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Postmodern Faith and Police Violence
Tyre Nichols’ brutal killing highlights how woke oppressor-oppressed narratives determine the tragedy of Nichols' death not by the skin color of the victim, but by the skin color of the killers.
On January 7, Tyre Nichols was pulled out of his car and beaten to death by five police officers. Nichols’ death has a lot in common with George Floyd’s murder: the brutality, the cruelty, the senselessness of the violence. But there are two big differences: the skin color of the killers and America’s comparably subdued reaction.
In an earlier post I covered how many victims of police violence are ignored because their skin color doesn’t fit woke narratives of the left (and also don’t fit pro-police narratives of the right). In this case, the victim was Black, but America has had a strikingly different reaction to Tyre Nichols’ death than George Floyd’s death.
After George Floyd was murdered there was a national outcry that led to millions of people protesting in the streets. Some turned into riots with 19 dead in the first 14 days. In Seattle, Antifa locked police officers in a building and then set the building on fire to try to burn them alive. The President was safeguarded in an underground bunker. Eventually, six blocks of Seattle were conquered by a warlord and ruled as an autonomous fiefdom called CHAZ.
In addition to the protests, George Floyd’s murder ignited a national conversation on race. The response seemed to touch all aspects of American life. Schools increasingly emphasized critical race theory. Corporations created DEI councils and racial affinity groups for employees. Local governments pledged to reform the police. Millions of copies of books like White Fragility and How to be an Anti-Racist were sold.
In contrast, the reaction to Tyre Nichols death has been comparably muted. Part of this might be attributable to the fact that George Floyd’s murder occurred during a pandemic and a national lockdown when people were on edge. Also, Nichols’ was killed during the winter when people are less likely to protest. But Google Trends shows how different people are responding to it, even inside their homes. The search term “George Floyd” at its peak got nearly 4 times as many searches as “Tyre Nichols” at its peak.
Despite the fact that all five perpetrators were Black, woke commentators immediately began to racialize the issue with religious zeal. It’s become increasingly common to describe woke beliefs as religious, but I’m critical of these arguments. John McWhorter wrote an entire book, Woke Racism, describing these beliefs on race as religious, but never actually defined what religion is. I’d like to discuss this with theological precision.
The Heaven’s Gate Cult
The Heaven’s Gate group planned to commit suicide in March, 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet passed Earth. They believed that a UFO trailing the comet would pick up their souls and raise them up to a higher physical and spiritual plane. The leader of the cult told them that in order for the UFO to pick up their souls they needed to commit suicide.
But before the planned mass suicide, one member of the cult, John Craig, went to Oceanside Photo and Telescope and bought a $3,645 computerized telescope. This was not the average hobbyist’s telescope for looking at the moon. It was a LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that was about the size of a refrigerator. Craig brought the telescope home and the group found the comet. With the LX200 he would have seen it in high resolution detail. But he couldn’t see the UFO. So a week later, on February 7, he returned the telescope and told the clerk he wanted a refund. A month later he killed himself as the comet passed Earth.
Before he looked through the telescope, John Craig knew that he would either see the spaceship, or not see the spaceship. But his belief was non-falsifiable. He would either see the spaceship and confirm the spaceship existed. Or he would not see the spaceship and confirm that the telescope was broken. The belief that the spaceship existed was non-falsifiable.
The transition from evidence-based belief to faith-based belief is that faith-based is moralized. You do not just belief that the spaceship exists. You believe that it is virtuous to believe that the spaceship exists. Disbelief in the spaceship is not simply false, it’s immoral. You aren’t just wrong, you’re evil.
This happens across religions. The Abrahamic faiths all share the story of Noah, when he was told by God to build a boat. He was mocked for his beliefs, but persisted in the face of contradictory evidence (a drought) and eventually he was rewarded.
Dinosaur Bones and Martian White Supremacists
After Tyre Nichols’ death, a chorus of progressive voices came out to blame white supremacy as the culprit:
Representative Maxwell Alejandro Frost: “Doesn’t matter what color those police officers are. The murder of Tyre Nichols is anti-Black and the result of white supremacy.”
Rev Dante Stewart: “And when Tyre Nichols was beaten and the just immense disregard to him, it showed us in public once again the estimation of Black life, white racism and white supremacy.”
John Pavlovitz: “The officers who killed him were simply the spigot. White supremacy is the plumbing.”
A Black chief of police, an all Black unit, and somehow their crimes are still white supremacy.
During the national discussion on race after George Floyd’s death, CNN commentator, Van Jones said, “So even the most liberal well-intentioned white person has a virus in his or her brain that can be activated at an instant.” The emphasis was on the race of the perpetrator. But when the race of the perpetrator switched in the Tyre Nichols’ case, Van Jones said: “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.”
This is a provably false statement. According to the Washington Post Police shootings database, for every black American killed by the police, two white Americans are killed. Each year, an average of 250 black Americans are killed and about 450 white Americans are killed.
You might think that Van Jones is either 1) unaware of these statistics or 2) lying about them. My guess is neither. He’s informed enough that I bet he’s aware of them. And I don’t think that he’s lying. I think that he’s moralized his beliefs in the same way that John Craig moralized them. Show him a white-on-black police killing and that’s white supremacy. A white-on-white killing and he’ll say that white people can be victims of white supremacy as well. A black-on-black killing and he’ll say Black people can be racist too. It’s a non-falsifiable belief.
The reason why these arguments are so emphatic that white supremacy is the cause is because Van Jones and others have moralized their belief in systemic discrimination. They see arguments against it as not simply false, but as immoral. They see Tyre Nichols’ death in the same way that textualist fundamentalist Christians/Jews/Muslims see Biblical archaeology: a threat to their belief system. A test of their faith.
I’m curious what Van Jones’s reaction would be if he saw the video of Tony Timpa’s death, where a white man was pinned down and choked to death while officers stood around his dying body for 13 minutes. And seven years later the officers have still not had any accountability. My guess is that just like John Craig, his beliefs would be unchanged.
Some arguments became even more non-falsifiable. Elie Mystal, in The Nation, wrote:
You could drop a Martian in the middle of a local prosecutor’s office and, unless they actively and consciously looked for ways to subvert and sabotage the system, they too would soon start charging Black suspects with stunning haste while using their discretion to aid and appease white wrongdoers.
And if you dropped that same Martian into a patrol car, it wouldn’t take long before they got out of that car and started cracking Black skulls.
How would you ever disprove such a belief?
Mystal does make a statement that is potentially falsifiable. He says that the police would never kill an innocent white male because “…the cops know that a white male in that situation can call out to anybody from ‘CNN’ to ‘lawyer,’ and somebody might materialize out of thin air to stop them.” This is a provably false statement. Tony Timpa did call out. No one materialized. But Mystal sees Tony Timpa’s death and Tyre Nichols’ death in same way that textualist fundamentalist Christians see dinosaur bones. Something that God has buried to test their faith.