Howard Prof. Justin Hansford & Abolitionist Andrea Ritchie on Tyre Nichols & Calls for No More Police
Written by GRB on 02/02/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, mourners are gathering in Memphis, Tennessee, for the funeral of Tyre Nichols. He died January 10th, three days after being severely beaten by five police officers following a traffic stop right next to his home. The funeral will be held at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. Expected attendees include Vice President Kamala Harris and relatives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both killed by police. The funeral comes on the first day of Black History Month.
On Tuesday night, the family of Tyre Nichols held a news conference at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last speech. It was April 3rd, 1968, on the eve of his assassination. Speakers last night included the Reverend Al Sharpton, who will give the eulogy at the funeral today.
REV. AL SHARPTON: What happened to Tyre is a disgrace to this country. There’s no other way to describe what has happened in this situation. People from around the world watched the videotape of a man, unarmed, unprovoked, being beat to death by officers of the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Van Turner, president of the NAACP in Memphis, also spoke Tuesday night.
VAN TURNER: But we want the action this time. We want action this time. We want them to pass the George Floyd police reform at this time. They owe us that. They owe this family that. They owe all the other families who have been hurt, harmed or brutalized as a result of interactions with law enforcement in this country. And then, when that happens, we’ve got to call on the Tennessee General Assembly. … And so, what we have to do is stay focused on humanity, stay focused on the cause, stay focused on making sure that Tyre Nichols did not die in vain. Justice for Tyre!
SUPPORTERS: Justice for Tyre!
VAN TURNER: Justice for Tyre!
SUPPORTERS: Justice for Tyre!
VAN TURNER: Justice for Tyre!
SUPPORTERS: Justice for Tyre!
AMY GOODMAN: Van Turner, president of the NAACP in Memphis.
We’re joined now by two guests. Andrea Ritchie is a lawyer and organizer who’s worked on policing and criminalization issues for over 30 years. She’s the author of several books, including, most recently, No More Police: A Case for Abolition, co-authored with Mariame Kaba. She’s joining us from Detroit. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Justin Hansford. He’s a human rights lawyer, professor at Howard University School of Law, the founder and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. Professor Hansford is also the first American nominated and elected to the United Nations Permanent Forum for People of African Descent.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Hansford, let’s begin with you. Today is the first day of Black History Month. Last night in Memphis, the family gathered in the historic Mason Temple, where Martin Luther King gave his last speech, April 3rd, 1968, a day before he was assassinated, as they called for accountability. And today is the funeral. If you can respond to what’s taking place right now, and what you feel needs to happen, as more and more information comes out, not just the people who brutally beat him — and we may not know everyone who did at this point — but also the people who stood by, whether they were EMTs or other police officers or sheriff’s deputies?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Yes. Well, first, thanks for having me, Amy.
I want to start off by reminding everyone that this situation reminds us that these are structural problems that are going to call for structural interventions. Too often we’re forced to focus on people at sort of the end point of these broken processes. And I know some people looked at the fact that the initial five officers who were involved were all Black, and they said to themselves, “Well, what does race have to do with it?” But looking at all of the people involved, looking at the entire structure from the beginning to the end, we need to understand that this is a broken structure, and it’s structural racism that causes us to be in this place where we are today. So I’m not surprised that from George Floyd, Mike Brown, now to Tyre Nichols, we’re seeing the same structures. Even though the players may be different, the structures are the same, and they haven’t changed over this period of time. So, we still have a lot of work to do ahead.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Hansford, I wanted to ask you — so many of these horrific incidents occur during traffic stops. Your response to those who say this case of Tyre Nichols is just a few bad apples? What does the data show, the research, about how traffic stops are implemented by police around the country in terms of racial groups?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Yes, well, critical race theory scholars, like Devon Carbado at UCLA, have shown again and again that, basically, the more times that there is contact between police officers and citizens, especially if the citizens are Black, the more likely there is to be violence. And there’s really no reason for police to be involved in traffic stops to begin with. There have been scholars who have proposed that police be taken completely out of traffic stops. I know the city of Pittsburgh has experimented with that. And also, Berkeley, California, has had calls for that. Even here in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Police Commission has recently recommended that. So, that’s a workable alternative. Again, it’s not the solution, because these are broken systems and structures that go all the way deep to the root of what American policing is in the United States. But this is one example of the type of needless interaction that we can find a way to eliminate, if we’re working really, really strongly in trying to create change.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the need for structural change. But what I’ve seen over the decades is that every time an incident occurs and there’s massive protests, there are promises by local leaders, and even sometimes national leaders, of making some attempts at major or systemic reforms, but as soon as the protest movement dies down, the politicians pull back on whatever is the promises that they’ve made. How do you overcome this constant attempt to sort of coopt the movement for a while and then immediately go back to business as usual?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Right. Well, another critical race theory scholar who I admire, Derrick Bell, had this philosophy called interest convergence. And essentially, he argued that racial reforms only happen when there is a convergence of the interests of the protesters and the people and the power structure on the issue of race, the white power structure. So, for example, you saw after the protests in 2014 and 2015, we called for change, and they gave us body cameras. Why did they give us body cameras, after all of the different things we called for were put to the side? Because body cameras were an intervention that ended up putting more money into police budgets, also trainings — another one of these reformist reforms that actually don’t change anything. So, you do see things happen, but almost always these are changes that ultimately serve the interests of the existing power structure.
There are moments in our history where there’s an intersection of our interests and the power structure’s interests. That’s how integration took place in the 1950s, 1960s. But finding a way to gain some reforms in the context of the interest convergence reality is — it makes it really difficult to find that short, small window of opportunity. So we have to think deeply. That’s why I think something like intervening in traffic stops, although not a solution, it perhaps could be one of these small windows of opportunity that we can take advantage of in this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into the discussion Andrea Ritchie. We’re talking to professor Justin Hansford, not only a Howard University School of Law professor, but a graduate from Howard Law, as is Andrea Ritchie. So it’s great to have two graduates of Howard Law School, the historically Black college, having a debate and discussion, I should say, about this issue of police reform, police abolition. Tomorrow, President Biden will be meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about police reform. Andrea, you are co-author, with Mariame Kaba, of the book No More Police: A Case for Abolition. If you can first respond to Tyre’s death, how he died, the number of officers, law and health authorities that were on the scene, from EMTs to a fire lieutenant — they’ve been fired — sheriff’s deputies, other police, one of them a white officer, who was only recently named, though he was suspended at the same time the others were fired, is the one who said, “Stomp his ass”? He’s the one who tased him at the beginning. We don’t know the identity of the seventh police officer who was suspended. But respond to that and what you have been calling for, for a very long time.
ANDREA RITCHIE: Well, first, I just want to acknowledge the incredibly egregious, brutal and horrifying nature of this particular incident of police violence. And my heart goes out to Tyre’s mother, his father, his siblings and his entire community that’s mourning and laying him to rest in grief and rage today. And naming that that is a unique incident with devastating impacts on the individuals involved is really important. And it’s also really important to note that this is, as you heard from Memphis organizers earlier this week on the show, an extension of everyday policing, not only in Memphis, but in Nashville, where a man was killed by police just a day or two ago, and, as you mentioned at the top of the hour, across the country.
And so, for me, I definitely concur with Professor Hansford’s indication that police should be taken out of traffic stops. That’s a demand that’s been coming from organizers long before it came from the academe, and it’s certainly coming from organizers in Memphis right now. And we need to go beyond that. We do need to recognize that it wasn’t just about the individual officers on the scene or their supervisors or the officers who were training them or the leadership in place in Memphis, who came from another city where they supervised a unit that engaged in very similar violence. It’s really about, as Professor Hansford pointed out, the entire structure of policing.
And so, yes, what we call for in No More Police: A Case for Abolition is a recognition that this is policing. This is not an aberration. This is not an exception to the rule. This is the rule of policing. And so, it is essential that we think about responses that will take not only power away from police to engage in this kind of behavior, by taking them, for instance, out of traffic stops, but also the resources and the weaponry and the legitimacy that enables them to continue to engage in this kind of behavior. So, I do look at legislation, like the federal legislation referenced, as legislation that we need to really be critical about, because that legislation would pour millions more dollars into police departments like the Memphis Police Department, that received $9.8 million in federal funds in 2020, in addition to the 40% of the city budget that it takes up, to hire officers like the ones that killed Tyre Nichols.
And so, we really need to think carefully as we move forward: Are we going to continue to pour more money, more power, more resources and more legitimacy into departments that have proven — and policing, that has proven over and over again that incidents like the murder of Tyre Nichols is the rule, not the exception? I think that’s the question that we need to think about right now, and whether the solutions that we’re advancing are, as Professor Hansford was pointing out, going to simply continue to legitimize policing while allowing incidents like this to continue with impunity and unabated, or are we going to take steps that will build a world where Tyre Nichols would still be with us today?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Andrea Ritchie, how would you envision a police abolition? Because, clearly, there are some who would say this is pie in the sky, it’s unattainable, as long as there are societies with huge class and racial divisions. What concretely would abolition look like?
ANDREA RITCHIE: Well, I think that you’re correct to point out, Juan, that it would require a complete restructuring of the society that we live in, and that it would require us to shift our priorities from responding to every form of need, conflict and harm with agents of violence and more and more policing and criminalization, and instead to address the root causes of the issues we face in our community, to ensure that everyone’s needs are met, to ensure that we all have the skills and commitment and ability to intervene in, prevent, deescalate and heal from harm, and that we have the resources we need to do that. And so, it does require a radical reimagination of what we understand safety to be and the means that we devote to achieving it.
And, you know, I think many things get named as pie in the sky and unattainable, but I think what’s really unrealistic is to continue to invest in a system that has proven over and over again that it not only does not prevent or intervene in or heal from violence, but actually perpetuates and perpetrates more and more violence. So, to me, that’s the unrealistic position, that we’re going to somehow continue to try and tweak policing as incidents like Tyre Nichols’ murder happen over and over again.
I’ve been in this since Rodney King was beaten in 1991, and I have seen nothing change — in fact, just a greater recognition that it doesn’t matter who the police officers are, it doesn’t matter where they live, it doesn’t matter what the policies are, it doesn’t matter how much oversight there is, it doesn’t matter how many prosecutions there are. We are going to continue to wake up, as we did the morning we learned of Tyre Nichols’ brutal murder, to stories like this, until we make those kinds of fundamental changes. And it can start with taking cops out of traffic stops or dismantling units like the ones that killed Tyre Nichols, but we can’t stop there. We have to actually reimagine a world where violence is not our response to every situation.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the term “police abolition,” “abolition,” Professor Hansford, of course, coming from the abolitionists who wanted to get away from slavery, from the enslaving of Africans in the United States. Can you talk about your response to that, in terms of all that you’ve looked at, from, specifically — and it’s fascinating you have this sort of particular focus, looking at why do people who stop people for traffic stops — like I think of Walter Scott. I went to the AutoZone in North Charleston, South Carolina, where he’s stopped for a broken brake light, and as he ran across the street, the police officer, Slager, shot him in the back. What this would look like, police abolition? And do you support something like this?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Well, yes, when I think of police abolition, I think that it’s the right word. I think about the abolitionists that we saw in the 19th century — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass — and their work, which was our destiny as a people, to be free. And I think that’s part of the same tradition. I think that it’s the same work. I think that the systems that we’re facing today are continuations of the systems that the abolitionists in the 19th century worked against. So, yes, I support that. I think that has to be the ultimate goal.
In terms of how quickly that happens and when that happens, that is something that is likely to be incremental — just like all big dreams, they don’t happen overnight — but something like traffic stops. I do want to say that it’s a conundrum in a way, because oftentimes, as I said before, if you look at the past reforms, like body cameras and other reforms that — you know, training, those reforms ultimately ended up at having us in this place today where we have over 1,100 killings in the past 12 months, Black people more likely to be killed — twice as likely to be killed as white people. So, actually, killings have increased, even with all this money given to police departments to do more trainings and to do more body cameras.
So, again, this type of reform, we have to be concerned about power shifting to these other government officers to conduct surveillance, to use more technology during these traffic stops. If they’re not police officers, that does not mean they’ll have the power to search. That does not mean that they’ll have weapons. That does not necessarily mean that they’ll be using cameras to conduct surveillance. So we have to be very careful with how the actual implementation of a reform like this takes place, because the devil is in the details. And that’s what we’ve seen over the past couple of years since the killing of George Floyd, really since the killing of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. There have been responses that have taken place, but almost always, when we don’t keep our eye on the actual implementation of those responses, we actually end up in a worse place, because more money is put into these departments, and we get worse outcomes, under the heading of goodwill and reform.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of the devil in the details, there’s been a lot of attention focused at the federal level on legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the even more progressive BREATHE Act. Could you talk about your sense about these initiatives? And it’s still going to be very difficult to be able to get them through any Congress right now, but your sense of these attempts at some sort of a — not structural, but substantial reform?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Right. Well, my reading of the distinction between the BREATHE Act and the Justice in Policing Act is similar to Professor Ritchie’s distinction between reforms that actually invest money in the system and reforms that divest money from the system. And my understanding is that the BREATHE Act, in addition to trying to divest money and put that money towards other solutions to provide public safety, also provides more of a healing, reparations-focused lens on how to respond to the system of violence that they call policing in the United States.
The Justice in Policing Act is what is on the table. I know that Senator Cory Booker is likely to reintroduce it this week. The Congressional Black Caucus and other advocates are likely to use that as their negotiating tool over the next few weeks. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, it’s hard to really be enthusiastic about the prospects. If you couldn’t have it happen when Democrats were in control of both houses, how will it happen now? So, there’s really a — I think there needs to be an honest discussion about what we can accomplish. And perhaps a reform like this traffic reform or some other reform that may be a small piece of these larger bills would be something that could be a possibility.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrea Ritchie, I was wondering if you could go more into — as, you know, Biden is about to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to talk about police reform. On Monday, you tweeted,”Y’all do know that we police ‘misconduct’ attorneys sometimes win motions to defeat qualified immunity, and those cops are still out there beating, sexually assaulting, and killing people, right??” If you can explain that? And also, just simply further explain, since polls that have been done, a recent study, strong public opposition to abolishing the police, even though a substantial majority of people are also concerned about police violence — really lay out concretely what you mean.
ANDREA RITCHIE: Well, I just want to name about that legislation, is that I really believe there is no justice in policing. And many people, including Derecka Purnell, have written that the act that would be named after George Floyd would not have prevented his death, and it wouldn’t have stopped the killing of Breonna Taylor, either, and that what it would have done is poured, as we’ve discussed, millions more dollars into policing instead of into the things that communities need in order to build safety for themselves. So I think that’s an important thing to point out.
I think also the focus on ending qualified immunity, I think, is one of those sort of interest convergence moments that Professor Hansford was referring to. I just want to really emphasize to people, qualified immunity only comes into play after someone has been harmed, after someone has been killed. And, you know, it’s a defense in civil litigation that a cop can raise in defense of their actions to avoid having to pay compensation to the family members, and it’s a defense that we can sometimes overcome in litigation. And there are officers who have raised that defense, have not been able to assert it. Their motions to raise that defense have been defeated. And those cops still were able to remain on the force, remain continued in their employment, and are still out there doing the violence of policing that we’ve been talking about.
So, that’s what I was getting at with this tweet, is that I’m not really interested in reforms that only focus on what we do after police officers have beat a 29-year-old father to death. I want to focus on reforms that are going to stop that from happening in the first place. And I want to focus and I want to invite the Congressional Black Caucus and everyone else who’s thinking about what to do in this moment to think about what’s actually going to prevent actions like this from happening, not sort of what we do about them after the fact, which actually won’t even stop the individual officers involved from continuing to engage in that behavior, much less address the system that enables and makes that behavior possible. So, for me, it is about reducing the power and the legitimacy and resources that we put to policing, and investing in the things that communities need to be safe.
And so, I think that’s the piece to Juan’s point about people questioning what abolition looks like, because what they’re being told is simply that we’re going to take away what is often the only government response to any harm, conflict or need, whether that one produces more violence or whether it actually produces any greater safety, and people don’t think that there will be anything put in its place. And the idea of abolition, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore frequently reminds us, is of actually building, of creating, or resourcing, of pouring the nutrients that are being robbed of our communities by police, the money that cops are looting from our communities, and putting it back into the things that increase safety — housing, healthcare, income, education, public spaces, community, strong communities, skilled communities, communities that have the capacity to be there and with and for each other and prevent violence.
And so, I really think that when we ask people, sure, you know, without further explanation, “Do you think we should take away the one thing you’ve been taught is the only way to safety?” of course people are going to have a reaction. But if we say, “Do you believe in investing in the things that actually have been proven scientifically, through study, to increase safety in communities?” — and we talk in No More Police about a study that showed that an increase of 10 community-based organizations in a community will decrease violence in the community, you know, in a reciprocal relationship. So, if we point people to what we want to invest in and what kind of society we want to build, and that those investments will actually increase safety, the vast majority of people actually support those kinds of proposals. It’s a question of how the issues are framed and whether they’re — how they’re framed particularly by people who are invested in the current system.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andrea, I wanted to ask you — a deeper look at this issue of the resistance of so much of the American public to really dismantling or systematically changing policing. Does it have to do more, I wonder at times, with DNA of the country — after all, a country that has been built on guns, on violence and repression of the other in U.S. society? The United States is really an outlier among the industrialized countries of the world when it comes to the prevalence of violence and guns and toleration of killing. Even after all of these school shootings, people still don’t want to have any kind of regulation or serious regulation of guns in the country. I’m wondering: Does that have anything to do with the inability of people to understand how police are functioning in our society?
ANDREA RITCHIE: Well, of course. And today, the first day of Black History Month, we’d be remiss if we didn’t, you know, emphasize that this country is built on violence, and it’s particularly built on the violence of genocide of Indigenous peoples and enslavement of African peoples, that was enforced, both of those things, by police and policing, as was the exclusion of migrants and the policing of migrants. And so, those things are very much embedded in the very structures of American society and also in the culture of American society, that has embedded policing in our minds, as professor Patrick Blanchfield points out, as the solution, as opposed to a problem, even in the face of instances like the one that we’re currently sitting with of the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols, on top of, as Professor Hansford was saying, the deadliest year, in 2022, in terms of police violence in a decade, in spite of all the reform that has been advanced or proposed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And so, I think — and Mike Brown and Trayvon and so on.
And I think we really need to recognize that we have to unlearn this notion that violence is the solution to violence, that policing is our only path to safety, and really recognize and look to what communities actually know to be true, which is that it is our relationships, it is our resources, and it is our commitment to each other’s safety and well-being that is actually the pathway to safety. And we have to really unlearn that in the face of a wave of copaganda. Every time there’s an instance of police violence like this, the police have to react to the challenge to their legitimacy by reaching for their most reliable weapon, which is fear and fearmongering and really trying to reinforce in people’s minds that the only solution to safety is police, when in fact police are a threat to our safety, as evidenced by this incident and thousands more.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Breonna Taylor and Tyre Nichols. You know, they are the same age, born on the same day. They were 29. Well, Breonna would have been 29 years old. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, will be at the funeral today and pointed this out. Justin Hansford, before we go, I know that the world is watching the United States right now. You’re the first American nominated and elected to the United Nations Permanent Forum for People of African Descent. Can you talk about how your work has been inspired by the internationalist vision of Malcolm X, and how it applies to what is happening today in the United States?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Yes. Well, for me, personally, it’s the continuation of that dream, where Malcolm X, upon his assassination, when he created the Organization of African American Unity, wanted to take Black people’s case to the World Court, which was the United Nations, and argue that our issues, like police violence, are not civil rights issues, they’re not just domestic political issues, but they are human issues, because they speak to our need for human dignity and respect for our lives as human beings, not just as citizens or citizenship rights.
And in 2014, when I was in Ferguson and I worked with the Mike Brown family to take the Mike Brown case to the U.N., I realized that it was a vision that we have to continue, because we need to make sure that not only is the world watching, but we want to make sure that the world is participating in this discussion, especially in the Black diaspora. We have to support each other. And there is support for us all around the globe. And so, this U.N. Permanent Forum is an —
AMY GOODMAN: Looks like we just lost Professor Hansford. But we will link to the continued coverage of what happened not only with Tyre right now, the funeral today, but what unfolds in the future, and, of course, continue to cover it on Democracy Now! Professor Justin Hansford is Howard University School of Law professor, also, as I just said, human rights lawyer, as well as executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. And Andrea Ritchie, lawyer, organizer and co-author, with Mariame Kaba, of the book No More Police: A Case for Abolition.
Next up, a standoff continues outside a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where asylum seekers are protesting plans by New York City to move them to a remote Brooklyn terminal. Stay with us.