On 7 January, police in Memphis beat Tyre Nichols so badly as to send him into a days-long death to which he ultimately succumbed on 10 January. The beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was so brutal that even law enforcement officials at both the city and state level – usually reliable sources for blaming the victims of police violence for the violence done to them – have declared it a heinous act. The five officers who beat Nichols, all of whom happen to also be Black, are currently on second-degree murder charges for what they did to him. Nichols is at least the 80th person killed by police in the US so far this year.
Nearly two years ago, the Guardian asked me to write about the trial of Derek Chauvin for his murder of George Floyd. At the time, my estimation of the trial’s significance – and of the conviction that seemed likely at the time and that ultimately came to pass – is that it would be minimal. After all, I more or less argued at the time, you can send Derek Chauvin to prison for being violent, but doing so doesn’t change the institution that trained him to be violent, paid him to be violent, and paid him to train others to be violent.
It would be too charitable to Chauvin to call him a scapegoat, but it also wouldn’t be far from the truth. As I wrote at the time, within the context of the trial and as Chauvin’s peers and bosses lined up to testify against him, during that trial “the fact of police violence – elemental and central to the institution, the first language of police and the structuring logic of policing” was never up for interrogation.
A similar denial, a determined refusal to believe that what police did to Tyre Nichols is squarely on the continuum of violence that defines policing, is already at work in Memphis. On Thursday, as attention to the case mounted in advance of the Friday-evening-release of video footage of the officers beating Nichols, the director of the Tennessee bureau of investigation, David Rausch, claimed that what was contained therein was “criminal” and “not at all proper policing”.
Such is the wizardry, the sleight of hand, by which incidents of police violence that are caught on camera and understood to reflect poorly upon the institution of policing are cast beyond the pale, to be read as aberrations to whatever “proper policing” can possibly entail. Violence, coercive force, the carry and use of deadly weapons – all of these are central to “proper policing” as the institution of policing in this country currently exists.
When a law enforcement official like David Rausch claims that what those officers in Memphis did to Tyre Nichols was not proper policing, one wonders what intellectual alchemy he’s engaged in. Police are trained to be violent, are trained to use coercive force, are trained to use deadly weapons.
There must be, then, a place on the police continuum of violence at which people like Rausch would say the violence was “proper”. Where is that place? One punch? Five nightstick blows? One minute of a merciless five-on-one beating rather than the three minutes it took officers to deliver the killing blows to Nichols? These are the questions in need of asking when the proprietors of violence – those granted by law with a unique monopoly on violence – condemn their own not for being violent, but for not doing violence correctly.
And then there is the matter of race. There will be people who point to the fact that all five officers who killed Tyre Nichols are Black, and use the fact to argue that it disproves a racist angle to his death. This is false. Just as catastrophic violence is not aberrational to policing but rather part of it because it is the institution not the individual that is the problem, so is it true that Black police officers can be just as implicated in the violent white supremacy of policing as can officers who are not Black.
Indeed, for more than 100 years at this point, reformers (some of them Black, some of them not) have argued that one key to resolving this country’s generations-deep crisis of racist policing is to hire more Black and brown officers. And for nearly as long, Black intellectuals from Langston Hughes to members of the Black Panther party have noted that that way lies madness, understanding well that the problem is not the individual who dons the uniform. The problem is the institution that the uniform embodies.
When I wrote about Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd and what the trial outcome could mean, I expressed skepticism that it could mean anything major, but also hope that Floyd’s family would find some measure of comfort in a guilty verdict, if that was what they sought. I hold the same thoughts close for Tyre Nichols’s loved ones, and hope for them whatever comforts they can harness in the wake of such atrocity.
And yet I remain saddened by the public conversations that unfold in the wake of these murders. I am maddened by the questions journalists ask and more importantly do not ask of law enforcement officials in their wake, and infuriated by the responses those officials give. A majority of Americans have resigned themselves to accepting policing as it currently exists, and thus irretrievably accepting police violence as it currently exists; one cannot accept the former without the latter. And that is a sad comment on our national political imaginary, collective will, and commitments to one another.
Simon Balto is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power