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Analysis | The stubborn persistence of the American policing problem


You won’t believe the video released Friday night, which shows Memphis police officers beating a young black man – eventually dead.

Of course I don’t really mean that. If you live in the US and participate in society, you probably have no trouble believing that a gang of violent police officers fatally beat Tire Nichols in what the city’s police chief accurately described as a “gruesome” attack. If you have an internet connection or a television, you’ve probably seen similar videos of police officers killing black men, as well as women, in other US cities. For example, by suffocating. Or shoot in the back. You may have seen videos where police don’t kill black men, but only attack them while lying down or otherwise defenseless.

Occasionally, videos surface of police killing or beating a white man. Statistically, those attacks are less common. But they are just as real. Since 2015, police officers have shot and killed more than 1,000 people a year in the US, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. That’s almost three deaths a day.

America has a police problem. And the police problem is rooted in (although not exclusively) the race problem, which in turn is so deeply rooted in our national character that it is enshrined in the Constitution. Martin Luther King Jr. was not arrested and thrown in jail by the Ku Klux Klan. That’s what the police did. John Lewis was not beaten bloody in Selma by the Proud Boys of 20th century Alabama. The attackers were men who wore badges, wielded clubs and earned salaries from the state coffers.

Things have changed. Except in all the ways they don’t have. Philando Castile was not shot by drug dealers. It was the police again.

Black Lives Matter is a statement of ambition, not a fact. That remains the core of the problem. Many of the problems of American policing, including the militarization of troops, stem from that reality, which is a constant source of national unease.

The fact that all five violent police officers in Memphis are black had no bearing on the fatality. Yet it is nonetheless politically significant. It provides an opportunity for a more forceful national discussion, one a little less hampered by the inevitable brandishing of claims of white racial innocence. It wasn’t white cops this time. But it was the same familiar system, which produced a familiar result.

Washington has proven to be a poor source of remedies. Meanwhile, the cities and towns where many publicized police killings have taken place seem unable to address the widespread causes and consequences. We don’t see many regional congressional hearings anymore. But maybe it’s time for Congress — or at least those parts of Congress that are willing and able — to hold hearings in Memphis and other cities mired in police brutality. In the role of a judge riding the circuit, political leaders must heed the call for justice and report what they hear to the nation. that spawned American freedom, but rarely addressed the problem’s intractable persistence. But that gritty persistence is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, which is why the reaction forces are frantically banning the teaching of history and literature and anything else that threatens to make the friction louder, more visible, and more difficult.

In many ways, Memphis is an appropriate place to begin the final round of questions about why America cannot or will not leave its own glorious path. The city is poor and broken. It is also a place of unparalleled enthusiasm that has heaped wealth, real and cultural, on America and the world. A former cotton exchange, the town stands at the intersection of Elvis and BB King, Sun and Stax; it changed the world in a way that still reverberates. His siren song was so lively and sharp that Vaclav Havel credited it as piercing the bland brutality of communist Eastern Europe.

Memphis is also the city where Dr. King, arguably the most majestic American of the 20th century, was shot dead. It is a city with a daring beginning and a dreaded end. Maybe we can start there and work our way, north and south, east and west, to freedom.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Police training is expensive and it’s still not enough: Stephen Carter

• In Philadelphia, teens want guns off the street: Francis Wilkinson

• Police reformers must choose their battle: Robert George

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who reports on American politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, communications consultant and political media strategist.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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