I think a lot about the constant work of reimagining the world as we at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism strive to tell stories through the prism of power, poverty and policy. 

I discover more and more how much of that work is unlearning some of the approaches to journalism I’ve been taught.

Chief among that unlearning is that you should always trust the police and what they say and report.

Long before George Floyd’s murder and the contradictory police reports that describe it, I had a complicated relationship with law enforcement.

Randy Evans

I’ve never forgotten Randy Evans, a teenager who was inexplicably killed by a police officer in Brooklyn, N.Y., when I was a child. During the trial, the police officer claimed he had a one-time seizure and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He later spent about a year in a facility. 

And yet, I didn’t grow up afraid of police officers. I held that story and all the others after them outside of myself, not quite in the “one bad apple” place but also not understanding it as a part of what American policing was built on. 

I remember years later, when I lived in Los Angeles, being in a car with a friend, a South Asian man, a year or two after the 1992 L.A. riots. I was at the wheel and we drove near a police car. I can’t remember if we thought the police officer was going to stop us for some reason or whether something else happened. What I do remember was looking over at him, my eyes wide because I could literally feel the fear radiating from him. He was terrified of an encounter with the police. Later, sharing the incident with friends on the East Coast, I used it as an example of what it was like to live in L.A. in the 90s. Again, I saw it as a singular event.

There are other elements involved here (chief among them, I’d say, pop culture depictions of police and policing), but my point is that my background made it easy for me to accept the journalistic practice of believing police at all times and holding their documents and statements as bible truth.

It seems so crazy; police, of course, are people, which means they are capable of covering up, making themselves look better than they should, making mistakes, misinterpreting and yes, lying. And yet, journalism operated and, in some quarters, still operates as if police can’t lie.

That’s why MLK50 was a sponsor last week of a webinar by Interrupting Criminalization, “Don’t be a Copagandist,” a teaching for journalists, storytellers and activists about how to cover violence and crime with an abolition lens. It was hosted by journalist Lewis Raven Wallace and researcher Andrea Ritchie, who co-authored a just-released book, “No More Police: A Case for Abolition,” along with Mariame Kaba.

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting with seven people.
Lewis Raven Wallace (top left) along with Andrea Ritchie (top center) during last week’s Interrupting Criminalization webinar.

About 500 people registered to learn and unlearn; to hold police accountable in the way we aim to hold all public officials, and to better understand how to dismantle and illuminate the powerful narratives around crime and punishment. We talked, we got resources that offered specific ways to improve our journalism and we shared our stories.

While MLK50 has a history of challenging the Memphis Police Department, I know this webinar deepened our commitment to think about the ways we disseminate the information we get from the MPD.

Especially now, after the high-profile crimes of last month, we need to be vigilant that tragedy turns into opportunity for a better community. At MLK50, we want to be among those who look for solutions that prevent and interrupt violence. 

Imagine that. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com

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