My View: How Long Must We Sing This Song?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

“I Can’t believe the news today…  I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…  How long, how long must we sing this song?” – U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday

Memphis, Tennessee – Here we go again.  Change comes slowly.  It comes with the price of blood, a pound of flesh.  In the last 30 years, it has been generated by moral outrage.  Rodney King.  Oscar Grant.  Michael Brown.  Eric Garner.  George Floyd.  There are many other names in between.  Tyre Nichols is only the latest.  He won’t be the last.

Fredrick Douglass was right… “Without a struggle there can be no progress.”

It’s of small consolation to the mounting body count of Black and brown bodies.  The anguish of families.  The fear and anxiety of other families of young Black and brown boys.

As we were watching yesterday, my wife said we’re going to have to have the “talk” with our youngest.  He’s just 11.  He’s already almost my size.  He’ll be viewed as a threat.

As Ben Harper once sang, “Can’t walk the street, to them we are fair game.  Our lives don’t mean a thing.”

John Hamasaki, the former SF Police Accountability Board Member and candidate for DA, tweeted, “It’s fascinating watching all of the politicians speak out on Tyre Nichols, who will absolutely go back to backing police unions and blocking reform on Monday. Real inspiring.”

We saw this after George Floyd.  Mainstream politicians suddenly proclaiming “black lives matter” and even cops were taking a knee.  There was a general air of indignation over that one.  Thousands took to the streets.  Real changes were proposed.  Some of them implemented.

But the movement just as quickly vanished.

In fairness it took them a whole four to six weeks to go back after George Floyd.

The proposals were too extreme for some.  Defund the police.  Abolish the police.

The biggest problem though was the surge in crime that accompanied the pandemic.  That took the energy out of the movement because middle America and even the upper middle class white liberal core of the movement got scared and suddenly the police had the upper hand again.

But the problem is not going to go away.  It can’t.  It’s systemic.  It’s systemic racism.  Baked into the system..  Separate from individual actors.

The right has attempted to make things like “critical race theory” into the boogeyman.  A bad word.

But as Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa point out in their monumental book about George Floyd’s killing, the key part of the framework is that it “examined racism as a systemic problem embedded in institutions rather than an assessment of individual actions.”

The problem of systemic racism is difficult to untangle because people’s reaction to systemic racism is to argue, I have Black friends or I never look at race.

Both are flawed responses, but the important thing is that systemic racism is not about individual prejudice or actions, it is about institutional rules and practices that bake in years of oppression to produce a result that is disproportionate.

What Memphis teaches us is that incremental change is probably not going to work.

Everything we have been taught is probably wrong.

The first lesson of Rodney King— “be sure that’s filmed, shown on national TV.”

It was an accident of history that Rodney King was filmed.  It was not an accident that George Floyd or Tyre Nichols were.

A bystander happened to be trying out their camcorder in 1991 when they saw the beating of Rodney King and started filming.  It was an eye opening experience for the white community.  For generations, Black and brown people had been beaten by police safely outside of the eyes of white America who could easily look away and pretend it was not happening.

After Rodney King, they could only claim this was an exception.  They could no longer deny it was happening.

Michael Brown was not captured on video.  But Eric Garner was.  None of it actually mattered.  The police got away with all three of those.

But still, we told ourselves—if only we have video, we can at least hold the police accountable.

Now everyone carries their own video camera in their pocket and most jurisdictions—even Memphis—have body worn cameras.

In a way it’s progress.

But what we learned is that the cameras themselves are not enough.  Watch the video.  Listen to the audio.  The cops were laughing and bragging about how many times they punched him.  They talked about “haymakers” and how badly they “F-ed” him up.

They were wearing body worn cameras.  It stopped them not.

We saw what it took to convict Derek Chauvin of George Floyd’s murder.  These former officers will now face a similar prospect.  While it is still a dicey proposition to actually convict police officers of this type of misconduct, it is happening more and more.

And yet… it didn’t stop these guys from killing Tyre Nichols.  It hasn’t slowed down the body count.

Finally, of course, is the fact that all five of these officers were Black.

Remember when the big call was for there to be more diversity in police departments.  Don’t get me wrong—there has been and there still is.

Then again, on the streets they always knew that wasn’t going to protect the lives of Black and brown people.

NWA famously rapped “don’t let it be a black and a white one… ‘Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top… Black police showin’ out for the white cop.”

It can’t be racist if it was five Black cops, right?  Remember the definition of institutional racism.  Those five Black cops have been trained and experienced in a pervasive culture that is problematic.

There is no doubt that we needed and still need more diversity in the police.  But that’s not a fix.

I saw a stat that 58 percent of the police force in Memphis is Black.  That’s slightly less diverse than the community as a whole, but at the end of the day, 85 percent of the people who are on the receiving end of police use of force are Black.  It is still disproportionate.

Look at that image at the top, it looks a lot like Rodney King.  The only difference is that it’s five Black officers instead of four white ones.  Is that really progress?

What we have learned then is that incremental reform is not the solution to this problem.  When the outrage dies down after this incident, as it will, things will go back to the way they were, maybe with small incremental changes, until the next one happens.

“How long, how long must we sing this song?”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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