The video of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis documents what is essentially a gang-style attack. Pulled over 100 yards from his home for an alleged traffic violation, the young man is immediately assaulted by police officers shouting profanities who forcefully pull him out of his car. The beating begins immediately, together with Taser shocks. Nichols, terrified, tries to flee. He doesn’t get far before he is caught again and subjected to a horrifying beating by the five officers, who take turns using batons, kicks, and punches, leaving the 29-year-old on the brink of death. Nearly 20 minutes passed before he was given first aid; he died three days later.
The young police officers who pounced on the frail-looking young man were Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith, and Tadarrius Bean, each weighing over 200 pounds, two of them former football players. All have been fired and charged with murder for their actions. Also fired were two sheriff’s deputies and two emergency workers for failing to deliver first aid. The last word spoken by Nichols as he lay on the pavement, a few steps from his home where his 4-year-old son was waiting for him, was “Mom.”
“He cried out for me, because I’m his mother, and that’s what he was trying to [do], get home to safety,” his mother said after seeing the video of her murdered son.
Despite fears of possible violent unrest, the protests held in many American cities after the video was released were peaceful. There were rallies and vigils in memory of the victim in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Portland. In Memphis, the protest closed a highway bridge over the Mississippi for a few hours.
Meanwhile, the nation was made to face a historic wound once again. In Los Angeles, Lora Dene King wiped away tears as she watched the images from Memphis. In 1991, her father, Rodney King, was featured in another video in which he was savagely beaten by a group of LA police officers. That clip ushered in the era of video recordings of police violence that from that point led to more and more incidents captured on video by witnesses, and now increasingly by the cameras that the officers themselves are required to wear on their uniforms. A growing archive of abuse, which after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Mike Brown and many others has contributed to the birth of Black Lives Matter since 2014.
But nearly 10 years later, 32 years after the Rodney King case, three years after the widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, the steady, nightmarish drip of victims – disproportionately black – who die at the hands of violent police officers continues. Just 11 days ago, a relative of a founder of the BLM movement, Keenan Anderson, a cousin of Patrice Cullors, was added to the list. As Alexandria Ocasio Cortez pointed out on Monday, “At least 1,176 people were killed by law enforcement last year – a record […] We must challenge the notion that militarized policing equates public safety.”
The endless list of victims tells a story of an all-American dysfunction for which the country seems unable to find a solution – just like with the parallel paradox of mass shootings. With guns, a major factor is the worship of firearms as constitutional simulacra of a “divine right” of Americans to bear arms. The issue of police culture, on its part, is linked to a punitive conception of law and order used as an instrument of social control. Both these issues have historical roots in the inequality and congenital violence inherent in society – and any change is steadily fought against by a strong conservative element. The reform proposed after the killing of George Floyd to remove de facto immunity for police officers was passed by the House but stalled in the Senate. Biden has again called for it to be passed, but the GOP is united in opposition and has stoked for its own purposes a psychosis around “defund the police,” yet another counterfeit plot used to rally the conservative base against “the Left” and “the Deep State.”
The result is that the root causes of the problem remain just as they were: law and order based on the militarization of officers and training that instills suspicion, hostility and an occupation force mentality, especially towards marginalized communities.
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