“Hello, parents!” That was the phrase, offered by Tyre’s mother as a normal greeting from him when he came into the house, that broke me this time. As executive director of Emancipate NC, I fight against systemic and institutional racism every day. Doing so requires absorbing the grief of parents and loved ones who have suffered state-sanctioned violence at the hands of law enforcement.
The proximity to suffering can numb you. But, in every case I have ever been involved with, there is a moment where the massive harm of white supremacy breaks through and guts me. “Hello, parents” was it. Why? Because my children greet my husband and I with the same refrain when they enter our home. When his mother shared that greeting on CNN, Tyre became my child and the community auntie in me broke down.
Tyre Nichols was beaten to death, steps from the safety of his home, because America refuses to acknowledge the way white supremacy terrorizes Black Americans. He was also not the only Black American sacrificed at the altar of white supremacy recently. He is just the one we have been given permission to be outraged about.
On January 17, an unarmed Black man, Darryl Williams, was tased to death by the Raleigh Police Department in Raleigh, North Carolina. Donovan Lewis was killed by police in Columbus, Ohio five months ago when he was shot, Black, unarmed, and asleep in his bed. His family is still seeking justice. But America only allows us to mourn one state-sanctioned murder at a time, so you probably don’t know Darryl or Donovan’s names.
Nor do we know the names of the millions of Black people who walk around with the scars and trauma of being terrorized by modern day slave patrols masquerading as state sanctioned law enforcement officers, insulated from accountability by white supremacy and institutional racism. The effect of not naming or even acknowledging our collective harm and trauma as a result of the many acts of terror perpetrated by law enforcement on Black Americans every day serves the nefarious purpose of deeming our pain trivial and unworthy of outrage. White supremacy is a master gaslighter.
Tyre was murdered by a special unit called SCORPION. Darryl was murdered by a unit specializing in proactive policing. The problem isn’t these special units. Disbanding them feels good, but doesn’t tear out the roots of the white supremist tree the fruit of modern day policing grows on. We need to cut down the tree of white supremacy, starting with dismantling systemic racism in policing.
Modern policing is the great grandchild of slave catchers and slave patrols. While historians quibble about the accuracy of that statement, the way policing shows up in the communities of Black and brown people rendors belaboring the truth of the statement moot. America and its systems are all designed to support, feed, and nurture white elitism and supremacy while simultaneously treating Black, brown and indigenous people as economic commodities, unworthy of the same autonomy, rights, or privileges reserved for white America. American policing was designed and has always been used to maintain the systems of white supremacy and squash any elements of society attempting to make change.
One need only look to American history to see how law enforcement has been used as the enforcement arm of white supremacy. Hence why extremist politicians are looking to get rid of Black history in schools. Jim Crow laws were brutally enforced by law enforcement to control newly-freed Black bodies. One of the most notable incidents was the police participating in the murder of three freedom riders in Mississippi. Codifying and sanitizing the gangs of armed white men, given full immunity to hunt Black people and those who believe in our civil rights, does not cleanse policing of its rotten historical stench.
Maintaining white supremacy has always been the goal of policing. This simple truth is the reason policing cannot be reformed. Modern policing must be abolished, creating space for new systems of safety to rise from its ashes.
Some people will say that because the officers who beat Tyre to death were Black, that’s proof positive that violent policing is not rooted in white supremacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. White supremacy and the protection of it is the sole responsibility of systemic and institutional racism. Systemic racism is defined as systems and structures, like law enforcement and the carceral system as a whole, that have procedures and processes that disadvantage Black people. Heavy emphasis on the “system.”
As a result, no matter who the individual actor is, as long as they are acting as agents of a system designed to defend white supremacy, their actions will always produce the desired results. That is why increasing diversity in police forces, racial equity training, nor policies like the implementation of body cameras – once thought to be the great equalizer in creating police accountability — have not eliminated the racist outcomes like the murders of Tyre, Darryl, or Donovan.
Until we commit to addressing the white supremacy policing is designed to protect, no incremental change will matter. Policing in its current form has to be abolished and replaced with core values that are designed to actually create community safety.
People are wary of the term “abolish,” but just like slavery, our violent system of policing can and should be abolished. Is abolition a proposition fraught with unknown? Yes. Does that mean it is not worth the effort? No.
Remember that it has only been in the most recent past of American history that communities of color even looked to the police to maintain safety. Black communities in particular, always self-managed with love, compassion, fairness and restoration. We can look to the past to learn what our future should look like and there are groups of people all over the country actually doing just that.
A group of mothers in Chicago, Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), take shifts walking the streets interrupting violence, but also reminding people of their better selves. Durham, North Carolina has invested in multiple HEART Teams: Holistic Empathic Assistance Response. This is a promising program designed to remove law enforcement from situations involving non-violent mental health issues or quality of life concerns. Which, as quiet as it is kept, is the majority of what law enforcement currently spends their time addressing.
There is also a need for grassroots Black-led organizations doing police accountability work across the country to join forces and work to beat back white supremacy with a collective bat. The Black Freedom Collective, a coalition formed with the help of Community Change, is doing just that. Black-led organizations with common goals are collaborating to create a national message and strategy around creating safety for all of our communities, especially Black communities. Combined efforts and seeing that abuses against one, no matter the geographical location, are abuses against us all, will create the people power needed to abolish biased systems and institutions.
The bottom line is that once we create space in the universe to actually imagine our lives without the status-quo police, the alternatives will grow like a flower from cracked concrete. Before that work can begin, however, there must be a reckoning with white supremacy in America. Until then, we will keep raging into the machine and dreading the next hashtag.