Michele Wells: By the Time #BlackLivesMatter Gets to Arizona


Chief Magnus believes that #BlackLivesMatter. Arizona disagrees.  Magnus’ candidacy for the position of Chief of Police for the city of Tucson, Arizona, led to the creation of a memo by the Tucson Police Officers' Association (TPOA). As I read this recent article in Radio Free Richmond, I took interest in TPOA’s assessment of our Chief: “Inconsistent discipline, lack of direction, a promotion process that is based on a non-ranked list selection, follows the political wind, participated in a "Black Lives Matter" protest…” Wait – what was that last one? Participated in a "Black Lives Matter" protest. 

Arizona. Why would Magnus holding a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” be a negative? A quick memory check will put this memo in its proper context. 


Arizona: Where a federal appellate court judge asked whether the state was motivated by racism in its refusal to give driver's licenses and ID cards to young, undocumented immigrants. 

Arizona: Whose legislature approved a bill that would allow businesses citing religious beliefs to refuse service to gay people.   

Where Black Lives Matter is concerned, Arizona also has a long track record of opposing symbols of black equal rights. Arizona: the state that originally refused to observe Martin Luther King Day. King, a global symbol of peace, a man whose orations changed the course of America, seemed somehow not in keeping with Arizona’s vision of democracy. A boycott of the state ensued in 1987 that cost millions in tourism, conventions, business contracts. Prominent musicians refused to perform in the state.  

In 1991, Public Enemy’s song "By the Time I Get to Arizona" prompted the NFL to get involved. The music video for the song begins with a press conference and images of Americans standing with signs in protest to the unequal treatment of black citizens akin to that of the one prominently seen of Chief Magnus. 

Arizona promptly came to its senses about King when the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl to Los Angeles, which cost the state around $200 million. With the future of holding the 1996 Super Bowl in Phoenix at stake, the state accepted King’s dream (not to be confused with the Dreamers) in 1992 so that, in exchange, it could get football back. The cost –acknowledging the civil rights of black citizens. Arizona voters and legislators made it clear then that football is more important than black life. Now, it is clear why Chief Magnus’actions were an affront to the Tucson Police Officers' Association. Perhaps Magnus should have opted for a sign declaring #SuperBowlMatters.

Arizona did not accept King for his beliefs but rather in exchange for the Super Bowl. Indeed, Civil rights remain a mockery in Arizona. Recently Arizona State University’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity hosted an "MLK Black Party" where attendees were encouraged to wear jerseys, sagging pants, and drink from watermelons. The photos of the event were posted to Instagram and included hashtags that read #mlkparty, #watermeloncup, #hood, #blakcoutformlk and #ihaveadream. One student recounted: “This is just one example of the kind of things that occur here.” 

Arizona aside, the objection to a chief of police holding a #BlackLivesMatter sign does not belong to Arizona, it belongs to America. Magnus’ act is startling to our nation because it disturbs the status quo, it strikes at the root of injustice in our nation.  

I know this to be true from my work in the city of Richmond. 

Because of Magnus’ strong sense of direction and his ability to see the value of the lives of black people, I was able to develop Theater for Humanity (TFH), a project in partnership with the Richmond Police Department (RPD).


The TFH project brings together formerly incarcerated men and law enforcement officers to have dialogue. The project aims to provide formerly incarcerated persons with a holistic, restorative experience with law enforcement officers in their community after their release from incarceration. This is necessary to establish a trust of the justice system and faith in their ability to become productive members of society.

The success of the project stemmed from the commitment of RPD to the project and their belief in its values and goals.  RPD’s support of the project served to legitimize it. Many people find Theater for Humanity to be compelling and shocking, because it brings together both formerly incarcerated persons and law enforcement officers. People see it as radical.  Why is that radical? What does that say about our nation?  

It’s simple. The law has historically and presently dehumanizes black life. From unevenly applied policies, such as stop and frisk, to the mass incarceration rates of African Americans policies that lead to punishment and actions that lead to death are more frequently deployed by law enforcement in their interactions with blacks. Recent footage of the assault of a young girl in South Carolina, and the mysterious, tragic death of Sandra Bland demonstrate the need for law enforcement to say very loud and clear black lives matter. Because for the time that stretches the length of the existence of this nation, the law has been the mechanism by which black lives have been taken without regard for their significance. We need to say black lives matter because our officers, our courts, judges, prisons, they all affirm that black lives do not matter. Black people need law enforcement officers to say black lives matter. Thus, the direction that American law enforcement needs is the type that Magnus embodies. 

In his act to hold a sign reading #BlackLivesMatter, Magnus acknowledged that this misuse of authority often claims the lives of black citizens. That he did so at a protest demonstrates that he stands by his vision. Protest, defined as a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something. Magnus objected to the use of legal force to kill an unarmed American citizen. Does it mean he does not support officers of the law who act in their own self-defense? No. Does it mean that he does not believe in maintaining order? No. It simply means that a law enforcement officer, in the course of his duty, made a deadly error that must be acknowledged and rectified. Magnus, understanding his community’s needs, understood that in order to maintain trust between police and community, in order for young black men in a city to not live in fear that they will be shot dead in the street and left to lie there dead, that law enforcement needs to reassure its citizenry that they are there to serve and protect not to kill and destroy. Magnus, standing alongside Richmond residents, aligned the power, the authority of the law with the people in his community, the people he has vowed to protect and serve. 

Chief Magnus possesses a strong sense of direction, a powerful vision and values coupled with bold, decisive action. Arizona cannot see his direction because Magnus’ direction is not rooted in the traditional, oppressive, and punitive measures of the past. Magnus is a bright beacon in the face of American law enforcement. Magnus is directed by both his agencies’ and the community needs, which requires innovative and, at times, organic problem solving. Clarity of direction is proved by the fruit of his work: reduced crime, strong community ties, and enhanced public safety. 

Whether #BlackLivesMatter is accepted as true in Arizona or not, Chief Magnus is the future of law enforcement in America.


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