Brian Nichols and the Hidden Face of America

“I feel like I’m a warrior-that people of my color have gone through a lot.”

— Brian Nichols

Outwardly, the Atlanta incident involving Brian Nichols is just another senseless act of violence, but if we delve deeper beneath the surface we discover that the circumstances surrounding this tragedy are multi-faceted and complicated.

It is almost certain that Brian Nichols, a 33 year old Black man (on trial for raping his former lover) overpowered a deputy sheriff, took her hand gun, then entered the courtroom and shot the trail judge as well as the court reporter and another deputy he met going out of the courtroom as he made good his escape. What is not so certain is why. Yet news reports immediately following the Nichols escape coupled with an understanding of American historical, judicial and social dynamics will shed some light.

Brian Nichols faced a lifetime in prison if found guilty of raping his former sweet heart. A crime he maintained he did not commit. And although( the American judicial system being as clogged and over-crowded as it is) he was offered the customary court sanctioned plea bargain, he chose to take his case before a judge and jury. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but Nichols (like his attorney Terry Ratzman) sensed that his second trial would likely end in a conviction and exploded in anger and desperation and took matters into his own hands.

By all accounts, Nichols is an intelligent, rational and easy-going man. There must have been something that occurred during his second trial that conclusively indicated to him that he would be convicted. And if Nichols was in fact guilty of the crime for which he is accused, we could understand his frustration, his anxiety, his hopelessness and his desperation to escape; but this is not solely what Brian Nichols showed on that fateful March 11th morning. For what Nichols displayed was not only the desperation of a criminal attempting to escape the consequences of his crime; what Nichols showed (if the reports are correct) was incredible anger and retributive rage. It was most likely a sense of outrage at what he perceived as the injustice of the court proceedings in particular and of America in general which drove him to return to the courtroom (the very courtroom of his trial and the same judge that presided therein) and seek his revenge.

Both the judge and the court stenographer were White, but this alone does not explain why he went out of his way to shoot them. They, whether they were good or bad individuals, were symbols of American authority and structural inequality in the judicial system. An injustice and inequality that resulted in Blacks, who make up a mere 13 percent of the nation’s population, comprising (in many states and counties) a whopping 70 to 90 percent of the prison and jail population. These sobering statistics were probably known to Brian Nichols, who by most accounts is an intelligent person. Something intense must have welled up within him and overflowed. Something within him must have resolved that he would not(regardless of the terrible cost to himself and to others) be a passive victim of a racist system that manifests such dismal conditions.

Of course, Nichols also reportedly attacked Black people. After all, it is said, the deputy sheriff whom he struck with such force (prompting initial false reports that he had shot her), the other deputy sheriff that he gunned down, and the former lover who filed rape charges against him are all African Americans. Yet, again, Nichols did not assault them because of their skin color; they could have been polka dotted for all he cared; they were attacked because they stood in his way of exacting retribution by reason of their being the physical representative of an unjust system, and it was in this capacity that he moved against them. As for his former lady friend, it has not been proven that he raped her, only that she accused him of it. And if he did, he did so after having over eight years of consensual sex with her.

In many news accounts and on several internet blog sites, Nichols is described as an “animal” a “terrorist” a “thug” and a “coward.” This is not surprising, for America has stigmatized Black men as dangerous and beastly for hundreds of years to conceal its oppression of them. And White men have labeled Black men as cowards to project their own fears and feelings of inadequacy upon the primal source of their dread, in a pathetic attempt to cover-up their own cowardice.

Today, although usually not as blatant as in previous decades, the undercurrent of racist ideology and fear is as enduring and prevalent as ever. Howbeit, sometimes it takes an incident like the one that occurred in Atlanta to unmask the racism so that it can be viewed in the full light of day. But even then, many Black people have allowed themselves to be co-opted into the system and they see the world through the eyes of Whites and are conditioned to ignore racism even when it is hiding in plain sight.

The violence of Nichols as well as other Black perpetrators, is usually reported as if it gained momentum from nefarious forces or sprang menacingly out of a vacuum and rarely are the underlying causes of this retaliatory violence addressed or examined. Instead the Blacks who become engaged in it are depicted as monstrous and evil. Even if explanations are offered, they place the blame on the supposed moral degeneracy, wickedness and debauchery of the Black antagonist. The injustices of poverty, racism, political isolation, etc are brushed aside as contributing factors and no attention is paid to childhood trauma (as is in the case of White killers) and few are concerned if (or how) social, medical, or economic conditions may have impacted upon behavior.

The national attitude of blaming the racially stigmatized, the socially disadvantaged and economically exploited for their plight is a carry-over from the American eugenics movement that was developed in at the beginning of the 20th Century and was itself a continuation of the myth of inherent intellectual and moral inferiority which was assigned to Black people during centuries of enslavement.

This fear of the alleged malignance of Blacks and their tendency toward crime, violence, rape and moral degeneracy, resulted in the forced sterilization or “planned parenthood” of a significant segment of the population andnd jump-started a movement of genocidal proportions which is still a part of America today.

Brian Nichols is consistently portrayed in main-stream media accounts as a rapist and conclusions are quickly arrived at regarding his arrest for the alleged sexual assault on his former girl friend. Yet before we assume that he is a rapist, we must question the inconsistency of his behavior. Why did he not rape Ashley Smith, when he held her for several hours at her home? Surely she was at his mercy throughout the entire night and morning they were together. But they spent the time reading scripture from the Bible and reciting gems of inspiration from the popular book, The Purpose Driven Life.

No, Brian Nichols was not a bloodthirsty murderer (he had the opportunity to shoot several others but he refused to do so). Nor was he merely a criminal (he has yet to be convicted of a crime) out to escape the consequences of his actions. Nichols considered himself a warrior in a battle and against a system that had not only victimized him, but millions like him.

Nichols will no doubt face life in prison, if not death under the shadow of state and federal law. While Ashley Smith ( either willingly or unwillingly) will be projected into the image America has not outgrown; that of the pure White heroine who soothed the savage beast into surrendering himself . And even before Brian Nichols is safely and conveniently caged on death row, she will have reaped millions in book and movies deals.

Yet Nichols in his heart of hearts might feel that he has won a victory, because he was successful in bringing world attention to himself. And although he may ultimately be silenced by the steel cubicle of a prison cell or by the cold finality of the execution chamber, he will not go to his death in the fog of anonymity. He has forced America (at long last) to acknowledge him.