During his last interview before his death three years ago, U.S. congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis was asked whether he ever grew so discouraged by the persistent enormity of racial injustice in America that he felt his efforts “weren’t working.” Lewis, who as a civil rights activist had been falsely imprisoned and savagely beaten, said no. “I never came to that point,” he said. “You get thrown in jail, maybe for a few days, and then you go to Mississippi, and you go to the state penitentiary, and you find some of your friends and your colleagues. And you get out, and you go on to the next effort. We used to say struggling is not a struggle that lasts for a few days, or a few weeks, or a few years. It is a struggle of a lifetime.”
The outrageous murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers and the equally outrageous indifference to Nichols’ suffering by firemen and emergency medical technicians who share guilt for his death is yet another replay of a disgrace that by now seems commonplace. It’s obvious that for every murder of Tyre Nichols or George Floyd or Daunte Wright or the other souls whose names have crossed our television screens, there are others — plenty of them — whose names we will never learn. And for every police murder, there are hundreds, or thousands, of incidents in which Black Americans are bullied or mistreated or brutalized by law enforcement officers afforded guns and badges by a citizenry that is entitled to have law enforcers, not lawbreakers, acting in their name. It is naive to think otherwise.
While we are at it, the poison doesn’t reside in police departments alone. There is a culture of disrespect, or even disregard, for Black Americans in too many quarters. Black Americans know it. White Americans have to work increasingly hard not to.
“For me,” wrote professor Deborah Ramirez, of the Northeastern University School of Law’s Center for Law, Equity and Race, “the heroine in this tragedy is RowVaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols’ mom. Surely her trauma is the worst trauma I can imagine suffering. And yet, she is praying for the officers who killed her son. She believes her son is now an angel and that this was meant to happen because it will become a catalyst for change.”
After Nichols’ killing, his family started a fund to turn their horror into a tangible community good. “We want to build a memorial skate park for Tyre,” they said, “in honor of his loves for skating and sunsets.”
The latest depravity has stirred new moves in Congress to pass legislation reforming the “qualified immunity doctrine,” the shield in place that benefits those accused of police misconduct and protects them from lawsuits. The rule imposes on victims of such misconduct the burden of proving that police violated “clearly established statutes or constitutional rights.” In practice, it serves as an escape hatch for police departments, often enabling them to get away with murder, figuratively if not literally.
The principal argument against reducing qualified immunity shields is that doing so would encourage frivolous lawsuits. But the same was said of other legislation that vastly improved America, like the securities laws enacted during the Great Depression to protect Americans from fraud and the civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s to protect them from discrimination.
Even police reform won’t do the trick, says Leslie Short, an experienced strategist in the area of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “I think it’s fantasy to think we will restructure the police with a wave of the wand,” Short says. “Until we dig deep into the systemic racial issues in every layer of (the existing) mentality, nothing changes.”
With it all, America’s communities of color press on, gifting resilience and grace to a nation that must sometimes seem to those communities not to deserve it.