Tyre Nichols: Is there something we can do about another Black body? Yes! (#110)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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What is the culture – police and American – that allows this to continue? What are the obstacles? What can we as individuals do about it?

Yet another Black body

Yet another Black body dead as a result of police violence. The details are different from what we have become accustomed to. This time the young man, Tyre Nichols, was beaten to death, not shot. And those who committed this heinous violence were themselves Black, not White, police officers. Yet it happened.

The question again is why, and what can we do about it? Why does this violence continue? Are we in some way complicit in its perpetuation? If so, what can we do about it as individuals? One of my suggestions about this may surprise you.

Already, a week later, Wikipedia has added Nichols’s name to the list of unarmed Black men killed by police.1 As of this writing, this is the second such death in 2023 and January is not over yet.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson released the following statement ahead of the release of the police video in Tyre Nichols's case:

Our country is once again bracing for the release of another traumatizing video of yet another police killing. If anyone needs to see this video, it's every single leader in Congress. Sit in your comfy leather chair, watch the video when it is released, and tell us what else you need to vote "yes" on police reform.

By failing to write a piece of legislation, you're writing another obituary. By failing to pass the legislation, you're passing on your sworn duty to protect the people.

We know just how much all of you will be thinking and praying upon the release of the video, you don't need to mention it. Instead, tell us what you're going to do about it. Tell us what you're going to do to honor Tyre Nichols. Tell us what you're going to do to show his family, his loving son, and this entire nation that his life was not lost in vain. We can name all the victims of police violence, but we can't name a single law you have passed to address it.2

Three myths

As I reflect on what happened, three myths jump out as the foundation for this violence to continue, and unless we address those three myths in our lives, in our homes, and in our workplace, attempts for remediation and redress will attack only the symptoms, not the root cause.

Myth 1: the American public expects the police to adhere to professional policing ethics when doing their day-to-day jobs.

Myth 2: Police violence against Black men is perpetuated only by White police officers,

Myth 3: The violence can be mainly attributed to sadistic individuals run amok.

But before I describe the myths, I want to share how this personally affected me. I was staggered by the depravity of Nichols’s death, as were millions of people around the country and around the world. I wrote about it on my Facebook page.3

Memphis is my hometown. I still have family and friends there. Watching the video is sickening to me. Thinking of those I know who are equally vulnerable, and who also love sunsets – in Memphis and elsewhere – makes me feel slightly unhinged.

One of the lessons that stuck with me from my social work masters program in community organization was to always remember that the radical changes we seek are dependent on evoking public empathy and support. If the public doesn't support it, we would not only lose the fight, we could provoke backlash and mobilize counter-forces. I've witnessed this occurring many, many times – more times than I can count. George Lakoff4 among others has written many books about it.

If we are wanting the public to hear us, we have to use words that evoke the public's empathy and understanding. It's counterproductive to use words that turn people off and then blast them for being turned off. Many people confuse a more strategic approach with a loss of fervency or with selling out. Choosing words that work is a matter of tactics, not giving in.

With that in mind, the spark of hope I can draw from the aftermath of this beautiful young man's death is that most of those who are decrying the violence unleashed on him are *not* calling for "defunding the police" but rather are talking about "reimagining policing." Same goals with a much more palatable choice of words.

Listening to Tyre Nichols's mother's pain brought me to tears. As a mother and loving family member, I can only imagine her horror.

As an advocate for social and racial justice, I hope his death brings a new window of opportunity so that it not just another senseless death.

The next day I posted the link to Nichols’s photography.5

I also spoke with one my relatives in Memphis. He says the incident occurred near where he lives and periodically he drives down that very street. My heart stopped for a moment. Someone whom I dearly love could have been in that same place at that same time????

Myth 1: the American public expects the police to adhere to professional policing ethics when doing their day-to-day jobs.

Tyre Nichols wasn’t just another statistic. He was a young man with hopes and dreams who loved skateboarding and considered himself an amateur photographer.

word hope written on a rock

Yet that is not how the police officers who terrorized him saw him. They were young men themselves, ranging in ages from 24 to 32. We don’t know anything about their hobbies or interests. We do know that in October 2021 they were given the undercover assignment in a 30-person “hot spot policing unit” called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods).

Imagine for a moment the pride they might have felt at being specially selected to serve such an important policing function. Imagine the reduced public accountability that being undercover might have given them. Not being visibly identified as a police officer offers greater freedom to brutalize and intimidate, as so many heroes on the movie screen have shown us. Think of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in “48 Hours”; Denzel Washington in “Training Day”; Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in “Miami Vice.”

The heroes of these movies did not adhere to professional policing protocol, nor did we in the audience expect them to. We glamorize anti-heroes on the TV screen and then wonder how that same behavior ends up happening in real life.

Myth 2: Police violence against Black men is perpetuated only by White police officers.

For sure, Whiteness has been associated with much of the violence. Yet some research studies say there is no correlation.6 7

But here is where it gets tricky. Many people, myself included, were surprised that the five officers were Black. Yet this phenomenon is common.

As Isabel Wilkerson explained in her seminal book, Caste: The origins of our discontents,8 those low on the totem pole will often subjugate members of their own caste when embedded in and beholden to the caste system.

Many cases of mistreatment of people in the lowest caste occur at the hands of those of their same caste, as in the case of Freddie Gray, who died of spinal injuries at the hands of police officers in Baltimore. Gray was handcuffed in the back of a police van but not secured with safety belts, according to court testimony. The van swerved and curved, knocking Grey around the cargo area, handcuffed and unable to keep himself from crashing into the interior walls of the van. Three of the officers involved were Black, including the driver of the van. This combination of factors allowed society to explain away Gray’s death as surely nothing having to do with race, when in fact it was likely caste at work. All of these officers were either acquitted or had their charges dropped.

This phenomenon runs across levels of marginalization. The supervisor of the officers at the chokehold death of Eric Garner was a Black woman. The people hardest on women employees can sometimes be women supervisors under pressure from and vying for the approval of male bosses in a male-dominated hierarchy in which fewer women are allowed to rise. Each of these cases presents a complicated story that presumably dismisses race or sex as a factor, but one that makes perfect sense, and maybe only makes sense, when seen through the lens of a caste system.

The enforcers of caste come in every color, creed, and gender. One does not have to be in the dominant caste to do its bidding. In fact, the most potent instrument of the caste system is a sentinel at every rung, whose identity forswears any accusation of discrimination and helps keep the caste system humming.

Myth 3: The violence can be mainly attributed to sadistic individuals run amok.

One of my mantras is look first at the system, then at individuals. I have written about systems influencing individual behavior multiple times.9 10

I believe that the emphasis on individuals rather than systems is at the root of what allows police violence against young Black men to replicate itself again and again.

In this case, the caste system to which Wilkerson refers is enacted in the police culture as a warrior mindset. A 1992 anecdotal study of threats to police pinpointed the origin of this mindset as “teaching officers to see almost any civilian as a potentially lethal assassin.”11 The two investigators interviewed 50 convicted police killers. In explaining the study’s impact on modern day policing, The New Yorker reported:

At the top of an inventory of “behavioral descriptors” linked to officers who ended up dead, the study listed traits that some citizens might prize: “friendly,” “well-liked by community and department,” “tends to use less force than other officers felt they would use in similar circumstances,” and “used force only as last resort.” The cop killers, the agents concluded from their prison conversations, had attacked officers with a “good-natured demeanor.” An officer’s failure to dominate – to immediately enforce full control over the suspect – proved fatal. “A miscue in assessing the need for control in particular situations can have grave consequences,” the authors warned.

In other words, a culture that encourages dominance as a life-saving measure sets the stage for unrestrained violence.

Now add to that a phenomenon known as mob mentality (aka herd mentality). This occurs when people adopt similar aggressive behaviors to those around them, ignoring their own inner misgivings if indeed they even have any. Researchers discovered that it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd’s direction – and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it.12

The famous Milgram experiment13 showed that people will blindly follow the orders of an authority figure, even when aware that their actions are hurting a presumably innocent person.

Herd mentality makes it easy to imagine why these five officers banded together, drawing energy from each other’s vicious attacks, while other officers watched the violence without intervening. We saw a similar phenomenon during the nine minutes that George Floyd died under the knee of an officer while two others stood by silently. Think of the Germans who suspected something was going on in those concentration camps – or even could smell burning flesh – and yet did nothing because it was none of their business.

The five officers have been arrested and will be charged. Emergency technicians who drove Nichols to the hospital have been suspended.

Brian Buckmire, a felony trial attorney and Law & Crime host, was quoted in one news report as saying he anticipated more arrests coming.

“Why didn’t any of the five officers stop the other officers from beating him up?” said Buckmire, reacting to the 67 minutes of the video footage released Friday. “Why weren’t they shocked when this guy used Nichols’s head like a football? Why didn’t they intervene when the baton got pulled out? Why did they continually hold Nichols up like a punching bag?”14

Think of the courage it takes to go against one’s fellow officers to remind them of the correct protocol for apprehending a suspect. Imagine the effort it takes for that kind of training to become effective and instilled in today’s police warrior culture.

Reimagining police culture

It’s imperative for us to call for reimagining a more humane police culture.

A number of excellent suggestions have been made on how this might occur, including reforming use-of-force approaches; decreasing our expectations of what police should even be able to do by using mental health professionals in nonviolent situations; community policing; eliminating racial profiling; and other reforms. Here are two reform ideas.15 16

Clark Neily of the Cato Institute17 has published a list of reforms, classified by how long they might take to implement:

Short-term reforms

  • Reform qualified immunity
  • Create national standards for training and de-escalation

Medium-term reforms

  • Restructure civilian payouts for police misconduct
  • Address officer wellness

Long-term reforms

  • Restructure regulations for FOP contracts
  • Change police culture to protect civilians and police

As the list shows, changing police culture is considered one of the long-term reforms:

Officers repeatedly view themselves as warriors at war with the people in the communities they serve. Police officers embody an “us versus them” perspective, rather than viewing themselves to be part of the community. (p. 13)

person in military gear

Hizir Kaya on Unsplash

Some of the police training organizations used by municipal officers reinforce that attitude, treating violence as essential to good policing and referring to police reform as the “overhyped effort of leftists and mainstream news organization.” In describing one such training, the Washington Post reported:18

The 29-year-old political commentator [Tomi Lahren] was the most anticipated presenter at the Street Cop Training Conference in Atlantic City in October, pumping up officers at a time when shootings by police, especially of Black civilians, have fueled calls for a rethinking of public safety and most Americans doubt police are adequately trained to avoid using excessive force. Lahren offered a starkly different worldview, one in which Black Lives Matter activists are “thugs, felons and criminals” and a “terrorist organization,” and Democrats are instilling violent chaos in an effort to nationalize policing and restrict individual freedoms.

These are important reforms. As most of us know, cultural change is a slow, agonizing process. Such efforts must include training police officers on what to do when their own members exceed the boundaries of what is good policing. The norm against snitching and for minding one’s own business is strong. How will they learn moral courage and standing up against the condemnation of their own brothers?

It begins with us

As we think about reform or reimagining what policing of tomorrow might look like, let’s also remember that in doing so, we are going against a cultural norm that is deeply embedded in the way we ourselves work and live. And let’s also bring it closer to home and admit the warrior police culture is simply an exaggerated extension of who we ourselves are.

This is how the rest of us are implicated. Many of us witness exclusion, cold-shouldering, dissing, or even verbal brutality in our workplaces or our homes without saying anything. We rally with those who agree with us and disdain those who don’t. We view those whose political differences offend our sense of morality as unworthy of simple kindness or respect. We cling to our projections of others and self-image of who we are as though they are culpable and we are righteous. Viewed this way, at our core, are we really so different from the officers who stood around watching events through a lens that was ingrained in their culture?

How willing are we to speak up when we witness wrongdoing in our workplaces or our communities? In a previous vlog, Mark Hayes talked about the chronic unease that he carried as a White man, willing to use his privilege to support social and racial justice.19 Are we equally willing? Or do we collude in maintaining a culture of “mind our own business and protect our own careers” while witnessing those lower on the totem pole get bullied, demeaned, or simply ignored by those more powerful than themselves and perhaps even ourselves? How complicit are we in our everyday lives?

Taking steps

Last week on a sheer whim, I enrolled in Tony Robbins’s Five Day Unshakeable Challenge.

Five days of Tony, one of the pre-eminent masters of personal breakthroughs, on Zoom, telling us how to effect personal change. I enrolled because I have noticed that some parts of my identity have become stuck, I wanted to break free, and I was interested in his technology for evincing personal change.

Also, I know that parallel processes exist and help determine our behavior. In shorthand, I refer to this phenomenon as “as above, so below.” The emotional tone – or ingrained habits (culture) – that exist in one place in a system recreates itself in part of the system or another culture. Imagine Chuck, who endures verbal abuse from his boss at work, comes home and yells at his partner, who turns around and yells at the kid and the dog. This is how parallel processes work. We imitate one another21 and recreate similar dynamics in different parts of our collective lives.

If we want a cultural dynamic to change, our responsibility is to begin by breaking that dynamic within ourselves. I view it like voting. Does my one vote really make a difference in a country or state or city of several million? By myself no, but every time I vote, I gain satisfaction that I opted in and have done my part.

In several arenas in my life, there is stuckness that I cannot address directly. Lately, I have become more aware of stuckness in national politics, in local politics, in several family and friends. I cannot change those dynamics, but I can change the stuckness in myself, and so I enrolled in Tony’s course.

At the end of Day 1, the homework included these questions:

  1. What is your old identity?
  2. What is your new identity?
  3. What is one professional goal? One personal goal?

I laughed to myself when I saw the questions. I have written about the importance of shifting one’s identity to break unwanted habits.22 23

After stewing about the questions for a few hours, I bit the bullet and wrote out my answers – reluctantly at first, and then felt myself gain steam. A shift suddenly occurred. Too early to say how the shift will play out in my behavior, but I feel a greater sense of freedom than before. I feel more focused on what I have to do and want to do.

If you feel the slightest resistance in answering similar questions for yourself, then you have a hint of what it would take for the police culture to change – for individuals within any given police setting to change and to take a moral stand alone.

What can we do?

First, let’s advocate for that change in police culture and other systemic reforms.

Second, let’s renew our commitment to chronic unease so that we are willing to take whatever action we can when we witness disrespectful or inhumane treatment.

Last, I also encourage you to consider casting a vote for greater freedom in the world in which you want to live by taking on one arena of stuckness within yourself. Write down your answers to Tony’s three questions. Be the stone that creates a ripple in the pond that flows into the river and eventually the ocean.

ripple in water

Ian Keefe on Unsplash

In the words of the iconic song, We Are the World:

There’s a choice we’re making.
We’re saving our own lives…

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How can you contribute to reinvisioning problem policing?
  2. What can you do within yourself to effect these changes?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this post

  • Conscious use of self
    • Accept responsibility for your own contributions
    • Seek to understand others’ perspectives
    • Recognize your power and use it responsibly
  • Initiate change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals
    • Set direction, not fixed outcomes
    • Cultivate radical patience through the time lag of change

#ReimaginePolicing  #ChangingSystems  #PersonalChange

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It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

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1 Wikipedia. (2023). List of unarmed African Americans killed by law enforcement officers in the United States.

2 NAACP statement ahead of the release of the police video in Tyre Nichols’ case.

3 Jean Latting's Facebook post

4 george-lakoff.com

5 T. Nichols Photography. thiscaliforniakid2.wix

6 PNAS. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings.

7 Science. (2019). Study that claims White police no more likely to shoot minorities draws fire.

8 Wilkerson, I, R. Miles (2020). Caste: The origins of our discontents. New York, Random House, p. 244.

9 Blog #45, How to change the belief systems, not the people

10 Blog #92, The buck stops here. Ten obstacles on the road to embracing change

11 (2023). The police folklore that helped kill Tyre Nichols. The New Yorker.

12 Psych Central. Herd mentality explained.

13 Cherry, K. (2022). What was the Milgram experiment?

14 Kandel, J. (2023). Why more charges could be coming in fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols.

15 www.obama.org. Reimagine policing.

16 Pelley, S. Reimagining police departments with safety and justice in mind.

17 Neily, C. (2021). Reimagining policing in America.

18 Klemko, R. (2022). Much of America wants policing to change. But these self-proclaimed experts tell officers they’re doing just fine.

19 Blog #21, From Hardship to allyship: The value of chronic unease with Mark Hays, Part 2

20 Become unshakeable challenge.

21 Rosser, C. Wanting: The power of mimetic desire in everyday life by Luke Burgis.

22 Blog #40, Three strategies for sticking with the changes you want to make

23 Blog #108, For the new year... How to put down the puzzle and happily get back to work