest.” Atlanta will always be a wild mix of people whose interests could not be more different. And yet everyone in Atlanta is Atlanta. All those whose city is at stake should be allowed to choose what happens to South River Forest. As with America at large, the only way forward is into that tangled woods we call democracy. It’s still alive. Use it."
U.S. to Boost Military Role in the Philippines in Push to Counter China
"Washington and Manila announced a plan to give the American military access to four new locations in the Southeast Asian country, a growing strategic partner in the region.
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The United States is increasing its military presence in the Philippines, gaining access to four more sites and strengthening the Southeast Asian nation’s role as a key strategic partner for Washington in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan.
The agreement, announced on Thursday, allows Washington to station military equipment and build facilities in nine locations across the Philippines, marking the first time in 30 years that the United States will have such a large military presence in the country.
The deal comes as Washington has tried to reaffirm its influence in the region amid a broader effort to counter Chinese aggression, reinforcing partnerships with strategic allies and bolstering relations that have soured in recent years. Fears have also grown over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its territory. Among the five treaty allies that the United States has in Asia, the Philippines and Japan are the most geographically close to Taiwan, with the Philippines’ northernmost island of Itbayat just 93 miles away.
On Thursday, Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, accused the United States of threatening regional peace and stability with its announcement.
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“Out of self-interest, the United States continues to strengthen its military deployment in the region with a zero-sum mentality, which is exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability,” she said. “Countries in the region should remain vigilant against this and avoid being coerced and used by the United States.”
In a news conference, the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, stressed that these new sites were not permanent. The last U.S. soldiers left the Philippines in 1990s, and it is now against the country’s Constitution for foreign troops to be permanently based there.
“This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability,” he said during a visit to Manila that began on Tuesday. “It is not about permanent basing, but it is a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”
Carlito Galvez Jr., the Philippines’ defense secretary, declined to name the locations of the four additional sites, saying the government needed to consult local officials first. American officials have long eyed access to the Philippines’ northern territory, such as the land mass of Luzon, as a way to counter China in the event that it attacks Taiwan.
In November, Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro of the Philippines said that Washington had identified five possible sites, including two in Cagayan, one in Palawan, one in Zambales and one in Isabela. Cagayan and Isabela are in the northern part of the Philippines, with Cagayan sitting across from Taiwan.
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“Having increased U.S. access in Northern Luzon, close to Taiwan, is really ensuring that the Philippines and the U.S. alliance is going to have a front and center role in Northeast Asian security and deterrence,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former U.S. defense official.
The Philippines is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia. Washington is shoring up its presence in the country after relations deteriorated during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term, which ended last year.
During Mr. Duterte’s term, he frequently criticized Washington and complained that the United States, the Philippines’ former colonial ruler, had created defense treaty agreements that weighed heavily in favor of the Americans. (The Philippines was an American territory for nearly half a century before the country gained independence.)
U.S. officials were concerned when Mr. Duterte threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement, a long-held defense pact that allows for large-scale joint military exercises between the two allies. He also threatened to disregard the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the deal that formed the basis for Thursday’s announcement.
Since he took office last June, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has sought to revive his country’s relationship with the United States, surprising many foreign policy experts. On the campaign trail, Mr. Marcos had indicated that he would try to forge closer ties with China, a hallmark of Mr. Duterte’s term.
Mr. Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, has since said he “cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner.” At least 16,000 Filipino and American troops will train side by side in the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the stronghold of the Marcos family, later this year.
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Under Mr. Marcos, officials in the Philippines have started building contingency plans for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. When the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August, China responded by launching military exercises in multiple areas, including the Bashi Channel, a waterway separating Taiwan and the Philippines.
Taiwanese officials called it an “air and sea blockade.”
If war were to break out over Taiwan, “the battle space will encompass the Philippines,” said Mr. Thompson. China’s moves in the Bashi Channel “really brought that home for Philippine leaders,” he added.
The Philippines is also strategically important because of what lies beneath the surface of the ocean. The waters just off the west coast that abut the South China Sea — where China has turned a series of sand mounds into military bases — are flush with undergrowth, making it ideal for stealth submarine movement.
“You need to control the Philippines because of submarines,” said Michael J. Green, an Asia expert on the National Security Council under George W. Bush who now heads the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney. “If you can picture it, the undersea topography is jungle-y — you can sneak in submarines.”
The U.S. Marine Corps has proposed shifting toward smaller units in the region that could deploy to remote islands for missile attacks, rear support, counterattacks or intelligence gathering in the case of a war with China over Taiwan. Along with islands in Japan, the islands of the Philippines represent what American military planners see as one of the most important locations for such tactics.
“I would expect to see rotational access and more frequent deployments of these small marine teams for training and joint exercises alongside their Philippine counterparts,” said Gregory B. Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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The five existing sites where the United States military has access are Cesar Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay near Manila; the Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in central Cebu Province; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, to the east, and the Lumbia Air Base in the south. Since being granted access in 2016, the U.S. has used these sites to build facilities and preposition defense assets.
Three decades ago, the U.S. presence in the Philippines was a sore point among many Filipinos. The military bases maintained by Washington for nearly a century were seen to be a vestige of American colonialism. In 1992, the United States had to shut down its last American base in the Philippines after street protests and a decision to get rid of it by the Philippine Senate.
But as China began its military incursions in the South China Sea, public opinion on the American presence in the Philippines has shifted.
The Philippines now hopes to get American support to fend off Beijing’s continued military buildup in the South China Sea. Manila and Beijing have been locked in a long-running disagreement over the disputed waters that both sides claim as their own.
Among some quarters, the planned increase of the American military presence in the Philippines remains contentious. In a statement, Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the nationalist activist political group Bayan, said Filipinos “must not allow our country to be used as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention in the region.”
“Allowing U.S. use of our facilities will drag us into this conflict, which is not aligned with our national interests,” Mr. Reyes said.
Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting from Manila, and Damien Cave from Sydney."
Wednesday, February 01, 2023
“Earlier this month, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries excited Democrats across the countrywith a great first speech in his new role as House minority leader. Jeffries then returned home to New York — and immediately eroded some of that good will.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has nominated Hector LaSalle to become the state’s chief judge. But LaSalle has voted the conservative position in lower-court cases on a number of issues, most notably abortion. So, a broad coalition on the left has opposed his confirmation.
Jeffries could have urged the governor to pick a more liberal judge — or stayed out of an intraparty fight on a state issue. Instead, in a recent appearance with Hochul, he implored New York Democratic lawmakers to back LaSalle.
The congressman’s move was disappointing, but not surprising. Jeffries has long feuded with progressives and allied with more center-left Democrats such as Hochul. And it’s not just Jeffries. Many prominent Black Democratic politicians are overly wedded to a centrist, traditional style of politics. They are therefore too hostile to more progressive policies and movements that could boost Black Americans in particular. They often seem more interested in maintaining their status at the top of the political system than changing it.
For example, numerous Black mayors, particularly those in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and D.C., have strongly opposed efforts to make their cities’ criminal justice policies less punitive and to increase scrutiny of cops. Black leaders in Atlanta are supporting the creation of a massive police training center there, over the objections of activists who have dubbed it “Cop City.”
In last year’s mayoral race in Louisville, Black city council members endorsed a White Democratic candidate over two Black candidates who had been leading figures in the protests over the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) has bashed activists for using the slogan “defund the police,” claiming (with little evidence) that the phrase alone causes voters to back GOP candidates.
This resistance to progressive causes from major Black leaders is not only on policing. New York Mayor Eric Adams has weakened efforts to increase the number of Black and Latino students in the city’s top high schools. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser last year refused to endorse a D.C. ballot initiative (which passed anyway) to raise the minimum wage for workers in industries that rely on tips. On the eve of last year’s elections, former president Barack Obama suggested that an electoral problem for Democrats is that they are too focused on forcing people to use “the right phraseology.”
Some of this is simply ideological. There are left-wing Black Democrats and more centrist ones, similar to the divides among non-Black Democrats. For example, Adams is a former police officer and was once a Republican. It is not surprising that he is more conservative on a wide range of issues, including policing, than left-wing Democrats are. And many everyday Black people want more police officers on the streets, although I think that view is in part shaped by the anti-reform stances of Black leaders. (People in all demographic groups take cues from their political leaders on which causes to support or oppose.)
But I don’t think ideology is the chief dynamic at play. Jeffries is quite left-wing on most policy issues. I suspect Obama refers to people by their preferred pronouns in his personal life and knows that Democratic candidates in swing areas aren’t scolding voters for saying Latino instead of Latinx or vice versa.
What’s really going on is a divide on tactics and strategy. More centrist Black politicians tend to think that the best way to make advances in policy, particularly on issues that disproportionately affect Black people, is by working incrementally through traditional power structures. So they maintain strong ties with businesses, the police and in particular the center-left bloc that dominates the Democratic Party. This political approach puts these Black leaders in conflict with the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is more antagonistic to those power centers.
This is not a totally flawed strategy for advancing Black causes. The Black city council members in Louisville who bucked the Black mayoral candidates are now top aides in the administration of Craig Greenberg and get to decide the city’s policies. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is on the Supreme Court in part because Clyburn forced then-candidate Joe Biden to promise to appoint a Black woman to the court in exchange for the congressman’s endorsement during the 2020 presidential primaries. It’s smart for Jeffries to maintain a strong relationship with the governor of New York, since she controls so much in the state.
But this strategy has run its course. Black leaders have been trying to carefully woo traditional structures since the 1970s, when many of those who participated in the civil rights movement were elected city councilors, mayors or members of Congress. The results are that we have had a Black president and many prominent Black elected officials, but Black people in America still are much more likely to be unemployed, have zero or negative wealth and be killed by the police than non-Black Americans are. It is extremely disappointing that prominent Black politicians have been among the most vocal opponents of efforts to rein in the police, even as Memphis’s Tyre Nichols and other Black people are the victims of some of the worst instances of police brutality.
Having prominent Black politicians patiently working within the system isn’t providing enough results. We need a different approach.
Black leaders should stop bashing progressives and instead join them. This is not an outlandish idea — Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones are among the Black Democrats who try to find politically palatable ways to push progressive goals. Other Black leaders should follow their lead and spend less time trying to be beloved by the political establishment and more time trying to push that establishment to make meaningful change.“”
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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An unrelenting assault on truth and freedom of expression in the form of laws that censor and suppress the viewpoints, histories and experiences of historically marginalized groups, especially Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities, is underway throughout the country, most clearly in Florida. The state’s Department of Education recently rejected a pilot Advanced Placement African American studies course from being offered in Florida’s public high schools.
Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” law — which would limit students and teachers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender — Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices and erase the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the American Civil Liberties Union, the A.C.L.U. of Florida and Ballard Spahr filed a lawsuit on behalf of university professors and a college student opposing the “Stop WOKE” law and, along with a second lawsuit, won a preliminary injunction blocking Florida’s Board of Governors from enforcing its unconstitutional and racially discriminatory provisions at public universities.
Florida’s rejection of the A.P. course and Mr. DeSantis’s demand to excise specific subject areas from the curriculum stand in stark opposition to the state-issued mandate that all students be taught “the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition and the contributions of African Americans to society.”
While litigation continues, the various provisions of “Stop WOKE” and now the rejection of A.P. African American history could have devastating and far-reaching effects on the quality of education for Florida’s 2.8 million students in its public K-12 schools. The same reasons that the “Stop WOKE” law is blocked from enforcement in university settings hold for elementary and secondary schools. As a federal judge ruled in November, the law strikes “at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’” such that “the State of Florida has taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints.”
Mr. DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” law relegates the study of the experiences of Black people to a prohibited category. The canceling of any students’ access to accurate, truthful education that reflects their diverse identities and that of their country should chill every American. Not only do these laws offend First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression; to the extent they harm certain groups on the basis of race, gender or other protected status, they also violate principles of equal protection. And they are a chilling precursor to state-sponsored dehumanization of an entire race of people.
This disturbing pattern of silencing Black voices and aggressive attempts to erase Black history are one of the most visible examples of performative white supremacy since the presidency of Donald Trump. In 2019 the Florida legislature undermined Amendment 4, which a supermajority of Floridians supported and would have restored the voting rights of more than a million formerly incarcerated people. In its place, lawmakers put in place a pay-to-vote system that redisenfranchises hundreds of thousands of those citizens, many of them Black. Similarly, Florida’s antiprotest law, H.B. 1, was enacted in 2021 in response to the 2020 protests against police violence, when Black organizations and peaceful demonstrators in Florida — along with their allies — took to the streets with demands for justice.
What is happening in Florida is also happening in other states. Fifteen states now have active educational gag orders — and similar censorship measures are making their way through several state legislatures — with punishments including fines, civil suits, firing and criminal penalties for those who violate the broadly defined provisions. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans listed 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 book titles. The content in most of the banned books involves prominent characters of color, L.G.B.T.Q. protagonists or themes and subject matter related to race and racism.
It’s no coincidence that these attacks are targeting not just historically marginalized people but also our very experiences of intersectionality. Mr. DeSantis recently rubbished the inclusion of “queer theory” in the A.P. African American studies course that was rejected, seeming to deny the need for future generations to learn about the contributions of queer Black American icons like Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. Florida’s H.B. 1557, more widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, also limits conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms and, like “Stop WOKE,” makes clear that the State of Florida seeks to suppress and target people’s identities.
Meanwhile, teachers, librarians and school officials providing guidance on diversity, equity and inclusion are said to have been pushed out of their jobs and gotten death threats. Last year ProPublica reported the chilling story of a Black educator who was chased out of Cherokee County in Georgia by a group of people incensed that she was bringing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to the school district.
Several book bans and other antitruth measures introduced in the past two years target The New York Times’s 1619 Project (and curriculum), which was created by Nikole Hannah-Jones — who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work — and is a linchpin in today’s conversations about the role of systemic racism in America’s history and its enduring impacts. In Wyoming and Texas, lawmakers and school officials have proposed measures mandating that objectively horrific historic events like the Holocaust and the trans-Atlantic slave trade be presented to American children neutrally and without judgment. (The Wyoming measure failed to pass the state’s legislature.) But why would we want our children to look at these atrocities without judgment?
Contrary to those advancing a false morality of ignorance and hollow patriotism as justification for barring students from discussing uncomfortable facts, we know that young people of all races benefit from an accurate and inclusive education. Students who are taught factual history don’t see themselves as victims or villains; in fact, research into the effects of ethnic studies K-12 curriculums found that discussing race and racism in school increases academic outcomes for students, reduces prejudice among white students and students of color and improves feelings of belonging in students of color and even their beliefs about their academic abilities. On the other hand, research shows that education that ignores students’ awareness of race, racism and stereotypes leads to increased prejudice.
The losses to our nation, if this broad attack on our shared history is allowed to continue, are incalculable. Not only will it breed a generation of Americans indoctrinated by ignorance; it will deny them the analytical skills to understand the complex history of this experimental democracy, as well as the historical grounding to sustain it. Students will arrive at institutions of higher learning wholly ill equipped to engage with the historical foundations of this country, which include and are inextricable from the history of Black Americans. Moreover, it will deny future generations the full story of turmoil and triumph that is America. It will also sow the racial divisions that enable white supremacy, which the F.B.I. has identified as a major domestic security threat, to thrive.
The good news is that most Americans oppose policies like book bans and support teaching the history of race in America — positions that indicate they value and understand the importance of truth. However, we must also respond to the urgency of this moment. While civil rights lawyers won’t rest in our fight against “Stop WOKE” and similar laws in courts and state legislatures across the country, we all have a role to play. It starts with recognizing what is happening: This is bigotry and erasure aimed at robbing America’s children of their educational birthright and all of us of a better shared future. Recognize what is happening, call it out and resist erasure.“
Monday, January 30, 2023
Black Memphis police spark dialogue on systemic racism in the U.S.
MEMPHIS — For the mother of Tyre Nichols, the fact that five Memphis police officers charged with beating her son are also Black has compounded her sorrow as she tries to cope with his violent death at age 29.
“It makes it even harder to swallow,” RowVaughn Wells said in an interview last week, “because they are Black and they know what we have to go through.”
The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has prompted a complex grappling among Black activists and advocates for police reform about the pervasiveness of institutional racism in policing. Nichols died three days after he was pulled out of his car Jan. 7, kicked, punched and struck with a baton on a quiet neighborhood street by Black officers, whose aggressive assault was captured on body-camera videos released Friday.
The widely viewed videos of the Nichols beating provided fodder for right-wing media ecosystems that routinely blame Black America’s maladies on Black America, and spawned nuanced conversations among Black activists about how systemic racism can manifest in the actions of non-White people.
The Memphis Police Department, which has nearly 2,000 officers, is 58 percent Black, the result of a decades-long effort to field a police force that resembles the city’s 64 percent Black population. Unlike in several recent high-profile police brutality cases, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who is Black, and other officials acted swiftly in firing, arresting and charging the Memphis officers in advance of the release of video footage.
Though some studies have shown that police officers of color use force less frequently against Black civilians than their White counterparts, analysts say the improvement is marginal.
“Diversifying law enforcement is certainly not going to solve this problem,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, president of Mapping Police Violence.
He pointed to many factors in the policing system that lead to a disproportionate response against people of color: directives to work in neighborhoods where more people of color live and a system that relies on the discretion of the officer to enforce things like traffic stops, opening the door for internal biases to play a role.
Conversations on Fox News over the weekend were less academic.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” guest Jason Whitlock, a conservative sports culture blogger who is Black, blamed “young Black men and their inability to treat each other in a humane way,” as muted footage of the Memphis officers beating Nichols played side-by-side.
“It looked like gang violence to me. It looked like what young Black men do when they’re supervised by a single, Black woman,” Whitlock said, referring to Davis, the Memphis police chief, who is married.
Focus on the individual officers in the aftermath of police killing and not the institution the officer belongs to perpetuates the belief that policing’s problems are the result of a few bad apples — a narrative embraced by police, said Jeanelle Austin, who runs the George Floyd Global Memorial in Minnesota.
“This is what I fear: What’s going to happen in Memphis is what happened to Minneapolis — is that when Derek Chauvin and the other [three] officers were charged, the narrative turned from an issue of the police department to an individual issue,” Austin said. “That was a PR strategy.”
“What we’ve been screaming from our lungs for years is that the system and the culture of policing trains people’s minds regardless of the color of their skin to behave a certain way,” she said.
Systemic racism can be more difficult for the general public to grasp than explicitly visible White-on-Black crimes, said Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School who studies policing and civil rights.
“We’d like to think in the binary — the good guys and the bad guys,” he said. “It’s far easier to consume the story in an uncomplicated way seeing a White officer shoot 14 shots at a young Black boy laying on the ground,” he added, referencing the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.
From the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 through those in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, activists have long sought to reform policing. But the lack of centralization between local, state and federal police entities, along with failures in congressional action, has not resulted in widespread changes.
More than two weeks after Nichols was killed after being pulled over for what police said was reckless driving, Ayanna Robinson drove 6 1/2 hours from Indianapolis to Memphis to join demonstrations she thought would include thousands of protesters angered by his recorded beating by officers. She arrived to find dozens, not thousands, of protesters and they seemed calm.
Robinson, 28, a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, said the turnout was nothing like what she saw in Memphis after Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020. In a way, the city seemed too peaceful after the Nichols killing, she said.
“In order to get a reaction, there has to be a reaction, and right now there’s no type of action,” she said, looking around a park where 100 protesters gathered Friday evening.
Robinson said one of the major reasons she thought many people seemed more subdued in response to the Nichols death was that the five officers charged in beating him are Black. If the officers had been White, “All hell would have broken loose. The city would have been in war.”
Nikki Owens felt a similar frustration in the aftermath of the death of her cousin, William Green, who was shot to death while handcuffed by a Black officer in Prince George’s County, Md., in January 2020.
“In America we’re taught that racism is black and white,” said Owens, who now works with the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability. “And we are not taught about institutional or systemic racism, even though we see it everywhere. We are taught that if a Black person kills another Black person, it can’t be racist. It’s ‘Black-on-Black crime.’”
Owens said that attitude contributed to her struggles to inspire activism among area residents and in getting national and local media coverage of her cousin’s killing.
“There wasn’t the outrage,” she said. “Even when George Floyd passed away, nobody reached out to us.”
Owens said she felt as if the world viewed her cousin’s death as somehow different than other police killings. The officer’s criminal trial begins this year.
“When I was out in the community and I would talk to people, I could see their reaction when I told them the officer was Black,” she said. “And some people would ask what color the officer was, which is another indication of that lack of understanding.”
Some protesters said that while the racism isn’t explicit, Nichols’s death could be a moment for the nation to understand the way pervasive, institutional racism functions, and how it can compromise individuals.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator, civil rights attorney and CNN contributor, said the Nichols beating made him recall the Black Minneapolis police officer, J. Alexander Kueng, who knelt on Floyd’s back as Derek Chauvin suffocated him.
“He talked about how he thought he could make a difference in policing,” Sellers said of Kueng. “And then like three days after his hiring, he’s there watching George Floyd being brutalized and doing nothing about it.
“For many Black folks, the race of a cop is cop.”
Jason Sole, a community organizer in Minneapolis and former head of the local NAACP, said he’s never felt a sense of relief when encountering Black officers.
“I never had that feeling of ‘Oh great, it’s a Black cop, yay.’ No. I was born in ’78 and I never had that feeling, not once,” Sole said. “All your skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”
Regardless of color, Sole said, “we need people who are loving, people who are showing we care, people who understand that grace has to be shown to everybody.”
Foster-Frau reported from Washington."