Three new entries in America’s roster of tragedy burst from obscurity to their haunting moment in the media spotlight and exemplified societal undercurrents of violence, injustice and grief.
A week that began with the nation reeling from more mass shootings ended with the release of a video capturing the beating of yet another Black man pulled over for a police traffic stop who ended up dead.
Nichols, a 29-year-old from Memphis, became the latest victim suddenly introduced to millions of Americans after his death. A grand jury Thursday returned murder indictments against five since-fired police officers involved in his arrest. With tensions rising in Tennessee and further afield, the city of Memphis released body camera and surveillance video of the arrest on Friday evening. The footage drew stunned reaction from law enforcement experts and outrage from officials, including President Joe Biden.
In California, meanwhile, grieving families are processing the horror that suddenly pitches a town or city into the public eye and epitomizes an epidemic of lone gunmen unleashing massacres in everyday places where people trusted they were safe.
At a dance studio on Saturday night in Monterey Park, 11 people between the ages of 57 and 76 were killed celebrating Lunar New Year. Unbelievably, on Monday, it happened again. Seven innocent people died in a mass shooting that unfolded at a mushroom farm and near a trucking facility. The community’s sense of peace was “destroyed by senseless death,” California Assemblymember Marc Berman said.
Aside from the brutal, sudden arrival of needless death, this week’s shootings and the aftermath of the loss of another young man are not linked. But there is a sense that the rituals of anger and mourning after such horrors are familiar. A fresh batch of relatives is thrust into the gauntlet of interviews and news conferences as well as the political melees often stirred by tragic incidents. They are like new characters reciting the same lines of anger and disbelief in an endless cycle of loss.
The trauma afflicting California and Memphis this week also touches on areas in which a polarized political system has failed, repeatedly, to make progress to stop such tragedies from happening. The rituals after mass shootings – of politicians expressing condolences, liberals demanding gun reform and conservatives deflecting blame from lax firearms laws – lead almost always to not much being done.
A similarly politicized debate over police reform delivers futility after almost every incident of apparent brutality. After a spate of deaths of young Black men at police hands, a bipartisan attempt to address officer conduct foundered in 2021 and has little chance of a revival in now-divided Washington. Caricatured arguments over whether Democrats want to “defund” the police – many do not – and the amped-up politics around guns effectively paralyze any hope of change.