Congress Shouldn’t Clap for Tyre Nichols’s Parents—They Should Apologize

Congress Shouldn’t Clap for Tyre Nichols’s Parents—They Should Apologize

Congress Shouldn’t Clap for Tyre Nichols’s Parents—They Should Apologize

Many of the people rising for Nichols’s parents during the State of the Union didn’t do enough to prevent his death—and quite a few did worse than that.

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I’m so sick of it. I’m so sick of the political platitudes offered by feckless politicians in the wake of the latest Black death at the hands of the police. I’m sick of the speeches. I’m sick of having the parents of the most recently lynched Black child trundled out at the State of the Union so politicians can disingenuously clap at their grief. What are they clapping for? Many of the people rising at the joint session of Congress to clap for the parents of Tyre Nichols did either nothing or not enough to prevent his death. Many of them will continue doing nothing or not enough.

Actually, that’s too generous to at least half of Congress: Saying that politicians “do nothing” lets most of these people off the hook. Republicans like Tim Scott actively frustrate attempts to stop the police from murdering Black people for sport. Others, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have decided that Black children should be brutalized and killed to preserve the Senate filibuster and the donors and corporations that Senate gridlock supports. The fact that these people are even allowed to participate in the political theater of applauding parents whose children died because of the intractability of their political will is galling to me. They shouldn’t clap. They should apologize.

They won’t apologize, of course. They’re not remotely sorry. Most of them have decided that Black people should continue to suffer and die at the hands of the police because the police are a more valuable political constituency than the people they murder. Most of them have decided that they are willing to sacrifice our blood to keep their seats. Most of them would sacrifice a thousand Tyre Nicholses for the endorsement of their local police union.

Some of them like it. Some of them like to watch us get beat up, like to watch us beg for our lives, and like to watch us inevitably die. Some of them think we deserve it. Some of them think it’s the brutality and the threat of brutality that keeps us in line. And some of them know that most of their white voters like it too.

It’s naive and foolish to think that police brutality is universally reviled. It’s not. It never has been. Police brutality is a tool. Fear is a tool. State sponsored terrorism is a tool. And those are tools that a bunch of people in the House chamber are willing to use against Black folks. If you think I’m being unkind, perhaps you missed the part during the State of the Union where Joe Biden said, “Equal protection under the law; that’s a covenant we have with each other in America,” and the entire Republican Party, from Kevin McCarthy on down, sat on their hands. Some of them want the police to kill us.

I believe that, in his heart, President Biden is not one of those people. I think, all else being equal, he would rather not have the police beat Black people to death on camera. That’s more than I can say about the last guy to have his job.

But all else is not equal. And Biden has made the calculus, like most of his predecessors, that stopping agents of the state from killing, almost killing, or threatening to kill any Black person unlucky enough to be stopped by the wrong cop on the wrong day is a “stretch goal” that takes a backseat to bridges, unemployment rates, and bank fees. I’m not making that up: Less than three weeks after the brutal beating and murder of Tyre Nichols was blasted out on video to the entire country, Biden’s address to the whole nation spent more time on the Junk Fee Prevention Act than the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate junk fees too. But when I drive to the bank to take out $20 bucks I’m going to spend on lotto tickets, I’m not thinking, “I hope the overdraft fees don’t get me.” I’m thinking, “I hope the potential murderers in the squad car behind me at this red light don’t hop out of their vehicle and kill me in the street.” White folks will think I’m exaggerating, but I have literally been in situations in my life where I have used an ATM that will charge me a transaction fee instead of walking across the street to my actual bank because I spied a couple of uniformed officers on the corner outside of my bank. Why risk it? I’ll eat the $3.50. That’s a small price to pay to avoid getting within shooting range of a cop.

I’ll tell you what I’m not thinking about when I see a police officer: “I hope they’re well trained.” This idea, supported again by Biden and parroted by countless politicians over the years, that all police officers need is more training to know that they shouldn’t hunt and kill Black people is one of the biggest cop-approved marketing scams on the face of the earth. Training does not stop an officer from murdering Black people. The officers who killed Tyre Nichols were part of an “elite” police unit; they had some of the best training the state could provide; they still beat an unarmed man to death. Who in their right mind thinks that all they needed was a little more money to figure out right from wrong?

The problem is not just Biden’s. Yes, he’s willing to trade Black lives for cop support, and yes, that is incredibly frustrating, but honestly the president of the United States is not vested with the power to fix “the police” in America. One of the maddening defects of the US Constitution is that it explicitly vests the power to organize the police not in the federal government but in the states. The Constitution’s authors were not thinking of police in their modern, standing-army form, but they well understood that Southern states wanted to run their slave patrols and slave catchers without interference from a centralized government. Whether they failed to anticipate the unchecked power of state-run paramilitary forces, or correctly concluded that such forces would be primarily used to prop up white supremacy is, at this point, irrelevant.

The upshot of this constitutional failure is that policing cannot be fully reformed from Washington, D.C. There are things Congress could do but won’t: ending qualified immunity, banning brutal tactics like chokeholds, ensuring that cops who kill are held federally accountable. But even those reforms would do little to stop the police from murdering Black people: Cops are resourceful in their uses of violence. The institution of policing must be rebuilt from the ground up. If voters (primarily white ones, who enjoy voting majorities in every state in the union) aren’t willing to do that work in state after state after state, they accept that their police will disproportionately beat and kill Black people, forever.

That’s why replacing Biden with Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg or Gavin Newsom or whichever well-meaning Democrat you can think of wouldn’t change very much. All you’d get is a slightly different version of the same message: “Sorry your son was murdered by cops, but not all cops murder so we have to support the cops. Anyway, take a bow for being the victim of a problem our society has no intention of fixing.”

Next year, there will be a different Black family invited to sit for an hour while politicians talk about unemployment rates and Social Security spending and all the things they really care about, before being asked to politely stand while the president praises all of the cops who didn’t murder their family member. It is a theater that has become grotesque.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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