When Police Lie: The Initial Police Statement vs. Video Evidence

Many in the media took note of how many police officers took the stand against Derek Chauvin in his trial. We watched as former and current police officers testified against Chauvin, thereby breaking the infamous blue wall of silence. However, what many activists remember was the original statement from the police after the murder of Floyd. In the original statement, the headline from the department read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Further, it read: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car.  He was ordered to step from his car.  After he got out, he physically resisted officers.  Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.” As the AP noted, it attributed Floyd’s death to “medical distress” and did not mention that Floyd had been “pinned to the ground at the neck by Chauvin, or that he’d cried out that he couldn’t breathe.”

As we remember the murder of George Floyd, we should also remember that the initial police reports are not always truthful. As the AP reports, “criminal justice experts and police accountability advocates say the problem of inaccurate initial reports — especially in fatal police encounters — is widespread. For so long, reporters just ran with the initial report from the police that, of course, comes from the officers on the scene. Whatever the police department said became the factual narrative. However, this has not always the case, as the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald, and countless others have shown. As I mentioned when one of the reporters interviewed me after the Chauvin verdict, “If it wasn’t for this 17-year-old (Darnella Frazier) who took the video, Derek Chauvin would in all likelihood still be on the police force training officers. Sadly, this has been going on for a while, and it’s just now coming to light for a lot of Americans because of video evidence.”

Video evidence is bringing attention to another case where the police were not truthful in their initial statements. In 2019, Louisiana State Police said that they tried to pull over Ronald Greene for an unspecified traffic violation, but he led them on a high-speed chase. State police officers initially told his family that he died on impact after crashing into a tree during the chase. Still, according to the AP, “State Police released a one-page statement acknowledging only that Greene struggled with troopers and died on his way to the hospital.”

However, video evidence from one of the officer’s body cams disputes these initial reports. Not only did Ronald Greene not crash into a tree that night, but it also shows that he did not resist arrest. What the 46-minute clip does show, however, is a trooper wrestling Greene to the ground putting him in a chokehold and punching him in the face while another can be heard calling him a “stupid motherf——.” What it does show is Greene saying, “I’m sorry,” as another trooper delivers yet another stun gun shock throughout his body. What it does show is a trooper taunting Greene by yelling, “Look, you’re going to get it again if you don’t put your f——- hands behind your back!” What it does show is another trooper, after Greene had been handcuffed with his hands behind his back and legs in shackles, dragging him facedown.

What it does show is that no one thought enough about this man to render any aid to him as they left him unattended, facedown, and moaning for more than nine minutes. What it does show is Greene wailing as he is face down on the ground while one trooper sits on top of him, pressing his hand onto the back of Greene’s neck and punching him in the face. What it does show is another trooper punching him in his lower back. What it does show is another trooper once he got back into his patrol car, talking on the phone with someone saying, “And I beat the ever-living f*** out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control and we finally got him in handcuffs when a third man got there and the son of a bitch was still fighting and we was still wrestling with him trying to hold him down because he was spitting blood everywhere. And then all of a sudden he just went limp.”

As this case gains more attention, we are also discovering more evidence of an attempted coverup. According to the AP, Lt. John Clary, “the ranking Louisiana State Police officer at the scene falsely told internal investigators that (Greene) was still a threat to flee after he was shackled, and he denied the existence of his own body camera video for nearly two years until it emerged just last month.” The internal investigation determined that the “video evidence, in this case, does not show Greene screaming, resisting, or trying to get away. The only screams revealed by the video were when Greene responded to force applied to him.”

As people continue to fight for police reform, the initial police statement has come under scrutiny. Long believed to be an accurate description of events, it is no longer the case. The truth of the matter is that some police officers do lie on their reports, and, as the case in Louisiana demonstrates, they have systems in place to cover up their lies. It took 474 days before Louisiana opened an investigation on the abuse and eventual death Ronald Greene suffered at the hands of state troopers. One could only guess what would have happened if there were no video. A recent survey showed that confidence in law enforcement fell under 50% for the first time in 27 years. When we go inside the numbers, we discover that while 56% of white adults have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence with law enforcement, only 19% of Black adults do. As Gallup writes, “This 37-percentage-point racial gap is the largest found for any of 16 major U.S. institutions rated in Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll.” So, if we are serious about police reform, we can start by holding police officers accountable when they give false police reports.

Andre E Johnson

Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

Hooks Fellows Publish Essays in Listening Journal

We are pleased to announce that the following Hooks Fellows have essays in the latest issue of the Listening: A Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture. Hooks Scholar in Residence, Andre E. Johnson guest-edited the special issue on Listening to African American Call Narratives and also has an essay in the issue titled, “Taking the Inward Journey: Prophetic Rhetoric’s Listening Function.”

In the essay, I examine what he calls “prophetic rhetoric’s listening function.” I ask, “how does the prophet know what the prophet declares? How does the prophet know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it? How does the prophet know when a rebirthing moment is taking place? How does the prophet get this revelation and thereby become empowered to share this “new” vision with society? I, therefore, maintains that before the prophet speaks or offers a prophetic witness, the one adopting a prophetic persona must engage in prophetic listening by way of taking the inward journey.

In “Must Thee Take the Man Exclusively”: Jarena Lee and Claiming the Right to Preach,Kimberly P. Johnson analyzes the feminist and womanist characteristics embedded in Jarena Lee’s autobiography and in her 1807 sermon in order to show how the two holistically work together to combat racism and sexism. More specifically, she examines Lee’s innate use of feminist and womanist discourse, which confronted the divisive structures of her religious denomination and the dominant power structures of social oppression, and the ways in which she broke down, resisted, and transcended religious patriarchy and social oppression.

In “A Wounded Healer: The HIV/AIDS Rhetoric of Rev. James L. Cherry,” Christopher A. House uses oral history methodology through an in-depth interview conducted with Rev.James Cherry, to examine the religiosity of the church leader in the vanguard of HIV/AIDS ministry within the Rochester, New York area. He does this by “exploring the rhetorical practices of Cherry, a national board member of the oldest and largest not-for-profit organization of its kind in the United States, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (BLCA). In so doing, House examines the ways in which Cherry deployed efforts to fulfill BLCA’s mission of educating, organizing, and empowering “Black leadership, including clergy, elected officials, medical practitioners, business professionals, social policy experts, and the media to meet the challenge of fighting HIV/AIDS in their local communities.”

In “Listening for the Call: Did I Get It Right,” Annette Madlock Gatison reflects on the role of call in her academic career. She writes, “Our ability to hear and discern and to not be influenced by how others see our call and role, or other life challenges can be difficult and at times conflicting. Well-meaning folk will quietly or loudly share their opinions. Our own voice with societal rules that are at times contrary to what God is saying or that are designed to fit the way we think it ought to be can be disheartening and confusing. It is my experience that clarity only
comes when you step out on faith.”

You can read these essays and others in the special issue here.

The Role of Faith in the Movement for Black Lives

On April 19, 2021, I had the opportunity to address the Canadian Forces College National Security Program. They were “virtually” touring cities in the American South to learn more about the particular needs of the population in each city. I was on the panel with Dr. Katherine Lambert-Pennington and Hooks Academic Research Fellow, Dr. Courtnee Mellon-Fant. Below is part of my presentation that addressed the role of faith in the movement for Black lives. 

 

In her important work chronicling the role of faith in the early days of the Ferguson resistance, Leah Gunning Francis argued that many of the BLM activists and protesters in the streets of Ferguson “demonstrated a very particular kind of embodiment of scripture and faith” and that activists “sought meaning through scripture in connection with their work for justice.”

Francis’ book is important because not only does the book chronicle the early days of the Ferguson resistance and the activism of BLM, but the book also chronicles the role of faith in those early days as well. It is important because the role of faith in BLM has always been one of contention. For instance, unlike the Civil Rights movement that it is often compared to, people often do not associate BLM as a faith-inspired movement or one that has anything to do with spirituality. This interpretation of the movement comes from a discourse that suggests perceived silence from churches—especially Black churches, during the early days of the movement.

However, despite the misgivings above on the role of faith and BLM, this did not stop many people of faith from joining the movement. In our research for our book, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, Amanda Nell Edgar and I in chapter 3, focused on our participant’s use of religious language and their own understandings of religion, faith, and spirituality that described their involvement with BLM. In short, we examine the “rhetoric of these narratives and examine how participants say that their faith, religion, or spirituality led them to support #BlackLivesMatter both online and “out in the streets.” What we discovered was that for many Black participants, the movement motivated a return to get more involved with their faith as well as an appreciation for the legacy of the Black Church.

BLM, Pentecostal Piety and the Role of Faith

But, how did people of faith reconcile the history of BLM and their own religious beliefs? One way that religion and communication scholar Christopher A. House suggest is that “many BLM activists self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” and their activism is animated by a deep spirituality that is personal, yet not connected traditionally to a religious institution. One of the BLM founders, Patrice Cullors remarked in an interview:

When you are working with people who have been directly impacted by state violence and heavy policing in our communities, it is really important that there is a connection to the spirit world. For me, seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about my conditions—how these conditions shape me in my everyday life and how do I understand them as part of a larger fight, a fight for my life. People’s resilience, I think, is tied to their will to live, our will to survive, which is deeply spiritual. The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.

Elise Edwards suggests that while people who are engaging spirit “know that social transformation involves politics and policy,” they also believe that “transformative work is ultimately a spiritual effort that requires a shift in consciousness.” She also notes that this transformation is “dependent on inner change, the type of reorientation that religionists call conversion.” While this “spiritual transformation does not necessarily require the aid of formalized religious communities, African American communities have consistently drawn on Black religion to propel and sustain transformative justice movements and cultivate resistance to racism and other death-dealing forces.”

Our findings show the importance of spirit as well. As we ask participants how does your faith, or the role of spirit play in their support of BLM, many of them not only saw a connection but for some, it was a major reason for being part of the movement. In listening to their answers to our questions of faith and religion, much of it sounded like Andrew Wilkes’ notion of “Pentecostal Piety.”

For him, he sees this type of spirituality as crossing denominational, religious, faith, and moral lines because it has before. He writes

Although the civil rights movement is commonly linked with the Baptist denomination of Christianity, we don’t do it justice to remember it as denominational simply because it was so strongly associated with a certain, charismatic Christian clergyman of color. The ideas animating the movement were of far more diverse origin. The civil rights movement saw Black folks (and non-Black folks) consecrate the American dream by way of the prophetic Baptist theology of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, yes. But it also involved the anointed agnosticism of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s founding executive director and the generative force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker. The radical Quaker vision of a Bayard Rustin next to the ethical humanism of an Asa Phillip Randolph were also blended in. And also in the mix was the subtle, yet significant tradition of faith-filled lay activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Marian Wright Edelman.

Drawing from Wilkes, we note two major points about Pentecostal piety. First, Pentecostal piety places a heavy emphasis on the role of the spirit, and second, Pentecostal piety places a priority on prophetic action. Wilkes calls it a “subversive civil religion.” If this is true, then it is a civil religion that functions as a prophetic witness.

Many of our respondents would agree that BLM acts as a prophetic movement that provides a prophetic witness to the contextual realities faced by many African Americans. If this is true, then BLM is part of the long African American prophetic tradition. This tradition was

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed Black people’s call for unity and cooperation, as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the promises and ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates both the Creator or the Divine’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God?” during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds God very close, but so far away.

BLM is then just the latest in the history of people standing up and providing clarity and witness to the atrocities happening to Black bodies.

Conclusion

Though many believed that Black Churches were not as active as they once were, many understood the tradition and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and saw themselves as connected to the tradition. The tradition also gave participants theological license to rethink, reshape, and reimagine what spirituality would look like in the BLM movement. This too, as we attempted to show, is part of the Black religious tradition. Birth in the resistance of a narrative that told Black people that they were not created in the image of God, Black people always had to put forth narratives that not only included them but also remind them that they too mattered.

For participants of faith, BLM offered a way of understanding a personal relationship with spirituality as a bridge to past civil rights leaders. In this way, larger movement history worked to draw in new social justice participants implicitly through their individual connections to the Spirit. BLM is not an explicitly religious organization. Yet the history of Black liberation organizes bubbles beneath the movement for Black lives. When activists engage in a spirituality that moves from moral suasion to bearing witness, they are discovering new and transformative ways to handle issues, problems, and concerns that Black people face daily. As a liberative and prophetic movement, BLM activists have drawn of the Black liberationists movements of the past and discerned the contextual realities confronting them today. In so doing, just like the civil rights activists that went before them, BLM is no different in that regard.

Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

The Call to Attend to Race in the Study of Religious Rhetoric

Andre E Johnson

Below is part of a presentation I gave at the Southern States Communication Association on April 8, 2021. It was part of the “Role of Race in Religious Rhetoric and Communication” panel.

In her groundbreaking essay, Lisa Flores argues that “race is foundational to the work of rhetorical criticism and that any criticism void of this consideration is incomplete, partial, if not irresponsible.” About this, she writes

If rhetorical scholars are to attend to all matter of discourse, whether understood as questions of impact, influence, or circulation, or questions of argument and audience, or questions of affect and materiality, we cannot ignore race. Rhetorical meanings, as they circulate on and around bodies, are already raced. Bodies that speak and listen, that exhort and cajole, that desire and hate are already raced.

However, following the lead of other rhetoric scholars who have called our attention to attend more to race in our studies[1] and not to marginalize the scholarship that is already published, I invite scholars of rhetoric and religion to start examining how race functions in our religious discourses. I do this because if as Matthew Houdek notes, “the whiteness of rhetorical studies is outrageous” and the “time has come to confront it,” it is also time to confront the fact that research in rhetoric and religion and indeed, religious communication itself is catastrophically white.

I would like for scholars, especially of rhetoric and religion, to grapple with how one uses rhetoric and how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race. I call on us to understand how one uses rhetoric as a method or how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race.

One way I argue to do this is to examine the African American prophetic tradition. In so doing, scholars will begin not only to unpack how those rhetors spoke against a tradition and system that still devalues them and their contributions but also to have a better and more holistic understanding of how rhetoric and religion function. This is not to negate the good work done by scholars who study rhetoric and religion. Scholars of rhetoric and religion have done a lot to lessen the resistance in our field toward religion. However, an understanding of how race functions at the intersection of rhetoric and religion would be helpful in two primary ways.

First, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion can expose some differences in how rhetoric is presented and performed. In my study of prophetic rhetoric, I attempt to demonstrate how scholars, in perpetuating the canon of prophetic rhetoric studies, sometimes missed a separate tradition of prophetic rhetoric. It is how scholars can publish books without one figure of color or how someone can publish a survey of the field and leave out the most recent and relevant works of Black scholars that have explicitly published about prophetic rhetoric. It is also how even when scholars examine speeches by Black figure they would deem as prophetic, they still would use the European understanding of the jeremiad instead of seeing how race would lead the speaker to adopt a different type of appeal.

Second, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will address Flores’ call for all of us to take race more seriously in our rhetorical analyses. In the field of communication, several scholars have taken on that call and challenge. However, many of them do not study religion. I argue that we who study rhetoric and religion can make a significant impact in our fields of study. We bring to the table an understanding of religion and its importance.

For instance, a study of Barack Obama’s rhetoric is not complete without attending to his religious rhetoric and the counter-religious rhetoric against him. As others have demonstrated, Obama used religious rhetoric more than any of the modern-day presidents, yet many who examine his rhetoric and discourse do not see him as a religious orator. Imagine if we would embrace the fact that much of Obama’s rhetorical theology comes from an understanding of Black Liberation Theology—a theology deeply rooted in an understanding of freedom, justice, equality, and race. That would also mean that we would have to reexamine our notions of what gets to be called religion as well.

Finally, A study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will force us to move away from white evangelical definitions of faith and adopt other ways to see and experience faith and religion—and I, for one, would welcome that.

[1] Matthew Houdek, “Racial Sedimentation and the Common Sense of Racialized Violence: The Case of Black Church Burnings.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 104, No. 3, 279–306 (2018); Michelle Kelsey Kearl, “The Stolen Property of Whiteness: A Case Study in Critical Intersectional Rhetorics of Race and Disability.” Rhetoric Review, 37:3, 300-313, (2018); Mollie K. Murphy and Tina M. Harris, “White Innocence and Black Subservience: The Rhetoric of White Heroism in The Help.” Howard Journal of Communications, Vol. 29, No 1, 49-62, (2018); Rishi Chebrolu. The Racial Lens of Dylann Roof: Racial Anxiety and White Nationalist Rhetoric on New Media. Review of Communication. Vol. 20, No. 1, 47–68, (2020)

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis.