Opinion: Racism fueled the death of Tyre Nichols

News  /  Opinion


In a week when the Oscar-nominated movies were announced, the most anticipated new release was a horror film. Or, more precisely, a monstrous film.

And you can see it for free. If you have the stomach for it.

It’s a well known story, of out-of-control cops beating a Black man to death — in this case, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols — after what seems to have been no more than a routine traffic stop. In America, we know Nichols’ crime as Driving While Black. In Memphis, on Jan, 7, as cops roughly pulled Nichols from his car, screaming expletives at him, threatening blows and worse, we hear Nichols simply saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

In a news conference on Friday, before the film was released to the public that night, RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, said she couldn’t watch it. But that was video of her son being kicked and beaten to death by five cops. How could a mother watch?

But she had heard. She had heard that her son had called out “Mom, Mom, Mom,” as the cops killed him within 100 yards of his house.

And she knew enough about the video — she said she’d heard it was “horrific, very horrific” — and to safely and sagely offer this piece of advice: “And if any of you have children, please don’t let them see it.”

And yet we, the nation’s adults, must watch again. Even as we watched the video of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis over and over again.

We must watch at least until we begin to understand.

We know of so many other horrific stories, so many other names, of young Black men who died after what should have been a routine encounter with police.

From what we know, Nichols had two such encounters. He ran away after being stopped. Apparently one of the cops had used pepper spray on Nichols, who didn’t seem to be resisting. The pepper spray came back on one of the cops and that’s how Nichols fled. That was the first encounter.

And when they gave chase and finally caught up to Nichols, so close to his home, that’s when winded and frustrated cops assaulted and killed him. That was the second one. The cops, part of a high-crime Memphis police unit called SCORPION — if you can believe it, the letters standing for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — beat Nichols and kicked Nichols and batoned Nichols, who was first seen apparently trying to calm the cops. They held him as was being punched. One cop walked away and came back to the scrum to baton Nichols again.

At no time do we see Nichols being a threat to the cops. This was a clear use of excessive force, even if excessive doesn’t begin to capture the scene.

Finally, when the cops were done, they propped Nichols up against a car and wondered if he were high. As the cops milled around, taking no action to help Nichols, firefighters soon arrived at the scene and also did nothing to treat Nichols. For their inaction, two firefighters would be suspended.

It would be 22 minutes before an ambulance arrived. Three days later, a badly beaten Nichols — you’ve seen the pictures — died. An independent autopsy concluded he was, yes, beaten to death. 

And, yes, the cops were filmed while they were beating Nichols. What’s more, they knew they were being filmed. The cops wore bodycams. Memphis has a series of street-surveillance cameras, one of which also caught much of the action. They knew, and none of it seemed to make any difference — except for the fact that we also now know what they did.

We know because city officials, after watching the video from Jan. 7, decided to release it without the need for the city to be sued by the family or by local media. And then came even more stunning news that the five cops would be charged with second-degree murder and a long list of other crimes, not three weeks after the crime.

Yes, we’ve seen this story, but there’s a slightly different take here. All five cops were Black. And if you’re asking the question about whether Black cops can be racist, you should know that it’s the wrong question.

This is what is called systemic racism. This is what is called toxic police culture. This makes clear the fact that in much of police work, blue often runs deeper than any color.

The Memphis police force is nearly 60 percent Black, in a city that has a majority Black population of around 65 percent. We know that in many cities — and in most of these cases — the cops are majority white. But diversity does not seem to be the only answer to the question of how to turn police culture.

In Memphis, the statistics on how young Black male offenders intersect with cops — Black and white alike — are little different from most other cities. And some wonder — and this tells us so much about where we are today — if five white cops would have been treated the same way as five Black cops.

The Black Police chief called the cops’ actions inhumane. The city’s mayor said the SCORPION unit would be suspended. And more laws are being called for.

But you’re old enough to remember that after the death of George Floyd and the protests that roiled a country, there was a moment when police reform was on everyone’s lips.

According to an analysis by The New York Times, there have been more than 140 police reform laws passed in more than 30 states since Floyd’s death. In Colorado, following the death of Elijah McClain, the state legislature passed some of the strongest police reforms. But even at the time, before Tyre Nichols’ death, many activists wondered if the changes were sufficient to get at the root of the problem.

It wasn’t long, after all, before attention turned to some police-reform activists calling to “defund the police” — a poorly worded description for taking some money from active police units and spending it on mental health units that can help calm a crisis that need not turn fatal.

It wasn’t long before the bogus issue of Critical Race Theory — a graduate study program called CRT— became a political hotspot and politicians such as the anti-woke Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were turning it into one of the latest battlefields in the never-ending culture wars.

Many states banned CRT’s teaching in public schools, where it had in fact never been taught. And for some conservatives, it would come to stand for everything that is wrong about what we teach kids.

What Critical Race Theory argues is that there are different ways to measure racism — and one of the important measures is found in the study of outcomes, and not just in personal bias. An Education Week article sums up the argument using Supreme Court oral arguments from a 2007 affirmative action case.

From Chief Justice John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

And the rejoinder from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “It’s very hard for me to see how you can have a racial objective but a nonracial means to get there.”

The question that lawyers for some of the charged are already asking is how all five cops could be charged with the exact same crimes. Some kicks were more violent than others. Some batons were struck with more casual contempt than others. 

In Memphis, as in other cities, there is a post-George-Floyd law that requires cops to intervene if other cops are acting illegally. We saw what happened with Floyd. It was all too clear — junior cops helping a senior cop pin Floyd down until he died.

This video is more chaotic. But this video shows all five cops involved in a violent crime that ended in death. Doesn’t the charge of second-degree murder — in a group killing — seem about right?

There seems to be a lesson here — that we know the truth about how hard it is to change police culture and just how easy it is to start phony culture wars. The lesson of Tyre Nichols’ death would have to be that the outrage that followed George Floyd’s death was not enough. Outrage is no good if, in fact, it does not lead to lasting change.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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