I had a dream that the nation descended on Memphis, Tennessee. We returned to the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last breathed so we could breathe new life into his dream. In the face of threats to teaching Black history, in the face of persistent wealth inequality, we would commence the month of February with a recommitment to truth. My dream was vivid. At the gathering I imagined, many were in attendance: Vice President Kamala Harris, Reverend Al Sharpton, even Spike Lee. Speakers spoke the truth and singers sang new songs of freedom. This Black History Month recommitment ceremony was live-streamed and televised. And it was all captured by a young, local photographer named Tyre Nichols, who said he always wanted “to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens.” We saw what he saw. This is how you kick off Black History Month, I thought. Then I woke up.
I woke up to find that the nation had indeed descended on Memphis. Yes, V.P. Harris and Reverend Al and Spike Lee were in attendance. But the reason was death. It was the funeral of 29 year-old Tyre Nichols, who died at the hands, the literal hands, of a unit of the Memphis Police Department. Also in attendance were the families of other victims of police violence including Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, and George Floyd. Speakers spoke the truth, and singers sang songs of freedom and woe.
In a just world—or even just a slightly more functional America—this funeral wouldn’t have happened. But it did happen, thanks to the police unit known as the “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” This state-sanctioned gang of “Scorpions,” which has been terrorizing Black neighborhoods for years, both did and did not live up to its name. On the one hand, scorpions sting and paralyze and consume their victims, so, mission accomplished. On the other hand, any effort to “restore peace” through violence is always a flawed and fatal proposition. What a way to kick off Black History Month: by repeating one of history’s most deadly and avoidable lessons.