By James Mac Warren
I would like to share a personal encounter with the Memphis police department that had a profound impact on what I would set out to accomplish in my young life. I’ve never told this story publicly. I think my reason was to avoid giving the impression that I committed my life to fight to change the world because I was brutalized by the police.
My case against the Memphis police department is more than fifty years old, unlike most cases coming to light today. Brother Tyre Nichols’s horrific murder has opened up a can of worms the MPD [Memphis Police Department] is working frantically to shut down.
I’ve never told this story publicly and I want to correct that today because if a crime is untold and undocumented it didn’t happen. My friends, family, classmates, and teachers are all witnesses to the aftermath of the crime committed against me by the MPD. It occurred about 55 years ago. I was 16 years old when it happened.
Three of us — me and two of my best friends — were on a city bus returning home after work from the Colonial Country Club. We were singing a song of Black pride, James Brown’s, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” It was about 10 p.m. with very few people on the bus. The bus driver didn’t like our song, so he called the police.
Two uniformed officers showed up and announced that we were under arrest. My friends submitted and were carried off the bus. I demanded to know why we were being arrested. That was me practicing what I thought was passive resistance to an illegal arrest. The officers placed my friends in the police car then returned, dragged me off the bus, and beat me. A young adult passenger spoke to them about beating me, and they arrested him too.
They threatened me the entire ride to the police department with a promise to teach me a lesson about what a police officer is. We were all underage and should have been taken to juvenile hall. It turns out the “lesson” they wanted to teach me could not be taught at juvenile hall.
They took us to a room and sat us down on the floor with our faces toward the wall. There were people walking in and out of the room, including a Black police officer. He walked in and saw these underage boys sitting on the floor, turned around without saying a word, and walked out. Moments later the two officers rushed me at the same time and mercilessly beat me, again. The entire time they were screaming racist comments against Blacks and Jewish people.
Following my beating, they took us to juvenile hall. As we were being booked they continued to run their mouths about Blacks and Jewish people. The young white man who checked us in didn’t say a word as the officers were spewing their hate. But as soon as they walked out the door he turned to us and said, “I want to take your statement. We are going to make them pay for what they did and what they said.”
He took our statements and also wrote his own. He contacted the NAACP and proposed they take up our case. A few weeks later I heard from him. He told me that the police had gone to juvenile hall and removed all evidence of our arrest. We were never charged with a crime, and as far as I know, the case vanished as if it had never happened.
The cops failed
Those cops told me they would crush the fight in me. Instead, they only stoked it. My commitment to political activism was motivated by a rejection of any idea that it was “normal” for any family to have to face the grinding poverty that dominated my early life. I looked for social solutions, not individual ones. That was always my motivation.
With every blow the cops landed I became more convinced that politics was the way to go. Instead of sparking fear and submission all they got from me was defiance and hate. No begging them to stop, no tears, no fear. I searched frantically to show them my contempt, the only way I could do so. I projected every bit of the hate I felt, toward them.
They had us sitting on the floor facing the wall. After they had beaten me for the second time, I turned around and stared straight into their eyes whenever they looked towards us. They were so unsettled by my stare that they ran at me again and threatened to beat me again. Being young and stupid I didn’t care
My niece Sharon convinced me to share this experience now. Honestly, I’ve never wanted to revisit this incident. I’m pretty sure no one looks forward to recalling the most helpless moment of their lives. But in fact, I’m happy I have.
Of course, brother Tyre Nichols lost his life, so there really is no comparison between our cases. I submit my experience as a way of aiding the fight for justice for Tyre by his family and supporters. If my case is any indication, there must be hundreds if not thousands of cases like mine. We survived but no one ever paid for their crimes against us. We must fight to force the cops to face the consequences of their actions against Tyre Nichols and all their victims.
James Mac Warren is a long-time leader of the Black liberation struggle and a militant of the labor movement. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s and ’60s, he got involved from a young age in the mass struggle to overturn Jim Crow segregation in the South. This included helping lead school walkouts as a teenager, including backing striking Memphis sanitation workers seeking union recognition and an end to racist treatment by city authorities. In 1968, he took part in the mass protests in Memphis following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after high school graduation, he worked for the radical newspaper The Root and joined the movement to end the U.S. war on Vietnam.
In 1975, he traveled to Boston at the request of the National Student Coalition Against Racism to help lead the battle to enforce desegregation of the Boston public schools. During the 1970s, he participated in the Black Political Assembly conventions. He was a founding member and leader of the National Black Independent Political Party in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, he took part in anti-racist protests in Los Angeles demanding justice for the brutal beating of Rodney King by the police.
He has worked in auto plants and steel mills and was active in both the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers unions.
Warren has traveled widely. In 1980 he visited Grenada, then under the leadership of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement, to learn more about the revolutionary process in that Caribbean nation. He also visited Nicaragua in 1984 and 1986, during the popular revolution there.
From 1971 until 1995 Warren participated in these activities as a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was a national party leader for many years. He was also the SWP candidate for U.S. president in 1988 and 1992. After resigning from the SWP in 1995, Warren refocused his attention on the study of the history of the African American people, and on writing about its lessons, as his key priorities, while participating in related protest actions.
 Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was brutally beaten by Memphis police on January 7. The cops claim they stopped him for “reckless driving.” He died three days later. Five cops were indicted for second-degree murder and other charges. They have pleaded “not guilty.”
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