I keep turning that question over in my head since the killings at Monterey Park and the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, my hometown. I know understanding the motives won’t erase the horror, but I keep thinking that at least knowing what pushed the perpetrators over the edge would help me process it.
To be clear, process does not mean acceptance. I’m struggling to put these tragedies in a logical context. But with little evidence of that, I’m having a hard time trying to fathom the randomness of the Monterey killings and the routineness of the Memphis beating.
In Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian community, police say 72-year-old Huu Can Tran killed 11 people when he opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio during a Lunar New Year celebration. Tran then drove to nearby dance hall — Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio — where he attempted to aim his semi-automatic gun at another set of revelers. But Brandon Tsay managed to grab the gun away from him. The 26-year-old Tsay, who worked at the hall his grandparents started, said he yelled for Tran to “Get away! Go!" When police finally located Tran in his white van, he was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. Police speculate that Tran was motivated by a personal matter. I wonder if self-hatred pushed him? And I wonder if there was even a moment of regret when he saw his victims — people who looked like him — fall down into pools of blood?
I asked the same question when I learned about Tyre Nichols’ brutal beating at the hands of five Memphis police officers — five Black Memphis police officers. I choked back tears hearing the news reports, repelled by the photo of Tyre in his hospital bed — his severely battered face and swollen eyes — silent witness to the ferocious attack. I avoided looking at most of the surveillance video, released days after growing public protests, showing Tyre as he was viciously punched, kicked and Tasered. But I did see — as did millions of other Americans — Tyre screaming in pain, saying he didn’t do anything. How do I make sense of his attackers, who, as Georgetown law professor Paul Butler noted to news outlets, “If ... weren’t in uniform and badges, the same thing that happened to Mr. Nichols could have happened to them.” I wonder if beating Tyre offered these cops a kind of momentary, sick release from their own coping with the pressures of being Black and blue? Some experts have pointed to the psychic damage of historic times when Black inmates were assigned to beat Black civil rights workers, and certain enslaved Blacks were expected to levy barbaric beatings on other enslaved people.
For those of us in marginalized communities, the violence within the community is gut-wrenching and devastating on a cultural level I really can’t explain to others. Tran and the former Memphis cops knew what it’s like to be the victim of unprovoked violence. To have it come from a member of the family is unspeakable.