In the name of Tire Nichols: What the murder of a young man in Memphis tells us about policing in America

The Memphis police chief said the video of the beating by five police officers that killed 29-year-old Tire Nichols on Jan. 10 contains “acts that defy humanity.”

We had fair warning, but the 66 minutes of body-worn and lamp-mounted CCTV footage released Friday night confirmed the chief’s characterization and then some. Here, officers pulled over Nichols’ car for no apparent reason. Here was Nichols pleading, “I’m just trying to get home.” Here were men accused of law enforcement, beating and kicking and beating a civilian while he was lying on the ground, apparently handcuffed, and groping him. Here Nichols cried out for his mother. Here were cops using pepper spray and accidentally spraying each other. There was a painful delay of 20 minutes between the assault and the arrival of an ambulance.

This wasn’t so much a police action as a gang attack on a black man—a murder by violent thugs who happened to collect government salaries, wear uniforms, and wield the power of the state.

The wheels of justice must now turn against the officers, who, thank God, have already been fired. But an investigation needs to dig much deeper.

In the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter marches rightly reminded America that the lives of dark-skinned people are all too often treated as disposable. No linear connection can be made here between racism, overt or subtle, and the actions of the five black officers. Of course, a non-white officer can also betray prejudice against a non-white civilian — overzealous use of force against black men is a troublesome police problem, regardless of the skin color of the individual in uniform – but tough questions also need to be asked about the hiring of these men, about their training, and about the culture of the poisonous name “Scorpion Unit”.

The police are often justified in using force. When they willfully harm people, they must pay a price, swiftly and sternly, and the larger forces behind their crimes must be systematically pulled apart.

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