Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, “If you must call a policeman”— for we hardly ever did — “for God’s sake, try to make sure it’s a White one.” A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a White policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you.THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN, JAMES BALDWIN, 1985
James Baldwin, American writer of profound insight, and sadly, a seer who appears to have precisely seen the current state of Black Americans and our relationship with law enforcement, warned us, almost 40 years ago. Baldwin, given his troubled experiences with law enforcement in the United States, was fully aware of the constant threat of being beaten and murdered, without provocation, by white authorities. He was also keenly aware of the threat posed by Black members of law enforcement who embraced a full disregard for the humanity of Black bodies.
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, father of a young son and amateur photographer, was approximately two minutes away from his home when he was stopped by Memphis Police Department officers at 8:24 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2023. The gang-like violent beating, pepper spraying and dumping of his body upon the cold surface Raines Road by Black police officers that proceeded is not merely a direct reflection of Baldwin’s forewarning, but now serves as a stark that Black bodies are seldom the beneficiaries of the state’s mercy, consideration or basic human compassion.
Thirty-one years after the public witnessed the video depicting the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of four white Los Angeles police offices, African Americans continue to live with the threat and trauma of police brutality, primarily targeting young Black men and women.
The 1991 police assault of King may objectively be considered the advent of a forced transparency of law enforcement tactics, revealing a disproportionate application against Black Americans.
The U.S. pandemic of police brutality is a lasting strain of white supremacy and state-sanctioned domestic terrorism by police. Although half of the people shot and killed by police are White, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans, according to investigative reporting by The Washington Post, which has compiled a database of every fatal shooting in the U.S. by a police officer in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 2015. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.
Nichols, the victim of the violent assault by the Memphis police, would sadly be added to the higher-trending list of Black men whose dying words and pleas were captured on closed circuit television.
Daunte Wright (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2021); Ma’Khia Bryant (Columbus, Ohio, 2021); Quadry Sanders (Lawton, Oklahoma, 2021); Andre Hill (Columbus, Ohio, 2020); Manuel Ellis (Tacoma, Washington, 2020); George Floyd (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020); Breonna Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky, 2020); Atatiana Jefferson (Fort Worth, Texas, 2019); Stephon Clark (Sacramento, California, 2018); Terence Crutcher (Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2016); and Aura Rosser (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2014) are amongst the many Black bodies shamelessly disregarded by police departments across the country.
The Jan. 7 brutal beating and subsequent murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers, who are Black, and a cadre of other first responders who stood silently offering now mercy to the bloodied body before them, has again sparked a discussion about the culture and structure of the police state.
The street-level video of Nichols’ guttural screams for rescue, his cries for the protection of his mother’s embrace, who lived only three houses from the corner where the brutal beating occurred, mark another city where the Black bodies may be destroyed at the hands of the state.
What is certain is that all Americans will be asked to draw a sharp distinction between the actions of “some” and “most.” The “bad apples” metaphor will be echoed, once again, to protect the institution of policing, insulating it from objective scrutiny, punitive actions and any necessary reform.
Black American communities, those most vulnerable to the murderous whims of police departments, will once again be challenged with connecting the dots, qualifying what has been consistently revealed with each funeral of the innocent, that the institutions charged with “serving and protecting” are neither objectively structured nor equally accountable for the “protection” of Black bodies.
Tulsa, Oklahoma is a vivid example of how historic and present-day atrocities by the police state, and the resulting protestations of Tulsans, have yielded few reforms, as evidenced by the city’s Tulsa Inequality Indicators, Annual Report 2021. As reported Black youth are arrested at a rate 5 times that of white youth and Black adults are arrested at a rate 3 times that of white adults.
The Daily News, in July 1922, published the violent account of John Smitherman, “a negro deputy sheriff,” who “was seized in his Tulsa hotel rooms [sic] at Tulsa (Oklahoma) on March 16, by a group of armed white men, who took him to a remote spot, flogged him severely.” The excerpt, referenced within a weekly bulletin of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, detailed that Smitherman’s attackers then “cut off an ear, which they forced him to eat.” Smitherman, while recuperating, remembered that two of the assailants “were wearing police badges.” (Alexandrov, 2020).
As what’s past is prologue for Tulsa’s African American communities, specifically applicable to the disregard of Black bodies by the police state. Terence Crutcher, Sr., an unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by then-Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby who responded to a call about Crutcher’s disabled vehicle on 36th Street North just west of North Lewis Avenue on September 16, 2016. Shelby, in defense of her lethal action against Crutcher, would later blame her victim for his death during the manslaughter trial. When asked by Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray Terence “Is Terence Crutcher’s death his fault?” Shelby responded “Yes.” Shelby, like the attackers of Smitherman, would not be fully held accountable for her actions, as she was acquitted in May 2017.
Tulsa police, like far too many local law enforcement agencies, have largely invested the untrustworthy currency of rhetoric, offering public pronouncements of planned oversight, training and workforce diversity, with few tangible outcomes. As reported by The Oklahoma Eagle, “multiple studies have shown that North Tulsa and other marginalized communities lack trust in the Tulsa Police Department. The department performs poorly on a wide array of police equality indicators. One significant contributing cause is a dramatic underrepresentation of minorities in the department. The department’s demographic statistics reflect Black and Hispanic employees are a small fraction of the Tulsa police workforce.” As reflected in the Tulsa Inequality Indicators, Annual Report 2021, Tulsa Police Department employs 4 times more White Tulsans than Hispanic/Latinx Tulsans per capita.
Demands for comprehensive reform of the police state are further supported by eroding public trust. In January 2023, The Oklahoma Eagle revealed that both the 2020 and 2021 Tulsa Annual Report lack information previously provided as recently as 2019 in the TPD Internal Affairs Annual Report. Recent reporting withheld such facts as the demographic makeup of TPD and the increase/decrease of citizen complaints.
To be clear, African American communities do not perceive diversity and oversight as a panacea for racial inequality and unjust treatment. Our communities are fully aware of the broader threat from police state officials, well beyond concerns of representation. What persists, nationally, is the full-throated defense of institutions without regard for the public that they are committed to serve. Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa), perhaps framed our concerns best during the Tyre Nichols vigil in Tulsa on Jan. 29, “This isn’t about bad apples. It’s about poison apples. If we keep focusing on bad apples, we will miss the poison of racism.”
Dr. Maurice O’Brian Franklin is a professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at California State University, Northridge. He is Creek and Chickasaw Freedman. He attributes his activism and social justice commitment to the influences of mom, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, and his 4th great grandfather Buck Colbert Franklin, Bartlett Franklin and his cousin Dr. John Hope Franklin. Dr. Franklin lives in New York City, is a Navy veteran and is a native of Pauls Valley and Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Ross D. Johnson is a principal of The Oklahoma Eagle and editorial contributor.