Unpacking the Killing of Tyre Nichols

On January 7, 2023, father, skateboarder, and photographer Tyre Nichols, was brutalized and three days later died from a police encounter in the name of a traffic stop by Memphis Tennessee’s SCORPION unit. SCORPION stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” It’s a group of police officers in Memphis tasked with the responsibility of tamping down crime in the city. It was created in November 2021 as a response to a high volume of 911 calls throughout various precincts. Since this incident with Nichols, Memphis’ SCORPION unit has been disbanded.

On January 7th Nichols was pulled over for “reckless driving.” Once he was pulled over the police began to beat and abuse him almost immediately. Police camera video of the incident depicts a white officer pulling up to an already escalated incident between Nichols and two black officers at a stop light in the middle of an intersection. After being tased for not cooperating with the mixed messages and barking coming from the officers, Nichols takes off running.

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Prior to fleeing Nichols says that he feels as though the officers are being too animated, and that he is just trying to go home. Nichols lived within a few blocks from where this incident takes place. When the officers catch up with Nichols they descend upon him with the force of a mini battalion after back up is called. Four officers beat on Nichols for all of about 3 minutes before the other officers arrive as well as the paramedics. Nichols is left without treatment for nearly 20 minutes before ultimately being taken to the hospital where he died. Nichols was crying out for his mom while he was assaulted.

Five of the officers involved, all black, were let go from the force and are charged with 2nd degree murder. The one white officer has been on administrative leave since the incident happened and was not charged because he wasn’t at the second site. As this story continues to unfold it’s a sad state of affairs. Immediately, because of the national discourse around incidents like this, when you hear about this type of police brutality the first thing you think about is race.

This is a relevant topic for Life with Ken because I’ve written about several life ending encounters between black individuals and white officers. I feel like I should throw my hat in the mix on stories like these because of the impact they have on me and my community. What is interesting about this story is that it is difficult to weaponize race in the manner that people often like to.

You can’t say look at how racist that white police officer was, other black people did this. You also can’t absolve the white officer’s complicity. Additionally, by the time we see what happens the situation is already in full swing. How fast did things go so south? What were the officers’ intentions with Nichols? Did they have to beat him mob style and try to knock him out, beat him with a baton, and kick him while he laid on the ground? The silliness and unprofessionalism of this encounter can be extrapolated from the first few minutes of the police video where you see an officer accidentally pepper spray himself.

The us versus them narrative of white cops and black lives is not as prevalent in this story. This is a story about a group of people brutalizing another person. What did Nichols do wrong? And why did it take seven officers total to subdue a slender 145lbs man? There is something about the uniform. Policing can feel empowering. They have a noble job description, to serve and protect. Far too often however, some officers unfortunately allow themselves to become the enemy instead of an ally.

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Not all police officers are bad, however, there is something systemically wrong with large police departments that cannot prioritize the lives of citizens in a way that will keep encounters from turning deadly. Nichols could have been me. Nichols could be anyone. The role race plays in this is in the interpretation of race in relation to power. Sure the white officer, named Preston Hemphill, may not have been at the second scene, but how did him shooting a taser at Nichols and amplifying the chaos at the initial scene help mitigate the situation?

Now he gets to go on leave while the other five black officers face criminal charges. As for the primary suspects, these five officers, in addition to not being insulated from this in the same way their white counterpart appears to be, they also demonstrated self-hate by beating Nichols to death. Racism and prejudice is so pervasive within the black community itself that it does not matter all the time whether or not you are of the same complexion. Black people have learned how to use race to warp their own thinking.

In the black community you can be less black or not as black as someone else. Racism in the black community presents itself as an ideology of the fairer the better, and “white think.” White think means you don’t have to look the part of a white person, you just have to think and act like one. You can see race disparities within the black community play out all the way back to slavery with the whole field versus house slave trope.  

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Police are not empowered to be racist. Racism empowers their power. The thought process is, In addition to subjecting you, because I either don’t look like you, or I think differently better than you (in a Eurocentric way) then not only can I impose my power over you, I can get away with it too. The five black men that facilitated the death of their black brother on January 7th now have to reconcile with the fact that the same power and force they demonstrated against Nichols will now be demonstrated against them. Black people never win when we hurt other black people because we are in the minority.

On the scale of a country, you hurt yourself by hurting the people who look like you because you are limiting your people’s growth, and your own. Hemphill isn’t worried about his black colleagues. And guess what, he is already getting better treatment. Sure subjectively he may have avoided doing the abhorrent, but his hands are still just as red, and he isn’t even being brought up in media coverage.

The system of policing needs to change. We as a people cannot do this to one another and have a healthy society at the same time. Bad policing is not a race story, it’s a power story. Where there is power, racism is somewhere in the room. Racism also scales. Inner-community racism exists and is different in impact from intercommunity racism. We need police that can do their job and cherish all life. Yes more than their own, that’s the job they signed up for. We need police to be servants again and to be disincentivized to harass people.

Image source.

There is a fable about the Scorpion and the frog. There is this scorpion that is trying to get across a river, and it asks a frog for help. The frog is reluctant thinking that the scorpion will sting it and kill it. The scorpion assures the frog that it won’t sting it because otherwise both it and the frog will die. The frog agrees and gives the scorpion a ride. Midway through the river the scorpion stings the frog anyway. As the frog is dying, and the scorpion subsequently as well, the frog asks why the scorpion did it. The scorpion replies that it’s in its nature.

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