The spectacle of a televised countdown to the showing of the video in which Tyre Nichols was savagely beaten by Memphis, Tennessee, police officers doesn’t just theatricalize Black death; it is a damning indictment of American perversion.
It was horrific, as promised, but unfortunately not singularly so. It was instead yet another data point in a long line of videos showing the torturing of Black bodies by police. It was more snuff porn with Black victims in a country becoming desensitized to the violence because of its sheer volume.
America — and the world — had the realization that police violence was a problem, and then it simply walked away before the work was done and the war was won.
After the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the historic summer of protest that followed, police killings of American citizens didn’t decrease; they increased. What fell away were the evanescent allies, poll-chasing politicians and cooped-up COVID kids who had used the protests as an opportunity to congregate.
Even Black people’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement eventually began to fall.
And as Americans shifted to other priorities such as politics and the economy, the broader public became desensitized to police killings, or it callously started to see the police killings as unfortunate but ultimately acceptable byproducts of much-needed increased policing at a time of rising crime.
To break through, a killing would have to be truly gruesome and barbaric, the circumstances around it truly ghoulish and the victim of it truly unassailable.
That case has now arrived with the death of Nichols, a Black man, after his horrific beating at the hands of five Black Memphis police officers.
Authorities moved relatively quickly to fire, arrest and aggressively charge the officers.
But instead of leaping to my feet to applaud a system working as it should, rather than as it was designed, I am stuck on the fact that there should have been federal legislation to prevent such killings.
But there wasn’t, and there isn’t, because America has once again failed Black people who were pleading for help and demanding it.
America should be ashamed. It abandoned the issue of police reform.
After COVID lockdowns eased and people were once again gathered for things other than protest, their priorities snapped back to a noninterventionist normality. Their cabin-fever racial consciousness was like some kind of delirium, an outgrowth of end-of-the-world ideations.
As the world reopened, elections approached and crime and inflation rose in tandem, interest in police reform and protecting Black lives from police violence melted away like ice cubes on a summer sidewalk.
And with it, America was taught some horrendous lessons that do more harm to the quest for equality than the protests did to promote it.
Black people were taught that for some, interest in their safety had simply been a dernier cri, that allyship could be transitory and transactional, that some people entered the fight through a turnstile and that when their interest and energy waned, they exited the same way.
Too many liberal politicians showed us that their commitment to legislation, and even language, to protect Black lives from police violence was polling dependent, not rooted in moral rectitude or core values but governed by their ideas’ public appeal. When the winds shifted, these politicians spun like a weather vane.
They ran scared of being labeled woke or supporting a “defund the police” ideology. Rather than rebrand a laudable effort to be smarter about how municipal funds are allocated with a more acceptable slogan, they did the lazy, politically expedient thing: They raced to neutralize the idea by proclaiming their direct opposition to it, not defunding the police but increasing funding to police.
Police unions also learned a lesson: that they could survive the most intense and coordinated denunciation of their practices they had ever faced and still dodge federal legislation to address the violence that happens on their watch.
Yes, states including California and New York moved quickly, while the issue was still in vogue, to rewrite some criminal codes, and a smattering of cities increased protection by doing things such as strengthening “duty to intervene” policies, but national reform remained elusive.
If there are rare occasions to employ a cliché, this is one: They dodged the bullet.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is at present an anecdotal one. It is the seeming impact that Black women have had to disrupt the system when given power not necessarily to prevent violent excesses but at least to punish them.
The police chief who moved quickly to fire the officers in the Nichols case is a Black woman.
When Rayshard Brooks was killed in Atlanta at a drive-thru, the mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Black woman, accepted the resignation of her police chief and decided that the officers should be fired immediately. (Unfortunately, the officers were not eventually charged in the case, sued the city and were reinstated.)
When a white Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, walked into the apartment of Botham Shem Jean and shot him to death, Police Chief U. Reneé Hall, a Black woman, moved quickly to secure a warrant for the officer’s arrest. Guyger was convicted of murder in the case.
I don’t want to imply that a handful of cases are universally revelatory but to circle them as curiosities worthy of keeping an eye on.
Rather than pointing to a system that is evolving and becoming more humane, these examples only underscore the racialized nature of the system and how slow it has been to act in places where neither the people in power nor the accused officers were Black.
Tyre Nichols’ death isn’t only an individual tragedy; he is now a marquee victim of a predacious system that America has lost its willingness to confront. The untreated wound, still festering, bled through the gauze.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.