Once Again, a Black Soldier Suffers From Police Abuse

In the midst of the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, more Americans are becoming familiar with the ways Black men continue to be mistreated by law enforcement. Last week yet another disturbing encounter between a Black man and the police came to light — and this time the incident has eerie echoes not only of the recent past but also of an incident three-quarters of a century ago.

In a lawsuit filed against two police officers in Windsor, Virginia, Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario says that he was on his way home from purchasing a new S.U.V. last December when he saw police cruiser lights behind him. He was on a dark road, so he slowed down, turned on his hazard lights and drove to a well-lit gas station.

Body-cam video shows what happened next: Officers screaming at the fatigues-clad Nazario, giving contradictory orders, suggesting he was facing imminent execution (“You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning”), pepper-spraying him, beating his legs with a night stick and forcing him to the ground before eventually handcuffing him.

Throughout, Nazario’s resistance consists mainly of asking repeatedly what is going on. The purported reason for the stop was driving without a visible rear license plate. But his new vehicle’s temporary tags were in the rear window — and are plainly visible in the light of the gas station.

The footage will have every Black American nodding knowingly at each discrete decision Nazario makes. In a sense, Nazario is lucky that he’s alive to sue — unlike, say, Philando Castile, who was shot in 2016 in suburban Minneapolis after announcing during a traffic stop that he had a legal gun in the car. Despite being pepper-sprayed, Nazario gets to see another day.

And yet, the historical parallel for the Nazario incident isn’t necessarily in the various encounters of the last decade that fueled the rise of Black Lives Matter. No, for this earlier verse, one need go back to 1946, and a World War II veteran who walked away, even if he literally never saw another day.   

Last month, PBS’s “American Experience” aired “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.” In a nation whose understanding of civil rights heroes and martyrs seems confined to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Emmett Till, Woodard’s story is a reminder for some and an introduction for many more of the deep savagery of American racism. 

In 1946, Woodard was returning from having served three years in Europe. The final leg of his trip was a bus ride to his home in Batesburg, S.C. Woodard asked the bus driver to stop so he could use a bathroom. The driver cursed him in racially offensive language. Woodard cursed back. Shortly thereafter, the driver stopped the bus and Batesburg Police Chief Lynwood Shull pulled Woodard off. He struck him repeatedly with his baton — then used it to gouge out Woodard’s eyes.

Woodard would awaken in a jail cell, permanently blind.

He would not gain personal justice. The all-White jury acquitted in half an hour. It only took that long because the presiding judge took a lengthy lunch break, to prevent the jury from returning a five-minute verdict.

Nonetheless, Woodard’s brutal treatment was a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement: The NAACP seized on it to demonstrate the horrific racist violence returning Black veterans faced in the South. Orson Welles publicized the incident, and celebrities raised money on Woodard’s behalf.

Most significantly, a horrified President Harry Truman was inspired to desegregate the military (and, indeed, all federal offices). And the NAACP’s lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, took up a South Carolina school segregation case that became one of the foundations for his eventual successful argument in Brown vs. Board of Education.  

Eleven months ago, George Floyd’s death launched a presumed “reckoning on race.” Seven and a half decades after Woodard, will another veteran’s abuse at the hands of police spark another conversation? 

Remarkably, just after the damning videos came to light, the town of Windsor announced on Sunday that one of the officers who pepper-sprayed Nazario has been fired. That he was dismissed so abruptly may indicate a real change in relations between the police and the public. So does the filing of manslaughter charges against the officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright in suburban Minneapolis. On the other hand, Wright’s death has ignited days of unrest.

Maybe, after 75 years, America might just get it right. Or maybe willful blindness is America’s perpetual curse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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