US and World Politics

The Murder of Tyre Nichols and the Death of Police Reform

By Jeffrey St. Clair

“Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, ‘If you must call a policeman,’–for we hardly ever did–‘for God’s sake, try to make sure it’s a white one.’ A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a white policeman could, and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you.”

—James Baldwin

It’s often said, and usually true, that police only show up after a crime has been committed. But that wasn’t the case with Tyre Nichols. There were plenty of police (including some “elite” officers) on the scene when Nichols was being savagely assaulted, in a crime that took his life. Swaddled in body armor, adorned with all kinds of weapons, of varying degrees of lethality, none of these lawmen intervened to save his life, and none of them tried to stop a homicide from taking place before their eyes. Some actually joined in, others just stood and watched, giving the assailants, Nichols’ killers, an appreciative pat on the back, as if they’d made a good tackle in a football game. How do you reform this?

It’s been nine years since the killing of Michael Brown. There have been many promises of reform since the 18-year-old Brown was shot six times with his hands up on a Ferguson, Missouri street, usually resulting in bigger budgets, new weapons, and policing techniques. The Scorpion police unit that punched, kicked, clubbed, sprayed and tased Tyre Nichols was one of these new elite tactical squads. Yet last year U.S. police killed more people than any year in history. Surely, it’s clear by now that police reform only serves to legitimize a violent system.

Videos of police violence have become a media event with their own “coming attraction” release dates, assuring that more people will tune in to watch (mainly) Black men being beaten or shot. For some, I suspect, the footage has the same allure as the whipping scenes in 12 Years a Slave. Yet these aren’t actors. This is real ultraviolence being inflicted on real people, leaving real blood staining the streets.

I’d read the accounts of Tyre Nichols’ beating. I knew it was bad. Very bad. It had to be for Missouri prosecutors to take such swift and rare action. I didn’t have to watch the videos. But I did. I felt some obligation to–a need to witness what people acting under the authority of our government are doing to its own citizens. These videos of state violence document atrocities, but they also provoke intense emotional responses. For some, a sadistic thrill, for most horror, for others fury and rage.

On the night of January 7, Tyre Nichols, a 28-year-old Black man, is pulled over on what appears to be a routine traffic stop in the Brandywine neighborhood of Memphis. But as is so often the case, especially with Black drivers, routine stops are a pretext for searches or casual intimidation, especially by the Scorpion special unit that had targeted Nichols. Indeed, such manufactured encounters–call it vehicular stop-and-frisk—seem to be the very purpose of the Scorpion Unit. Originally, the Memphis police department claimed Nichols had been stopped for reckless driving. One officer even suggested he’d been driving on the wrong side of the street, trying to ram one of the cop cars. But there’s no video showing this alleged infraction. Apparently, the police car was “too new” to have a working dash cam and these claims swiftly evaporated. The Memphis police chief now says she doesn’t know why Nichols was pulled over.

The first video shows a cop with gun drawn approaching Nichols’ blue car. One cop described the initial encounter this way: “He pull up to the red light. Stop at the red light. He put his turning signal on. ‘So, we jump out the car. ‘Shit went from there.’” As Nichols tells the cops, “I didn’t do anything,” he’s shoved to the pavement and beaten. Nichols can be heard saying, “OK! I’m on the ground.” Then as the assault continues, Nichols pleads, “You guys are really doing a lot right now. I’m just trying to get home.”

As Nichols squirms, one cop says: “What the fuck man?” Another cop shoots Nichols with a yellow stun gun, but Nichols, surely fearing for his life now, breaks free and bolts down the street. An officer yells: ‘Taser, taser!” Two cops can be seen running after him, but apparently winded and blinded by their own pepper spray, they soon give up the chase. One cop has lost his glasses. Another tries to wash the chemical agent from his burning eyes. “ “One of the [taser] prongs hit the bastard,” the cop wearing the body cam says.

Four minutes later a cop can be heard calling the Memphis police dispatcher for back up: “Any other Scorpion car pull over to east Raines and Ross. We have one running on foot.” The video shows two more cars arriving at the scene. “That way,” one of the cops tells the arriving officers. “Thin male, Black, blue jeans and a plaid jacket.” A couple of minutes later, the cops learn Nichols has been captured. ‘I hope they stomp his ass. I hope they stomp his ass,” one cop blurts.

The next video begins four minutes later. Nichols is once again pinned to the ground. He’s being shoved and slapped by two cops. Nichols screams: “Mom!” His mother’s home is less than a football field away.

Then Nichols is pepper sprayed in the face. “Give me your hands,” a cop yells. “Give me your fucking hands!” Nichols tries to wipe his eyes. “All right, all right,” he says. “Watch out, or I’m going to pepper spray you again.” Nichols tries to move his hands to his back when he is sprayed in the face once more. He screams again, “Mom, mom, mom.”

Three cops restrain Nichols on the ground, while another kicks him brutally in the face two or three times. Nichols is now on his back, writhing in pain. “Watch out—I’m going to baton the fuck out of you,” a cop shouts then begins clubbing him.

For the next three minutes, Tyre Nichols is punched, kicked, beaten, and dragged across the ground before being jerked upright, when he is punched viciously in the head again. Then he collapses.

Now prone, Nichols is handcuffed and dragged to a police car. The cops prop him up against the door. He topples over, obviously seriously injured. Another cop yanks him back up. Nichols’ body appears to twitch and shake. Two of the officers near him give each other fist bumps, as Nichols’ life begins to bleed away.

By this time, two EMTs are at the scene. But it will be another 19 minutes before Tyre Nichols receives any medical treatment. Finally, an ambulance arrives, and Nichols is placed on a stretcher, 24 minutes after slumping over next to the patrol car.

Tyre Nichols would die three days later. The coroner’s report laconically concluded that he “suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”

There’s no evidence that extreme body cam images like these have changed police behavior or inhibited their eruptions of violence. But I suspect they have changed people’s attitudes toward police. After watching so many incidents of cops shooting or assaulting people over minor incidents with little or no provocation, it has made most of us more fearful of cops, more compliant to their every command, and more willing to give up basic rights and privileges to keep from being beaten up, jailed, or killed. This is how police states take hold, bit by bit, through a kind of silent coerced consent of the governed.

But the authorities will take the rage, too. I almost got the sense that the Memphis cops wanted the videos of Nichols’ beating to propel people onto the streets. They needed a riot to deflect from the brief glimpses the videos provided of the violent reality of everyday policing in America. Is there any question that American police are more militarized now than they were before the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd?

Five of the Scorpions were arrested, charged with second-degree homicide, and soon released on bail. (People are sitting in jails across the country because they can’t raise a couple of hundred bucks for bail on petty crimes.) All of them were Black. There were more than five cops on the scene, several of whom are white (including the one who first tasered Nichols,) any one of whom could have stepped in to stop the assault and protect Tyre Nichols’ life. None did. Any one of them could have arrested Nichols’ assailants. None did. Where are these Scorpions now? Back on the streets of Memphis?

Of course, the real shit didn’t start at that stoplight in Memphis, and it won’t end with the prosecution and conviction of the five Scorpions. In the end, the five cops charged with killing Tyre Nichols were almost as expendable as he was. They are the sacrifice necessary to save the system, the system which put their elite unit out on the street to harass and intimidate young Black men, a system that shows every sign of becoming more, not less, violent.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch.

CounterPunch+, January 29 - February 4, 2023