Another Black man was murdered by police in the United States in a modern-day lynching in Memphis, Tennessee.
The city is nearly 70% African American, and the police chief is a Black woman.
What surprised many is that the police officers involved were all African American. Some ask how could the police be a racist institution, if the savage beating was done by African American officers who live in the community?
The five officers were immediately fired and later charged with second-degree murder. That rarely happens — especially to white cops.
January 7 events
Tyre Nichols, 29, was only 25 metres from his mother’s home on January 7, when a special police unit called “Scorpion” — which has now been hastily dismantled — pulled him over for alleged “reckless driving”. The Scorpion squad targeted “high crime areas” and its members were free to do whatever they considered legal.
According to media reports, a group of five Black police officers punched, kicked, tasered and pepper sprayed Nichols. He lay in anguish on the ground, crying out for his mother.
According to the Memphis Police Department, when officers approached Nichols to arrest him, a “confrontation” occurred, and Nichols allegedly ran away. A second “confrontation” then occurred, before Nichols was ultimately arrested. Following his arrest, Nichols allegedly “complained of having a shortness of breath, at which time an ambulance was called”.
Nichols was finally taken to a hospital in a critical condition. He died three days later.
Nichols’ stepfather posted pictures of his brutalised body on social media to show what police brutality looks like. An official cause of death has not been released, but a forensic pathologist hired by the family conducted an independent autopsy that showed Nichols had extensive internal bleeding.
Protests broke out immediately after the killing in Memphis. They were peaceful, demanding that more must be done to hold the cops accountable.
The road ahead will be long and it is expected that the police will carry out a smear campaign against Nichols and his family.
Videos expose brutality
Unusually, the police body camera footage and other security video footage were released on January 27 to the public. In almost all police killings, the police and district attorneys refuse to do so for months or even years.
As the footage was released, thousands took to the streets across the country in protest on January 27. The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful.
The footage revealed that while Nichols’ injuries were clearly severe, an ambulance did not arrive for more than 20 minutes. The two emergency medical workers took their time to administer help and move Nichols to a hospital.
The videos were released in four parts and included body-camera and street lamp-mounted camera footage, which showed one officer shouting several times at Nichols to “get the fuck out of the car”. An officer is shown pulling Nichols out of the car. When Nichols replies “I didn’t do anything”, an officer tells him to “get on the fucking ground” and warns Nichols he will “tase” him.
Nichols says: “I’m on the ground ... You guys are really doing a lot now … I’m just trying to go home.”
According to the footage, after being brought to the ground and beaten, Nichols is shown running from the officers — I believe he was in fear of his life. “I hope they stomp his arse,” one of the police officers is heard saying. The fatal beating unfolded when he was apprehended at an intersection.
Gut-wrenching footage from the camera attached to the light pole shows that as Nichols is cuffed and on the ground, he is kicked in the head repeatedly by police. The footage also shows him being repeatedly struck with a baton, while being restrained by other officers.
Police body camera footage shows Nichols being brought to his feet then repeatedly punched and kicked when he falls to the ground. Police are then shown dragging his body to the side of a police car, where he is propped up against it.
The footage shows that none of the officers involved intervened to stop the beating or help Nichols. Eight officers are shown milling about as Nichols leans against the car. Some are shown joking and laughing.
While it is positive that the five cops were fired and charged quickly, the family’s lawyer said that others present were not.
“The actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols and they are all responsible,” said Shelby county district attorney Steve Mulroy.
Following the release of the footage, Shelby county sheriff Floyd Bonner announced that two deputies present at the scene were also relieved of duty, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
The Memphis Police Union said it is “committed to the administration of justice and NEVER condones the mistreatment of ANY citizen nor ANY abuse of power”, adding that it has “faith in the criminal justice system” to “ensure the totality of circumstances is revealed”.
The Nichols family’s legal team said that Nichols “was a human piñata for those police officers”. One family attorney, Antonio Romanucci, said to reporters: “Not only was it violent, it was savage.”
The white police officer who stayed with Nichols’ car has so far not been charged.
Who was Tyre Nichols?
Nichols was born in Sacramento, California, where he lived before moving to Memphis in 2018. He was a father, an avid skateboarder and worked at FedEx.
The cops don’t know their Black victims. Police officers — and not only the white ones — assume that Black men are all potential criminals. A traffic stop is the start to end the “threat” before it happens.
Nichols was dragged from his car before he even knew what law he had violated. That he was a skateboarder, photographer and father never entered the cops’ mind. He was just someone they could beat up savagely.
Family and lawyer demands
Ben Crump, a national civil rights attorney on the family’s legal team, said, “Tyre was brutalised by Memphis police, much like how Rodney King was beaten more than 30 years ago — but unlike Rodney, Tyre lost his life from this violent attack.”
Qualified Immunity is the protection for police that makes legal shootings, beatings and murders possible. It’s why few cops, even those charged, are ever convicted. Congress refuses to pass legislation to remove this protection.
“Charging the officers who brutalised Tyre is not enough,” said Missouri congressperson Cori Bush.
Bush said more must be done to prevent police violence and Congress needs to act: “Our country will continue to sanction the taking of Black lives with impunity until it embraces an affirmative vision of public safety and dismantles its racist policing system rooted in enslavement and government control.
“Merely diversifying police forces will never address the violent, racist architecture that underpins our entire criminal legal system. The mere presence of Black officers does not stop policing from being a tool of white supremacy.”
Questions about Black cops
What explains the quick response in firing and charging the five African American cops? Some believe it was because of a Black police chief. Others cited the fear of violent protest.
I believe it reflects the changing social consciousness in the Black community about cops in general, including Black police. The change is a byproduct of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that emerged in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when police forces were mainly white, the community demanded the hiring of Black police officers and the election of more Black representatives to higher office.
I grew up in Detroit during the 1967 rebellion, and afterwards a common demand arose for more community control over policing. Black people have learned that racial composition does not transform its culture and mission of policing.
Police were never meant to serve and protect average citizens, but to serve and protect the ruling class and its property, and to suppress formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Police also suppress striking workers and protesters.
Black police officers are servants of the same violent racist system as white cops. Black police officers know that when in civilian clothes they are treated like all Black people — with racial contempt.
The root of police culture is white supremacy and racism/national oppression. The original sin of the US, written into the constitution, is acceptance of slavery (and the extra political power given to slaveholders) and national oppression of Black people and other non-white populations.
Protests and demands were never directed at white cops alone. The sophisticated awareness of policing was always focused on winning democratic reforms and radical changes to the institution itself.
Memphis makes that clear. Cops are cops, no matter their skin colour. Police violence reflects the internalisation of racist ideology.
What comes next?
It will be a long road to win some justice in Memphis. It is not certain that the five officers will be convicted.
Only modest reforms have occurred in some police departments since the mass BLM protests began in 2020.
The multiracial movement for justice for George Floyd was always about more than getting the white police officers who killed him arrested and prosecuted. It was about winning legal changes nationally to change policing.
Most importantly, the radical wing of the BLM movement continues to demand the defunding of the police and the reimagining of how a publicly controlled system can be forged. The left wing goes further by calling for the system to be abolished.
A new culture is possible only by uprooting the old and creating a new safety force from the bottom up. These are democratic demands that are both immediate and transitional to changing the system.