Freddie Gray. Rayshard Brooks. George Floyd. Tyre Nichols.
I’m tired, y’all. I’m tired of hashtags. I’m tired of trying to comfort families who must bury their Black sons. I’m tired of exhorting my congregation and community to keep faith in the face of unyielding violence and trauma. Yes, I ‘m a witness that you can be divinely anointed and absolutely exhausted at the same time.
Today in Memphis, I, along with faith leaders, activists, government officials including Vice President Kamala Harris, will join the family and friends of Tyre Nichols to mourn his passing and to celebrate his life. A life brutally cut short at the hands of rogue Memphis police officers who punched, kneed, bludgeoned, tased and pepper-sprayed Nichols, leading to his death three days later at a local hospital.
I accept that this is my solemn responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a leader deeply vested in the fight for social justice and civil rights for the past 30 years, but in full transparency, I am heartbroken that I will spend the first day of Black History Month, once again burying a young Black man felled by violence in the same city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was taken from us.
It is doubly horrific that the accused perpetrators of this heinous act of violence are taxpayer-funded police officers who swore an oath to protect and serve. These cowards represent an absolute betrayal of both public trust and basic human decency. And as much as these all-too-frequent episodes of police violence toward Black people shake us to our core, it is hardly shocking that we find ourselves in this space once again trying to encourage ourselves through another unspeakable tragedy.
From the slave patrols of the 1700s, to Jim Crow of the 1900s, the tensions and the hardened divide between the Black community and law enforcement in this country is well-chronicled. We know that far too often our communities are underserved, overpoliced and targeted for harassment and terrorism by the police departments whose salaries we pay. Thousands of Black lives lost are a testament to the intentional and systematic oppression and violence inflicted upon our community for centuries.
I take issue when individuals say “the system is not working” or “the system is broken”; when in fact the system is operating the way it was designed to function and that has been historically detrimental to the Black community and cost Tyre Nichols his life on January 7th in Memphis.
Undoubtedly, there are plenty of good, competent police officers and we appreciate all that they do to keep our families and communities safe. But it is undeniable that, as a whole, law enforcement and policing in this country was never designed for the benefit of Black communities and remain a very real threat and source of trauma for Black people, especially Black men.
There are no tweaks or minor adjustments to the system that will change these facts. If policing and the criminal justice system are ever going to be fair and equitable for all, there needs to be a complete overhaul and comprehensive retooling, refocusing, and reimagining of the system, its purpose and in many cases, its leadership.
That reformation must start with Congress passing the George Floyd Act and with local municipalities disbanding all specialized units within their police force. These units, operating without proper supervision and given broad latitude to color outside of the lines, set the environment for rogue cops to abuse their power, steal and to kill.
From Atlanta’s Red Dogs to Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force to the Memphis P.D.’s Scorpion unit that illegally stopped and eventually murdered our dear brother, son and father Tyre Nichols, these units, not only terrorize the Black community, they represent some of the biggest police corruption scandals in American history. They are poorly trained, lack oversight and are proof that thugs don’t only hang out on the corner; some of them are clad in blue and are an existential threat to Black people.
These units are vestiges of the era of stop-and-frisk policing when officers routinely harassed people in high-crime areas. It’s a practice that judges have declared unconstitutional after finding it disproportionately affected communities of color.
We need to usher in competent, evidence-based strategies for 21st-century policing. We must hold our elected officials at every level responsible for not only asking the hard questions of their law enforcement leadership but putting forth a plan, with the community as a partner, to promote reform, accountability and transparency.
The heralded abolitionist Frederick Douglass rightly boasted that he “got more done when I got off my knees”. This moment is a clarion call for the community of faith to do more than offer hashtags, thoughts and prayers alone. We must, despite our exasperations, unite more than ever in our responsibility to push our society forward. My faith and God’s word commands that we do not grow weary in well-doing, believing that a harvest of justice and righteousness awaits us if we faint not. We must use this moment to stand for Tyre, his family and the many nameless, faceless victims of police brutality.
Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant is the senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest. He is also an author, activist and civil rights leader.
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