Last week on the first day of Black History Month, RowVaughn Wells buried her son, Tyre Nichols. He was a bright and gentle man known for the beautiful photographs he took of sunsets. He was beaten to death by the Memphis police.
During the memorial service, family and friends spoke lovingly of Tyre. Yet they didn’t only speak of him. They held vigil for all of the families who were grieving equally senseless losses. They offered long litanies of victims’ names that have now become hashtags. Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, sat in a pew in Memphis last week. Breonna, who was killed by the Louisville police in 2020, shared the same birthday as Tyre. Listening to the service, one couldn’t help but feel that we weren’t only grieving for one man, but for more people than we could name, count or comprehend.
According to a new analysis by Mapping Police Violence and confirmed by reporting in The Washington Post, killings by police in the United States reached a record high in 2022. Police killed an average of three people a day last year, nearly 100 every month. Black Americans were three times more likely to be killed than white Americans. In 32% of cases, the person killed by the police was running away. These are shocking numbers to read after all of these years of traumatic videos, hashtags, protests and promises of reform. How can things actually be getting worse?
One answer might be that they have become ritualized. We have seen the pattern play out before. Watching Tyre Nichols’ memorial filled with mourners in a Black church evoked a sickening sense of déjà vu. Tyre’s mother called for change. But it’s hard to imagine public officials are listening. They send condolences, offer platitudes and then move so slowly that nothing ever changes. Greater Charleston is a case in point.
After Walter Scott was shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer in 2015, the community came together to demand an audit of racial bias in our police departments. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, in particular, kept up the pressure on public officials to begin that work. It took almost three years of concerted effort — speaking at meetings, writing letters, making calls and appointments, protesting, holding press conferences — for the city of Charleston to agree to audit its police department. North Charleston took even longer. The city where Walter Scott was killed waited five years before performing the independent audit that citizens had been calling for. The fact that anything happened at all can be credited to the relentless engagement, persistence and courage of ordinary people who showed up week after week, month after month, and year after year. Yet that’s not the end of the story.
At the writing of this column, Charleston and North Charleston continue to move at a glacial pace. Charleston’s police audit made 72 recommendations. According to the city’s website, it is now in full compliance with 33 recommendations. That’s less than half. Again, North Charleston is worse. A year after their audit’s recommendations were made, only 18% have been implemented.
So this is where we find ourselves at the start of Black History Month. It has been just a few days since Tyre Nichols was buried and nearly eight years since we laid flowers for Walter Scott. Almost no substantive change has been achieved. According to the national numbers, police are killing more Americans than ever – and they are still disproportionately Black.
At the end of Tyre’s memorial, a man stood behind the pulpit and began to sing Sam Cooke’s classic, “A Change is Gonna Come.” “It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he sang, “but I know a change gon’ come.”
I cried as he sang because the song sounded like a dream to me. I’m not sure that a change is going to come. Not at the rate our officials are going. Not unless they hear from all of us. Not unless we demand change nationally with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and locally from officials who have shown no sense of urgency in implementing police reform.
This month, maybe we could honor Black history by doing something for the Black present. In Tyre’s name. In all their names.
The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge is senior pastor at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.
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