Van Jones Suggests Black Police Who Killed Tyre Nichols ‘Driven by Racism,’ Claims Only Race of Victim — Not Cop — Relevant

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 29: Almost a thousand of people are gathered at the Oscar Grant Plaza and take streets over Tyre Nichols killing by Memphis police, in Oakland, California, United States on January 29, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The black police officers who killed Tyre Nichols may have been “driven by racism,” according to CNN contributor Van Jones, who charged that black people “are not immune to anti-Black messages,” and that “it is the race of the victim who is brutalized — not the race of the violent cop — that is most relevant in determining whether racial bias is a factor in police violence.”

The Friday CNN op-ed titled “The police who killed Tyre Nichols were Black. But they might still have been driven by racism,” begins with the CNN political commentator and former Obama administration official recalling his arrest during the Los Angeles riots following the beating of Rodney King by four policemen in 1992.

“Three decades ago, when four White Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, the public outcry was heard around the world,” Jones writes.

“In fact, I got arrested for the first time in my life during protests that followed,” he added. 

After what he termed a “defining moment for the nation and the world,” Jones claims he decided to dedicate his career as a lawyer to help “sue rogue cops, close prisons and reform the criminal justice system.” 

He then cited Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis who recently compared the beating of King with the death of Nichols, saying: “I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident, and it’s very much aligned with that same type of behavior. I would say it’s about the same, if not worse.”

Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, died on January 10, three days after Memphis police officers stopped him for “reckless driving.”

Video footage released on Friday appears to show Nichols being punched, kicked in the face, struck with a baton, and sprayed with an irritant.

Jones describes Nichols as a “good guy,” before stating that “learning that your child’s life was senselessly stolen from him is every Black parent’s nightmare.”

He also noted that “surprisingly to many people,” the five former Memphis police officers, charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the arrest and death of Tyre Nichols, “were also Black.”

“How do we explain Nichols’ horrific killing, allegedly at the hands of police who looked like him?” Jones asks.

Stating that American society “has often focused on the race of the officers — so often White — as a factor in their deplorable acts of violence,” the CNN anchor argues that “the narrative ‘White cop kills unarmed Black man’ should never have been the sole lens through which we attempted to understand police abuse and misconduct.” 

“It’s time to move to a more nuanced discussion of the way police violence endangers Black lives,” he writes.

According to Jones, black people are not immune to the “pernicious effects” of anti-black racism.

Society’s message that Black people are inferior, unworthy and dangerous is pervasive,” he writes. “Over many decades, numerous experiments have shown that these ideas can infiltrate Black minds as well as White.”

“Self-hatred is a real thing,” he adds.

For example, Jones claims, a black store owner “might regard customers of his same race with suspicion, while treating his White patrons with deference.”

“Black people can harbor anti-Black sentiments and can act on those feelings in harmful ways,” he writes.

Regarding law enforcement, Jones insists black officers “are often socialized in police departments that view certain neighborhoods as war zones.” 

“In those departments, few officers get disciplined for dishing out ‘street justice’ in certain precincts — often populated by Black, brown or low-income people — where there is a tacit understanding that the ‘rulebook’ simply doesn’t apply,” he claims.

“Cops of all colors, including Black police officers, internalize those messages — and sometimes act on them,” he adds.

He then cites the infamous rap protest anthemF*** tha Police” — where rapper Ice Cube describes assault by black police as “showing out for the white cop” — to prove that “the phenomenon of brutal Black cops singling out young Black men for abuse [in Black neighborhoods] is nothing new.”

Though “race does matter” when it comes to police violence, Jones asserts it is not the way readers think.

At the end of the day, it is the race of the victim who is brutalized — not the race of the violent cop — that is most relevant in determining whether racial bias is a factor in police violence. It’s hard to imagine five cops of any color beating a White person to death under similar circumstances. And it is almost impossible to imagine five Black cops giving a White arrestee the kind of beat-down that Nichols allegedly received.

Jones concludes that “racial animus can still be a factor, even when the perpetrators are all Black,” charging that “people often oppress people who look just like them.” 

“The vast majority of human rights abuses are committed by people who look exactly like the people they are abusing,” he adds.

He suggests that “stricter oversight and swifter punishment” are the keys to “reducing the incidence of police violence,” claiming that without them “we’ll continue to see stomach-churning acts of police violence against Black men — by cops of every color.”

In response, Valuetainment’s Patrick Bet-David blasted CNN over the piece.

“Any opportunity @cnn gets to divide , it jumps on it,” he wrote. 

“It’s a shame. Why not try to unify for once?” he added.

Speaking on CNN about his remarks in the essay, Jones responded to critics, admitting “it does seem weird when we’re saying there’s a racial dimension here even though the police are African-American,” but ultimately reiterating he continues to believe racial bias played a role in the officers’ conduct.

Previously, Jones has called the policing “methodology” used in the United States “dumb and dangerous and discriminatory.”

He also described former President Donald Trump’s victory during the 2016 presidential elections as “a whitelash against a black president, in part.”

Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.


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