By John Leslie
On Jan. 7, Memphis police from the so-called SCORPION Unit (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) pulled Tyre Nichols, 29, over for an alleged traffic violation. The video released by the Memphis police shows that in the initial encounter, the cops are aggressively shouting, “Get out of the fuck out the car,” with guns drawn. Nichols complies with their orders and can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything” and “I’m just trying to go home.”
The situation quickly escalates, with a group of cops beating, kicking, and pepper spraying Nichols. Nichols can be heard repeatedly calling for his Mom. In recently released body-worn camera footage, Tyre Nichols is seen propped against a cop car in obvious distress while the cops stand around talking. No one tries to stop the beating or to render aid afterward. The two EMTs who arrived at the scene offered no medical aid to Nichols, although one of them checked his pockets and removed his wallet. Finally, all of the uniformed officials, including the EMTs, walked away, leaving Nichols alone and writhing in pain.
Van Turner, president of the NAACP branch in Memphis, said the outcome could have been different if anyone had stopped to help Nichols: “Had first aid been rendered, maybe Tyre would have been beat up, bones broken but he would still be alive. So, those that just watched him die, they should be held as accountable as those who brutalized him.”
Even the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, a reactionary cop union that has repeatedly defended many cops in similar circumstances, called the incident “sickening” and a “crime,” adding, “The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong.”
This vile police murder has led to five cops being charged with second-degree murder, official misconduct, aggravated kidnapping, official oppression, and aggravated assault. The cops were fired from the force, and the Memphis Police Department has disbanded the SCORPION unit, after initially defending the elite squad.
Over the weekend of Jan. 27-29, protesters gathered from New York to the Bay Area, in dozens of cities and towns, to demand, “Justice for Tyre Nichols!” Many of the protesters shouted, “Tyre Nichols: Say his name!” Tyre Nichols was a father, son, stepson, photographer, skateboarder, and worker. He was a gifted photographer, whose talent is apparent in the photos he posted online. See his website at https://thiscaliforniakid2.wixsite.com/tnicholsphotography. Tyre worked at FedEx, where he was saving money to make a better life for himself and his son. These brutal cops robbed his family and the world of the promise his life held.
The Democratic Party and its allies in NGOs and among “progressive” community figures went into high gear to discourage protests and to channel the righteous anger of the masses into safer, calmer waters. The last thing the Democrats want is another social explosion like the one following the 2020 murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. President Biden stated that he was “outraged and deeply pained” by the video.
The mobilizations for justice for Tyre Nichols take place in the context of an increase in police violence and at the same time that many are demanding justice for Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a Stop Cop City activist who was assassinated by cops in Atlanta on Jan. 18. The state of Georgia is using the pretext of so-called violent protests against Cop City to charge activists with domestic terrorism and using the National Guard against protesters.
Two years after George Floyd
Almost three years ago, there were unprecedented mass mobilizations and social explosions following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Millions hit the streets in cities and small towns across the U.S. and globally, demanding justice for the victims of this racist system. The gut-wrenching video of the murder of George Floyd, who gasped for breath as a cop knelt on his neck, shocked the world and sparked demands of the defunding and abolition of police.
The Democrats, always faithful acolytes of capital, did their best to get ahead of the movement to disperse its energy by offering statements about reforms, even at times echoing the demands of the movement. Biden and members of Congress “took a knee” as a sign of their solidarity.
Following the murder of George Floyd, 45 states passed about 300 measures designed to reform police departments and policing practices. Many of these laws have been subsequently watered down or altered under pressure from pro-police groups. In some states, laws included more protections for police. Last year, Biden unveiled his “Safer America Plan,” which asked for $37 billion “to support law enforcement and crime prevention.” Part of this law calls for hiring and training 100,000 new cops for “accountable community policing.” Many of the reforms that were offered—like alleged better police training or body cameras—failed to stop the murder of Tyre Nichols and others who have been killed or brutalized by the police.
According to The Guardian, police killings in the United States went up, not down in 2022: “The preliminary 2022 total—a possible undercount as more cases are catalogued—marks 31 additional fatalities than the year before. In 2021, police killed 1,145 people; 1,152 in 2020; 1,097 in 2019; 1,140 in 2018; and 1,089 in 2017. The earliest data goes back to 2013, when journalists and racial justice advocates began counting these fatal incidents on a national basis. A database run by the Washington Post, which tracks fatal shootings by police, also shows 2022 as a year with record killings.” This is the highest number of annual police killings since the 2014 Ferguson uprising.
This represents an ongoing reign of police terror in Black and Brown neighborhoods. The Guardian quotes Breonna Taylor’s aunt, Bianca Austin: “It just never stops. There was a movement and uproar across the globe, and we’re still having more killings?”
No good cops in a racist system!
Police do not exist to “protect and serve” the average working-class person. The police under capitalism are here to serve the interests of the wealthy and to enforce the will of the ruling class. Police serve as the gatekeepers of a racist social order. The institution in the United States “originated in the institution of slave catching in the South and the conversion of the constable/night watch system in the North into patrols for the surveillance of working-class areas and especially strike suppression.”
The fact that five of the six or more cops who murdered Tyre Nichols are Black is irrelevant in terms of understanding the racist nature of the institution. It’s their role in a racist system as protectors of the status quo that determines the racist nature of policing in the U.S. Any community activist who has protested police violence or any worker who has gone on strike has learned quickly which side cops are on. In the era of mass incarceration, cops serve as the frontline of the war against people of color and workers—an intake mechanism for the prison industrial complex
Special police units, like the so-called SCORPION unit in Memphis, operate based on an aggressive ethos that sees community members as an enemy to be contained, not as citizens to be protected. This is why so many activists see police as more like an occupying military force than as a benign presence.
According to The New York Times, “Residents complained of heavy-handed tactics, of officers from the new Scorpion team employing punitive policing in response to relatively minor offenses. Then came the arrest and killing of Tyre Nichols, and video footage released on Friday that showed how officers kicked, punched and used a baton to beat Mr. Nichols as he pleaded with them to let him go home.”
A War on Drugs or a War on Black People?
The War on Drugs is one aspect of the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Its purpose is to further criminalize and marginalize Black and Brown people and political activists. John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, admitted this during a 1994 interview with Nixon biographer, Don Baum.
Baum quotes Ehrlichman as saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did” (“Harper’s Magazine: War on Drugs Invented to Destroy Blacks, Anti-Vietnam Left,” East Bay Express, March 24, 2016).
Both capitalist parties are complicit in this horror. The 1994 federal crime bill signed by Democrat Bill Clinton, and supported by then-Senator Joe Biden, helped create a situation in which the U.S. incarcerates more of its people than any other country in the world. The bill increased the number of police, enacted new, harsher sentencing guidelines, and gave incentives to states for prison construction, causing a boom in new prison construction.
In a 1993 speech advocating passage of the bill, Biden warned of “predators,” saying, “Unless we do something about that cadre of young people—tens of thousands of them born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscious developing—because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity … they will—or a portion of them will—become the predators 15 years from now.” Similarly, Hillary Clinton, in 1996, speaking in defense of her husband’s crime bill, referred to Black youth as “super predators.”
What to do next?
The capitalists of both parties have no solution to the real roots of crime, which are embedded deeply in the inequality and exploitation of the current system. Politicians talk about getting “tough on crime” and are willing to shovel more and more money into police and prisons, instead of putting more money and resources into education, affordable housing, jobs, health care, and mass transit. The system has militarized policing.
Socialists do not advocate reforms that leave the power of the police intact. We point out the hollowness of “better police training”—including techniques such as implicit bias training, community policing (a “soft cop” strategy of winning community support for the police), community advisory boards that give input to the police about how to perform their jobs better but don’t challenge their very job, and civilian review boards.
Instead, we support the disarmament and demilitarization of the police, the defunding of police, the prosecution of violent and killer cops, and the removal of cops from schools. We also call for cops out of the labor movement. Police are not part of the working class, and their “unions” have no place in the ranks of organized labor. This goes for prison guard unions as well. Ultimately, we call for the abolition of police and prisons, a demand that bourgeois politicians will never accede to.
Justice for Tyre Nichols! Jail killer cops! Cops and prison guards out of the unions! Abolish police and prisons!