What the killing of a young man in Memphis tells us about policing in America

Memphis’ police chief said video of the Jan. 10 beating by five police officers that killed 29-year-old Tyre Nichols included “acts that defy humanity.”

We had fair warning, but the 66 minutes of body-worn and lamp-mounted camera images released Friday night confirmed the chief’s characterization and then some. Here were officers pulling over Nichols’ car for no clear reason. Here was Nichols pleading, “I’m just trying to go home.” Here were men charged with enforcing the law punching and kicking and striking a civilian as he lay on the ground, apparently handcuffed, and tasing him. Here was Nichols crying out for his mother. Here were cops deploying pepper spray and accidentally spraying one another. Here was a painful 20-minute delay between the beatdown and the arrival of an ambulance.


This was less a police action than a gang assault on a Black man — a murder by violent felons who happened to be collecting government salaries, wearing uniforms and wielding the power of the state.

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

In the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter marches righteously reminded America that the lives of those with darker skin are all too often treated as disposable. No linear connection can here be drawn between racism, whether overt or subtle, and the actions of the five Black cops. Of course a non-white officer can also betray bias against a non-white civilian — overzealous use of force against Black men is a bedeviling police problem no matter the skin color of the individual in uniform — but hard questions must also be asked about the hiring of these men, about their training and about the culture of the poisonously named “Scorpion unit.”

Police are often justified in their use of force. When they wantonly harm people, they must pay a price, swift and severe, and the bigger forces behind their crimes must be systematically pulled apart.

— New York Daily News

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