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Newsletter:  Tyre Nichols’ killers were Black. We still need to talk about racist policing

People gather to protest police violence. One person holds an image of Tyre Nichols with his name and 'rest in power'
People gather in Oakland to protest police violence after video of Tyre Nichols’ beating by Memphis, Tenn., officers was released recently.
(Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

I cannot think of a worse way to begin the first Opinion newsletter of Black History Month than with a discussion of yet more police violence against African Americans, but here we are. It’s as if I am a weekly reminder of every American pathology: Last Saturday it was a few California mass shootings (one of which occurred in my area, necessitating a response from my children’s school district superintendent), and today it’s the horrendous beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis, Tenn., police officers.

But the officers who killed Nichols, some point out, were themselves Black, so racism isn’t part of this, right? (I suspect the police apologists who make this argument wouldn’t exactly be eager to talk about racism if the officers had been white.) Well, not exactly. Both The Times’ editorial board and op-ed contributor Erin Aubry Kaplan addressed this point after the Memphis Police Department released the video of its officers beating Nichols.

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The editorial board:

“Nichols was Black, and so are the five officers who attacked him and who were quickly fired and charged with second-degree murder. (A sixth officer, who is white, was suspended Monday pending the outcome of an investigation.) The departure from the sickeningly common narrative of white officers killing unarmed Black civilians has led some to claim that race was not a factor in this incident, or even in other police killings of unarmed Black men in recent years. ‘It takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement [are] about race,’ Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who is Black, told CNN’s Don Lemon.

“Yet white drivers are rarely, if ever, pulled from their cars and beaten to death without provocation by police officers of any race. The Memphis video demonstrates merely that Black officers can as easily as their white counterparts become instruments of a brutal law enforcement system that was largely shaped by historical white privilege. The argument that the officers in the Nichols killing proved race was not an issue has little more validity than a claim that, say, a few Black slave masters in pre-Civil War Charleston, S.C., proved slavery was not rooted in race. It obviously was.”

And here’s part of what Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote:

“When we think of internalized racism, we tend to think of street gangs like the Crips and Bloods killing each other, which is deplorable. But violence committed against ordinary Black people by Black cops who are sworn to protect and serve communities already reeling from violence is beyond deplorable; it’s depraved.

“It is the easy, almost thoughtless embrace of that depravity by the Black officers in Memphis that really sunk me. From the first moment of the encounter with Nichols, they bullied, threatened and threw around profanities like they were itching for a bar fight.

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“They didn’t bother to tell a clearly terrified Nichols what he was being stopped for. They knew, as cops and as Black men, that no explanation was required. Being part of a special unit charged with reducing the homicide rate in Black neighborhoods emboldened them further: Using any force necessary to tamp down Black criminality, a spurious given, is a time-honored American tradition.”

In reaction, I’ve read letters and comments decrying this insistence on discussing race. Well, yeah — let’s insist. Often in these cases, I recall then-U.S. Atty Gen. Eric Holder’s comment in 2009 that when it comes to discussions of race, America is a “nation of cowards,” and that “if we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another — and tolerant enough of each other — to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.” The “cowards” bit drew swift backlash from his and President Obama’s implacable critics, but events since then have proved Holder right: The eagerness to discuss anything other than race after each exposed instance of police violence against Black Americans evinces the fear of frank racial dialogue in our national discourse.

As for policy suggestions to curb law enforcement brutality ...

End qualified immunity for police. George Floyd’s murder in 2020 is believed to have set off the racial reckoning this nation long needed, especially in law enforcement. But in 2022, police in America killed a record number of people. UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz says it’s time to retire the legal doctrine that shields police from legal liability: “After Floyd’s murder, Congress and many states took up legislation that would in effect end qualified immunity. But union officials and other defenders of the status quo argued passionately against them, claiming that police officers and local governments would be bankrupted for reasonable mistakes without qualified immunity. There is no evidence to support such claims.” L.A. Times

Here’s more from the Opinion section this week, too:

The video of Nichols’ murder is unbearable. But it shows why we need stories of both Black pain — and joy. You can’t make this point any better than author Cassandra Lane: “I am on the side of Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted that the world see the monstrosity of what racists had done to her son Emmett Till. I am on the side of filmmakers such as Chinonye Chukwu, director of the movie ‘Till,’ and Marissa Jo Cerar, director of the TV series ‘Women of the Movement.’ Both works follow Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son’s murder, but also capture the beauty of their subjects and the empowering activism that rose out of tragedy. I don’t want an end to these stories. I want all stories — well-told.” L.A. Times

Karen Bass bungled her first test on public safety. Our new mayor was in a unique position to set the Los Angeles Police Department on a better course. With the reappointment of Chief Michel Moore before the Police Commission, the mayor who built her career on critiquing law enforcement could have publicly laid out her expectations of the department under its next leader. Instead, the commission rushed Moore’s approval this week, and Bass posted her letter supporting his reappointment after the deed was done. The editorial board expresses disappointment: “Is Moore the right LAPD chief? The question is moot. He’s the chief we have, and will have for a while (a supermajority of the City Council could override the reappointment, but that’s unlikely). He will do what is right in his own eyes — until the mayor is ready to better lay out her public safety path for Los Angeles.” L.A. Times

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Stay off Mt. Baldy. It’s dangerous, and rescue workers deserve a break. I’ve hiked L.A. County’s highest mountain numerous times, so I feel the mountain’s pull during the winter. A lot of others feel it too, with tragic results: In January alone, 15 lost or hurt hikers were rescued from the area around Baldy, and two died. I say it’s time for L.A. hikers — even hardened mountaineers who use equipment like crampons and ice axes — to give overworked search-and-rescue teams a break and stay off Baldy. L.A. Times

The healing of the ozone layer gives hope, but addressing climate change will be harder. Actions to curb the pollutants that weakened our atmospheric protection against ultraviolet radiation are being cited as a guide for fighting climate change. Humanity deserves a pat on the back for saving the ozone layer, but climate change is a different challenge. Says the editorial board: “Fossil fuels are also far more ubiquitous in our society than the chemicals that caused ozone depletion, with fewer applications, mostly in air conditioning and refrigeration, as propellants in aerosol cans and in foams and solvents, and were replaced over time with ozone-safe alternatives with little disruption to the economy. Oil and gas are piped and shipped across nations and pumped into our vehicles and homes. Petrochemicals are widespread in the products we use daily. Practically every kind of consumption — from the food we eat to the vehicles we use — contributes to climate change.” L.A. Times

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.

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