Writing about the death of another Black man at the hands of the police has become an exercise in restraint. I grieve, but I fear my grief will cause me to speak too quickly, without care, and without the consideration that Tyre Nichols deserves.
If I rush to speak, and all of my emotions flood onto the page, I may show people a truth that they are not yet ready to accept. Every word coming from a Black elected leader must be curated carefully, because I know that my pain will be used against me, and more importantly, used against “us.” But in this case, I must take the risk, because showing my humanity has value.
Speaking about the pain that the system of policing causes to racialized people, to Black and Indigenous people, tends to elicit division. It divides because the moral and ethical responsibility to seek justice in an unjust society contends with the comforts and convenience that injustice brings to some. It divides because it calls for citizens to reject the benefits that systems of exploitation have afforded so many.
We live in a systemically racist society. It has been built upon the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized people through slavery and settler-colonialism. The markers of this injustice have swelled today into very public protests, loud political declarations, and quiet tears of rage, fear, and guilt.
These markers are well known. Consider how the rates of incarceration for racialized people far exceed those of their non-racialized counterparts. The same disproportionate representation of racialized people can be seen in poverty, foster care, maternal mortality rates. It can also be seen in the flood of images of Black people’s death at the hands of the police, which has become an expectation of our yearly news cycle.
When I was a teacher, I once spoke candidly to a student who, while lamenting the murder of George Floyd, expressed a fear that people would eventually forget the lessons learned, the emotions felt, and the momentum behind the call to end systemic oppression.
I said: “Don’t worry, there will be another body.”
I felt shame at how easily I said those words. I spoke without care, without the consideration that for some students this was the first death to punctuate the weight that all Black people – all racialized people – will eventually bear. Systemic oppression impacts us all, just in varying and different ways.
So many racialized people have been hardened through repeated exposure to the abuses and murders that they may forget that for some, the names of Tyre Nichols and George Floyd may be the first names registered on a list in their heads that will grow every time a new murder becomes known to us. This is why I fear speaking too quickly or flippantly, without the care Tyre Nichols deserves.
I keep thinking about that student, what she is seeing, and I wonder if she is thinking about my words now.
Tyre Nichols was the victim of a brutal beating by a gang of police officers. The presence of body cameras did not deter violence, and the fact that the involved officers were Black makes it evident that the issue goes beyond the personal prejudices of the persons involved. It suggests that something about the institution of policing lends itself to dehumanization and violence.
There is a cycle to what comes next.
Another round of calls for police reform, another cycle of public condemnations against police brutality — trauma on loop.
There have been many promises of reflection, and claims of commitment to change by our governments, institutions, and friends — but what do we have to show for it? There has been some movement, but opposition throws themselves around our ankles to slow every advance. We can hardly move, yet time continues to put distance between us and the names of the dead — any ground gained is quickly lost.
The urgency of the situation demands of us an unyielding commitment to justice, and yet the response from many leaders with the collective power to change the system refuse to go beyond the tired trope of incrementalism.
I know Calgary police officers who are trying to be different, trying to be more than the “pointy end of the stick,” and I have great respect for them. I know some who have not accepted the idea that policing needs to change.
Though this process does take time, the situation is urgent. I cannot, as one leader among many, change the system alone. Change of this type requires sustained public support, pushing a coordinated effort through multiple orders of government. Only through sustained public pressure can the necessary changes be made to enact justice.
No matter how far removed through time we are from the origins of modern policing in colonization and slavery, and no matter how closely we align with principles of community policing, anti-Black racism and colonialism are the foundation upon which modern policing has been built.
To quote Rinaldo Walcott: “A central problem with policing in its modern manifestation is that it cannot escape its founding in slavery, the aftermath of that founding, and how that founding continues to shape its present practices.”
Police have a monopoly on state-sanctioned violence and the use of lethal force. We, as a society, have given the police the immense power of being able to take our lives from us. In a society shaped by a history of slavery and colonialism, it is no surprise that the state-sanctioned violence finds itself disproportionally applied to the very same populations who have been systemically dehumanized.
This is why the culture of policing often sits at the center of these discussions. Due to the ingrained nature of police culture, challenges to it have been strongly rebuked both within policing and without. Rather than acknowledging our nation’s history, absorbing it, and somehow integrating these historical considerations into modern policing, we see instead increasing hardening, militarization, and an us-vs-them mentality being embraced by police services, setting themselves as different and apart from the populations they serve rather than being a part of them, belonging to them.
This is why it evokes such fear when it feels like the police exist as a weapon of the state, drawn and pointed at whoever society deems “the other,” systemically pointed at the bodies of Indigenous, Black, and racialized people.
I acknowledge that in some ways, or in all ways, policing reform will be incomplete without commitments to prioritize reforms in education, in our housing systems, in the push to end poverty, in the availability of mental health supports, in how we use our land and who claims ownership. These may seem disconnected, but they are the tools we need to use in order to heal the wounds left by a system defined by dehumanization.
But we must start with policing — because instead of housing, offering wrap around supports, securing mental health and wellness supports for marginalized communities, instead of dealing with the very real problems and struggles of our fellow human beings — we’ve policed them.
This refusal of support is replaced with a willingness to use the criminal justice system, often with results that are both tragic and costly.
Maybe this is nothing more than an exercise in grief. Even now, writing about another death, there are tears on my desk. I feel a responsibility in every word I write. I know I must gently invite people into the conversation and make sure that I am making appropriate space for others – potentially even at my own detriment.
I am angry. I am grieving. Tyre was a 29-year old man who had a full life and a whole life in front of him.
I feel like I can see a path to justice right in front of us. I fail to understand the appeal of the alternative, a road laden with atrocities. Especially when justice continues to call for people to walk toward it.
For those who may mischaracterize my anger and sadness as hate, I do not hate anyone; I do not hate the police, even if they are at the intersection of so much pain. I am angry because I have a lot of love in my heart, and those I love keep dying.
For anyone thinking that I may be calling you a racist, I assure you I am not. I am talking about the system – a colonial and racist system that has shaped our daily life. And despite the system being larger than any one of us, it is only at the call of all of us that it will become something new, something better.
I pray that calls for justice do not fade. I pray that we each recognize our role in upholding this system, and do whatever is within our power to change it.
So here I am, asking people again to join me in demanding justice in our society. The cycle of trauma continues. I hope we may break it one day soon.
Until then, I grieve.
Rest in Power, Tyre Nichols