I have what some might consider a controversial question: Did Memphis Police unleash this “Scorpion Unit” expecting that interactions with the public would be different because the officers were Black?
Over thirty years ago, in 1991, Rodney King was beaten to a pulp by four White police officers. A video of the horrific incident was released. What could King have done to instigate such a savage beating at the hands of those who are supposed to “protect and serve” the public? The event captured the interest of the entire nation. Protesters took to the streets and many of them got arrested.
The officers involved were indicted and, subsequently, acquitted of all charges related to the beating. Protesters again took to the streets. This time, the protests turned violent—63 people were killed and over 2000 more were injured in what was then called the Los Angeles riots, the largest civil disturbance in American history.
Why were the officers acquitted, you ask? There were complex societal issues at play; the stakes were high; King was a “criminal” and the video was framed in court in a far different context than it was in the media. Apparently, the jury believed that if King was “dangerous,” the officers were “justified.”
Fast forward 30 years—here we go again. A young Black man named Tyre Nichols was literally beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. Like the King case, there is a video, and the video evidence is eerily similar to the King video. A helpless, secured Black kid is savagely kicked, punched, beaten with a stick, pummeled to death by five officers. He laid on the ground for several minutes, dying, before anyone thought to call for EMS or an ambulance. There is public outrage—the video is compelling. The officers have been charged and the local community has taken to the streets in protest.
I am only one viewer of these two videos, one citizen, but I was amazed by how similar they were, how brutal the police could be, and how casually they reacted to their own savage conduct. But there were key differences in the Nichols case. In the King case, the officers were White. In the Nichols case, the officers were Black. Unlike King, Nichols has no criminal record and by all accounts was a model citizen, someone’s father, someone’s son. He worked for FedEx and loved skateboarding.
The most important similarity, though, between the two videos is this: The victim was a young, Black male. At the end of the day, when it comes to police brutality, the important statistic is not the race of the officers—it is the race of the victim. Race is clearly a factor in these cases.
I was once a victim of this type of behavior. My crime? Changing lanes without signaling. I am an attorney—small, overweight, white. I have no criminal record. None of this stopped a cop from pulling me out of my car (for giving him some lip), slamming me to the ground, and calling on several colleagues to jump me and restrain me. They kneeled on me, George Floyd style.
The phrase “I can’t breathe” means something to me. While their behavior was horrible and could have caused a heart attack or other serious consequence, they did not punch, kick or cattle prod me. I beat the charges in court and settled the police brutality case. All of the cops, by the way, were White men. I posed little threat to them, but they chose to brutalize me anyway. Tyre Nichols, as the video graphically depicts, posed little threat to the officers who beat him to death.
The difference? I’m White, Nichols is Black. It is the victim’s race that matters. I am not a student of Memphis police practices, but I would bet that prosecutors in the criminal case and civil rights attorneys in the civil case will zero in on the department’s culture. Does the Memphis Police Department, like many urban police departments, demonstrate a pattern of abuse toward Black male citizens? We shall see.
I am pleased that these officers were fired, their unit disbanded, and criminal charges were quickly levied against them. Those facts represent key difference between this case and others from the past. It is imperative that police officers all over the country receive the message that no one is above the law. There must be strict oversight of policing and police officers, and immediate criminal consequences when officers cross the line between upholding the law and breaking the law. Citizens have a right to expect patience, restraint, and solid behavior from a police officer, much more so than an officer has a right to expect from a citizen. At the end of the day, this is not about punishing Black cops—it is about punishing bad cops.
I have some suggestions for decreasing these incidents and lowering the temperature:
1. Better training and oversight of police officers. Police departments should have zero-tolerance policies toward brutality. Departments should adhere to the absolute highest standards of conduct.
2. Consequences: Like we’ve seen in Memphis, there should be quick and severe consequences when officers cross the line. For an interesting look at what justice looks like, how the civil and criminal justice systems might handle the aftermath of these types of incidents, please check out Betrayal in Black.
3. While some politicians denounce attempts to present America’s true history when it comes to race, we citizens should embrace the attempt. It is not woke to present the truth—citizens should know our history, good and bad, for proper context. Our country does not have a proud history when it comes to race. I, for one, want to know our history, not some politician’s sugar-coated version. One suggestion: Google the name “Brian Stevenson” and learn about his “equal justice initiative.”
4. While it may be counter-intuitive, citizens should attempt to de-escalate their encounters with the police. Be respectful and calm—avoid excessive arguing and keep your hands in the officers’ view. While the officers’ behavior may cross the line, don’t fight with them at the scene. Fight them later, in court, the great equalizer.
5. Stand up for Democratic principles. Our weakest citizens are entitled to the same rights and constitutional protections as our strongest.
At the core of these issues is the constitution. At the core of the constitution is the scripture. “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue” must become more than a verse or a slogan, it must become a way of life in America.
Mark M. Bello is an attorney and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Legal Thriller Series, ripped-from-the headlines, realistic fiction that speak truth to power and champion the rights of citizens in our justice system. These novels are dedicated to the social justice movement. They educate, spark discussion and inspire readers to action. One of these novels, Betrayal High, was written in response to school shootings. For more information, please visit www.markmbello.com. Mark also hosts the Justice Counts podcast with Lean to the Left editor & publisher Bob Gatty, presenting bi-weekly interviews focused on social justice.