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After Tyre Nichols, can they finally say those three simple words?

As a mother mourns her son, some in Congress are still missing the point

As RowVaughn Wells mourns her son, a divided Congress appears unlikely to enact new laws on police reform, Curtis writes. Above, Wells sits with Vice President Kamala Harris at Wednesday's funeral service for Tyre Nichols.
As RowVaughn Wells mourns her son, a divided Congress appears unlikely to enact new laws on police reform, Curtis writes. Above, Wells sits with Vice President Kamala Harris at Wednesday's funeral service for Tyre Nichols. (Andrew Nelles-Pool/Getty Images)

Black Lives Matter.

Now, can everyone understand the desperate, defiant power of those three words? Can all those who tried to act as though they didn’t get why the phrase needed to be said — over and over — finally stop pretending?

After viewing, listening to, reading about the video that laid bare the torture of Tyre Nichols by an armed gang, operating under the cover of law in Memphis, can anyone honestly insist that it’s the slogan that’s the problem?

Is there anyone out there still wondering that if only protesters’ signs had read “All Lives Matter,” the police would have looked at Tyre Nichols and seen a son and a father, a handsome young man who loved his mother’s home-cooked meals, who photographed sunsets and practiced skateboard tricks?

Would tacking a “too” onto the phrase have made the police listen to the 29-year-old on the night of Jan. 7, or answer his questions about why he was being detained? Would it have stopped the police from barking out 71 confusing, conflicting commands in 13 minutes, as The New York Times calculated, from punishing his slight body mercilessly when he was unable to comply?

When politicians call for nonviolence from those weary of being treated as “less than,” where are the calls for nonviolence from those charged with keeping the peace?

America is a country steeped in violence — no explanation needed after a litany of mass shootings in this new year. And now, the country has experienced a countdown to the release of a horrific video of a Black man being treated, as one of his lawyers put it, like a “human piñata.”

More proof, though none was needed, that Black Lives Matter is not in the training in any of the 18,000 police departments with different rules and regulations but depressingly similar outcomes.

Just listen to the officers’ profane bragging about getting their piece of the disgusting action, all while the barely conscious body of Tyre Nichols leans slumped against a police car and no one bothers to render aid or comfort.

Who could be shocked, when this kind of behavior has been celebrated far beyond the confines of an “elite” unit of supposed crime-stoppers?

America may no longer advertise the public lynchings of Black citizens — as it did in a past that is not as distant as some would like to think — so whites could tote picnic lunches and children to public spectacles, memorialized and fetishized, with postcards and pieces of bodies saved as souvenirs.

But in the first month of 2023, the Republican Women’s Club of South Central Kentucky thought it was a great idea to promote and feature as guest speaker one of the officers who fired shots in the no-knock raid that resulted in the death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. This is after admissions that information that led to the warrant’s approval was falsified.

When these genteel, I’ll wager churchgoing, ladies brought in Jonathan Mattingly — formerly of the Louisville Metro Police Department — to share his tale of being as much of a victim as Taylor, unsuspecting patrons of the restaurant where the event was held were subjected to the amplified sounds of gunshots and images of that night. And the club’s statement to Spectrum News that Mattingly “has the right to share his experience” makes pretty clear their members’ regard for Breonna Taylor’s life — and death.

In Memphis, the responding officers, most of them Black, obviously have absorbed the lessons on who counts in America, and have proved that something is fundamentally wrong with the culture of policing, when “law and order” too often becomes the rationale for how officers see and oversee minority communities that only want to be served and protected.

A change in how Americans view one another and how too many police see Black citizens as perps, even when they’re calling for their mothers, might be a long time coming, at least if legislation is part of the solution.

After George Floyd was murdered by law enforcement in Minneapolis, Americans marched, and there were calls for police reform. Then, attention waned. Republicans returned to a “soft on crime” attack on opponents in the other party, and with a weaponized “defund the police” charge that the majority of Democrats never supported but still feared, it was predictable that all but the most committed would back off.

Talks and action plans on police reform led by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and then-Rep. Karen Bass, both Democrats, and GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina fell apart in 2021, with the issue of “qualified immunity” — how much and whether to hold officers responsible for civil rights violations — a sticking point.

In a divided Congress, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, forecast future progress when he dismissed the effectiveness and, presumably, the need for any new laws on “Meet the Press.” Jordan, like most everyone except those on the fringe who will always blame the victim when the victim is Black, said he thinks the videos were awful.

But Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, also said, “I don’t know that there’s any law that can stop that evil that we saw,” perhaps forgetting Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote that “while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

If something does not change, expect more heartlessness, perhaps not captured on videos, but experienced by those who have been witness for far too long. The Tyre Nichols video hopefully will be the “this time” that will help his mother heal, knowing her son’s death made some difference, even in the hearts and minds of those who can’t imagine such scenes in “their” America.

But know that for many, those scenes were no surprise.

The surprise is that anyone ever doubted the necessity of a chant asserting the basic humanity of Black Americans.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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