Civil rights activists and sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee declaring "I Am A Man" are blocked by National Guardsmen with bayonets, backed by tanks

In the 1968 strike that brought MLK to Memphis, sanitation workers and civil rights activists are met by National Guardsmen with bayonets, backed by tanks.

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Somebody Is Trying to Kill Me

On a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. - fierce warrior for racial justice and, despite his "Santa-Clausifying," against poverty, militarism and "the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” - we are left wondering on what planet does distraught black man Keenan Anderson begging "Please help me" to police become "Please brutishly kill me"? In an America, still, that MLK called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." Eloquently, achingly, he, Baldwin, Coates tell of white men who "have caused the darkness."

A 31-year-old black man, father, and charter high school English teacher "beloved by all," Keenan Anderson died entirely senselessly Jan. 3 from cardiac arrest after he was tased to death by Los Angeles police following a traffic accident, marking the city's third grisly death-by-cop in this very new year and suggesting once again, per one patriot, "American law enforcement is the KKK...This was sadism and a lynching, pure and simple." Police first encountered Anderson, a 10th-grade teacher at Digital Pioneers Academy in DC who was visiting family over winter break, following a traffic accident at an intersection in L.A's Venice neighborhood; they said Anderson was “running in the middle of the street and exhibiting erratic behavior.” Made hideously clear in multiple videos from police body-cam footage but oddly never mentioned in their report was the fact he was also frenziedly, fearfully, repeatedly beseeching them to, "Please help me" in an agitated manner that any sentient being would, you'd think, recognize as connoting a mental health crisis. When a clueless phalanx of thug cops nonetheless brutally, inexplicably escalated the situation, attacked him, and wrestled him to the ground with an elbow to his neck, he cried out, "They're trying to George Floyd me!", thus offering up the gruesome spectacle of rendering George Floyd a verb as "another black man describes the exact same public lynching that is about to fall upon him by way of cops sworn and paid to protect him."

This horror saw the light of day last week when the LAPD released an edited, nearly-20-minute long video that includes perspectives from several cops' body cameras, as well as cellphone video from a female eyewitness with the perspicacity to note, "I think that guy needs help." The entire release can be seen on the department's YouTube channel here. There is another, shorter version here. Many on social media purposefully declined to post links because they are "tired of sharing black trauma." (We've posted a very short segment below; we couldn't get through the whole thing.) If you find it easier to read, not see, genocidal violence by agents of the state hired to protect and serve, Law and Crimeposted a detailed, blow-by-blow ((literally) description. A reasonably humane first cop on a motorcycle urges Anderson to "get up against the wall," Anderson nervously implores him, "Please, sir, I didn't mean to, please help me, somebody's trying to kill me," the cop almost gently says, "Stay down for me, hey, hey, stay here," Anderson says he wants "people to see me...Somebody's trying to kill me," and moves toward a curb, cop says, "Ok, you can sit right there," Anderson, spooked, starts to run off, the cop coaxes, "Come here, come here, we don't want you in the road." In seconds the tone turns ugly: A second, thuggish cop grabs Anderson while furiously shrieking, "GET DOWN on the ground, get down, get down on your stomach NOW!" as Anderson entreats him, "Please sir, please sir, don't do this, sir."

Things escalate once several other cops arrive, pile on him, push an elbow into his neck, yell, "Stop resisting!" as a panicked Anderson cries, "Help, they're trying to kill me." One frantic cop repeatedly shouts to "stop" or he'll tase him. He finally starts to tase him multiple times, each one a chilling clatter. Over 42 seconds, with some pauses, he tases him six times, or with about 50,000 volts, while pinned on the ground with his hands behind his back. Police research says a person should not be hit by a taser for more than 15 seconds total; one report cites the 15-second rule four times, warning that any longer exposure "may increase the risk of serious injury or death and should be avoided.” Anderson, limp, is handcuffed and shackled, put on a gurney, and taken to a hospital; a few hours later, he went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead. Mashea Ashton, the head of D.C's computer-science-focused Digital Pioneers Academy, described Anderson as "a deeply committed educator" who "would brighten up a room with his smile" and the father of a six-year-old son. "The details of his death are as disturbing as they are tragic," she wrote. "Our community is grieving. But we’re also angry...Angry that another talented, beautiful black soul is gone too soon.” She added "Keenan is the third member of our school community to fall victim" to gun violence in the past 65 days; two students, 14 and 15, were also killed in separate incidents. Almost 98% of the student body is black.

On social media, the rage was palpable, especially after police released an autopsy detail that Anderson had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana - crimes whose punishment does not include extrajudicial execution. People said the cops know how lethal tasers can be, they could see he was a "nerdy," terrified, disoriented black man "who had no idea how to run away from the police," he was having a psychotic break or under the influence of something requiring medical attention. L.A. Mayor Karen Bass, a black former mental health professional, issued an angry statement about "deeply disturbing tapes" and the fact mental health experts weren't called instead of Nazi cops, noting at least a third of victims of police brutality were experiencing a mental health crisis. She also called out to the families of two victims of police shootings this year: Oscar Sanchez, 35, and Takar Smith, 45, whose wife called police when he violated a restraining order while mentally unwell; video shows him trying to fend off police by pushing a kid's bike at them, then picking up a knife. The family is suing: "When people call for help, we're not calling for executions." On Saturday evening, in pouring rain, activists held a candlelight vigil for Anderson, who was the cousin of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. She noted it was not a protest but "a spiritual gathering," held ten years after BLM's founding at the intersection "where my cousin begged for his life," and on the night before MLK's birthday. "My cousin would be alive," she said, "if we had actually manifested King's dream."

Events on what would have been King's 94th birthday included a statue unveiled in Boston, a symposium on police brutality in Akron, Ohio where Jayland Walker, 25, died after police shot him 46 times as he fled, and Biden speaking at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served, to praise "the sacred proposition we are all created equal for which Dr. King gave his life." He did not point out King also gave his life for a country where in 2022 police killed more people than any other year in the past decade, and black and brown people in wildly disproportionate numbers; where 1,081 people were tased to death in one recent year, with over 32% black victims; where police misconduct is uncovered in over 35% of wrongful convictions, too often of black people, ultimately overturned; where in his 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, he not only envisioned a nation of people judged "not by the color of their skin but the content of their character" but declared, "I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations....fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left (you) staggered by the winds of police brutality”; where he recognized police violence as not just part of southern segregation but northern indifference and denial, a “system of internal colonialism” where police and courts act as “enforcers....armies of officials clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence (to) kill Negroes with the same recklessness that once motivated the slave-owner.”

Thanks to conservative revisionism Cornel West has called "the Santa Claus-ifying" of King, his true radicalism - his incorporating into a fight against racism his fierce stances against economic inequality, militarism, acts of imperialist aggression, notably the Vietnam War, and "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world - my own government" - has long been muted. Far easier for those threatened by his egalitarianism to view the fight for racial justice through the lens of protests, buses, lunch counters "safely in the past," says Mehdi Hasan, rather than reckoning with our ongoing crimes of racism. Citing a revolutionary Poor People's campaign now revived by Rev. William Barber, Hasan notes King was, gasp, "a proud Socialist" who in one patient, painful interview pointed out that, given "no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil," it is "a cruel jest to ask the bootless to raise themselves by their boot straps." Through the upheavals of the 1960s, King kept speaking his truth. When the police killing of a black 15-year-old sparked an uprising in Harlem, he was called by the mayor and police commissioner to ease tensions; he blasted them for being “unresponsive to the demands or aspirations” of Black people, and was "almost run out of town by both when he said cops needed oversight by a civilian board. In 1965, when Watts exploded, he insisted on citing "the tinder" - bad housing, schools, jobs, police - that led to them: "It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be." Always, he laid police abuses at the feet of those in power who "made a mockery of the law: "The policymakers of white society have caused the darkness."

King's radical integrity is long gone. Happily, activists and artists echo his eloquence, keeping his legacy alive, still bearing witness. There are movies; there are always movies. And there are writers, primary among them the ever-fiery James Baldwin. In his searing 1966 "Report from Occupied Territory" in The Nation, he described another daily act of police savagery against "a bad nigger" in Harlem who'd done nothing wrong; then came the police killing of the kid "which overflowed the unimaginably bitter cup, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face." "These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day," he wrote. "If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom." He goes on, "In every Northern city with a large Negro population, the police are simply the hired enemies of this population...They are, moreover quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty...This is why those pious calls to 'respect the law' (each) time the ghetto explodes are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." Speaking to Berkeley students in 1979, he came right to the scathing point: "The intentions of this melancholy country, as concerns Black people, and anyone who doubts me can ask any Indian, have always been genocidal." On "the latest slave rebellion": "Our presence in this country terrifies every white man walking. They needed us for labor and sport; now we cannot be exiled, and we cannot be accommodated. Every white person in the country, I do not care what he or she says, knows one thing - they would not like to be Black here."

For many, the natural successor to the inestimable Baldwin is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, an extended letter to his son about how "afraid we are for our bodies..for our loved ones"; thus, "Black people love their children with a kind of obsession...You come to us endangered.” In a speech launching his book, he describes the murky death of Prince Jones, a friend from Howard, and Jones' stoic mother; having risen in life from enslaved ancestors, she "carried "a great fear echoed down through the ages" and showed "great composure and greater pain...all the odd poise (the) great American injury demands of you...She could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best - it forgot him." In The Atlantic, he often wrote about "the reality that police officers have been getting away with murdering black people since the advent of American policing...The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.” In Between the World, he warns his son to "resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some
irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history...All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and girls to 'be twice as good'....words spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality (when) in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket... America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”

Finally, there is Colson Whitehead, author of the harrowing The Underground Railroad andThe Nickel Boys, based on the real story of a barbarous Florida reform school of "broken boys" that operated for 111 years and devastated thousands of young lives. The hero of his wrenching re-creation is Elwood Curtis, a black innocent raised by his grandmother when his parents abandon him, who on Christmas 1962 "received the best gift of his life," a recording of Martin Luther King speeches at Zion Hill: "We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness." Elwood tries to rise above the cruelties of the Jim Crow South until he's randomly arrested for hitching a ride in a car, the surly cop notes, "only a nigger'd steal." He's sent to Nickel Academy, where boys are sexually abused, worked to exhaustion. savagely beaten, often to death. Locked in a dark sweatbox - "Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom" - he summons King's lofty hope: "The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen, hearing instead a higher order...Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change." Like King, Keenan, Till, Trayvon, Tamir, all the broken black bodies, he doesn't get to the Promised Land, but retains the fervent, yearning dream he will. Just not yet. May they all rest in peace and power.

Keenan and his son.Keenan and his son.Twitter/Facebook family photo

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