Five Memphis Police Indicted for Murder

Malik Miah

What it says about policing and why abolition is only answer.

ANOTHER BLACK MAN was murdered by police in a modern-day lynching in Memphis, Tennessee. The city is nearly 70 percent African American, including a Black female police chief.

What was unexpected and a surprise to many is that the police officers were all African Americans. Some asked how could the police be a racist institution if the savage beating was done by African American officers who live in the community.

The five police officers were immediately fired and later charged for second-degree murder. That rarely happens to police (especially white cops) — to be disciplined, much less fired and charged for murder.

Tyre Nichols, 29, was only eighty yards from his mother’s home on January 7 when a special police unit called “Scorpion,” which has now been hastily dismantled, pulled Nichols over for “reckless driving.”

As reported by local and national media, a group of five Black police officers punched, kicked, tasered and pepper sprayed Nichols. He laid in anguish on the ground, crying out for his mother.

The beating over an unproven traffic violation would result in his death three days later. His stepfather posted his brutalized body. His family wanted the world to see what police brutality looks like.

What Happened on January 7

According to an official statement from the Memphis Police Department, officers approached Nichols to arrest him then a “confrontation” occurred, and Nichols ran away.

A second “confrontation” occurred at some point before Nichols was ultimately arrested, police said. Following the arrest, they said, Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath, at which time an ambulance was called.”

Nichols was finally taken to a hospital in critical condition. Three days later, on January 10, Nichols “succumbed to his injuries,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said, but did not elaborate on what those injuries were.

An official cause of death has not been released. A forensic pathologist hired by the family conducted an independent autopsy that showed extensive internal bleeding.

Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said CNN This Morning that Nichols had supposedly been stopped for reckless driving, but that an investigation and review of available camera footage found “no proof” that was the case.

“We have not been able to substantiate the reckless driving. That was why he was supposedly stopped in the very beginning,” she continued. “It doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen. But there’s no proof. The cameras didn’t pick up.”

Protest broke out immediately in Memphis. They were peaceful, demanding that more must be done to hold the cops accountable.

While it’s unusual in police killings for the cops to be fired and charged, the road ahead will be long. It is expected the police will carry out a smear campaign against Nichols and his family.

Videos Expose Brutality

What is also unusual was the quick release of police body cams and other security videos to the public. In almost all police shootings the police and district attorneys refuse to do so for months or years.

Surveillance footage released on January 27 revealed a portrayal of what policing is in the city. The elite squad targets “high crime areas” and are free to do whatever they consider legal.

While Nichols’ injuries were clearly severe, the videos indicate that an ambulance crew did not arrive for more than 20 minutes. And the two emergency medical workers took their time to administer help and move him to a hospital.

The videos, which I and the public watched, were released by the police department in four parts. They included both body-camera and street lamp-mounted camera.

“Get the fuck out of the car!” one officer shouted several times. An officer pulled him out of the car.Nichols replied: “I didn’t do anything.” An officer said, “Get on the fucking ground” and warned that he would “Tase” Nichols.

Nichols tells them: “I’m on the ground.” “You guys are really doing a lot now,” Nichols also said. “I’m just trying to go home.”

Nichols, after being brought to the ground, ran from the officers in fear of his life. “I hope they stomp his ass,” one of the police officers could be heard saying. The fatal beating unfolded when he was later apprehended at an intersection.

The key video came from the camera attached to a light pole and most wrenching view of the beating. As Nichols, who appeared cuffed, remained on the ground, one officer kicked him in the head and then did so again.

As multiple officers restrained a beaten Nichols, who did not appear to be resisting or presenting any threat to them, another officer repeatedly struck him with a baton.

The police body cam show Nichols being brought to his feet. He was repeatedly punched and, when he fell to the ground, was kicked again. They dragged Nichols’ limp body to a police car shortly thereafter and sat him against the side.

None of the officers involved appeared to stop the beating or help Nichols. This video appears to show eight officers milling about as he languished against the car.

As video of the deadly beating was released on January 27, protesters by the thousands took to the streets across the country. The protest were overwhelmingly peaceful.

The Charges

While it was positive that the five cops were fired and charged quickly, the family’s lawyer said that others present were not. The video showed more than five officers present at points during the assault when Nichols reeled from his injuries and was not taken to the hospital in an expedient manner.

“While each of the five individuals played a different role in the incident in question, the actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols and they are all responsible,” Steve Mulroy, the Shelby county district attorney, told reporters the day before the videos were made public.

The five charged cops are Black – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III, and Justin Smith.

The Memphis Police Union issued a statement following the release of the video, saying it is “committed to the administration of justice and NEVER condones the mistreatment of ANY citizen nor ANY abuse of power.

It added: “We have faith in the criminal justice system. That faith is what we will lean on in the coming days, weeks, and months to ensure the totality of circumstances is revealed.”

Shelby county sheriff Floyd Bonner announced that two deputies had also been relieved of duty in relation to the events.

“Having watched the video for the first time tonight, I have concerns about two deputies who appeared on the scene following the physical confrontation between police and Tyre Nichols,” Bonner said in a tweet.

“I have launched an internal investigation into the conduct of these deputies to determine what occurred and if any policies were violated. Both of these deputies have been relieved of duty pending the outcome of this administrative investigation.”

The Nichols family’s legal team said that Tyre “was a human piñata for those police officers.” One family attorney, Antonio Romanucci, said to reporters. “Not only was it violent, it was savage.”

Only the Black cops who did the beating were fired. The white police officer who was part of the unit was not charged. He had stayed with Nichols’ car (per department rules) as the others chased him down when he ran after his initial beating.

Other police and sheriff officers were on the scene. Some face investigation and suspensions after it became clear none of them did anything to help Nichols. In fact, some were joking, laughing, and walking around.

A Grand Jury was convened by the county’s district attorney, who filed second degree murder charges against the five now fired cops.

Who was Tyre Nichols?

Nichols, born in Sacramento, California, was a father who worked at FedEx where his stepfather also worked. It was near his mother’s home where both ate lunch.

He has been described by friends and family as an avid skateboarder. He lived in Sacramento before moving to Memphis in 2018, and friends from his teenage years in California spoke to CBS Sacramento about how much joy he brought to those around him.

“I know Tyre. I know how great he was,” said Jerome Neal, who had just visited Nichols in Memphis in November. “I see him interacting with like almost everybody at the skate park when I’m with him. He was just well-loved.”

“He just touches anybody who gets around him,” another friend, Austin Robert, told the station.

“He’s a fantastic person and that’s how I really want everybody to remember him.”

A critical point is that cops don’t know who their Black victims are. The police – and not only the white ones –assume that Black men are all potential criminals. A traffic stop is the start to end the “threat” before it happens.

Memphis police officers dragged Nichols out of his car before he even knew what law he violated. That Tyre Nichols — skate border, photographer, father— never entered the cops’ mind. He was just someone they could beat up savagely.

Family and Lawyer Demands

Ben Crump, a national civil rights attorney on the family’s legal team, said, “Tyre was brutalized by Memphis police, much like how Rodney King was beaten more than 30 years ago – but unlike Rodney, Tyre lost his life from this violent attack.”

Crump said that while Nichols’s mother couldn’t watch the video, she wanted others to do so, believing that “people need to see how and why her son was killed.”

Crump also said that he had received inquiries about why other officers, including a white officer present, hadn’t been charged. “There’s a lot more questions that need to be answered after this video has been made public.”

Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush, also an activist in her St Louis African American community, said more must be done to prevent police violence – and that Congress needs to act: “Charging the officers who brutalized Tyre is not enough. Our country will continue to sanction the taking of Black lives with impunity until it embraces an affirmative vision of public safety and dismantles its racist policing system rooted in enslavement and government control.”

Bush continued, “And let’s be clear: merely diversifying police forces will never address the violent, racist architecture that underpins our entire criminal legal system. The mere presence of Black officers does not stop policing from being a tool of white supremacy.”

Questions About Black Cops

Qualified Immunity is the protection for police that makes legal shootings, beating and murder possible. It’s why few cops, even those charged, are ever convicted. Congress refuses to pass legislation to remove this protection for police.

What explains the quick response to the five African American cops? The beating was “normal” for police everywhere. Some believe it was because of a Black police chief. Others cited the fear of violent protest.

I believe that it reflects the changing social consciousness in the Black community about cops in general, including Black police. The change is a byproduct of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that emerged in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis.

Nationwide there have been protests against police violence in other incidents, where local police and officials did not release videos of brutality and shooting deaths of Black people.

The deeper questions: Why do police departments set up elite units mainly targeting Black communities? Why was the Scorpion Unit set up in 2021? Why weren’t other members of the elite unit suspended or faced charges? How many other victims are there?

Some people ask about the role of Black police officers. In the 1960s and 1970s when police forces were mainly white, the community demanded hiring Black police officers, and more Blacks elected to higher office.

I grew up in Detroit during the 1967 rebellion and afterwards a common demand arose for more community control. Black people have learned that racial composition does not transform its culture and mission of policing.

Policing was never meant to serve and protect average citizens. It was created to serve and protect the ruling class and its property, and to suppress formerly enslaved people and their descendants, as well as striking workers and protesters.

Black police officers are servants of the same violent racist system as white cops. Black police officers know when in civilian clothes they are treated like all Black people with racial contempt.

The root of police culture is white supremacy and racism/national oppression. The original sin of the United States, written into the Constitution, is acceptance of slavery (and the extra political power given to slaveholders) and national oppression of Black people and other nonwhite populations.

Protests and demands were never directed at white cops alone. The sophisticated awareness of policing was always focused on winning democratic reforms and radical changes to the institution itself.

Memphis makes that clear. Cops are cops no matter their skin color. Police violence reflects the internalization of racist ideology.

What Comes Next

What’s ahead in Memphis will be a long road to win some justice. It is not for sure that the five will be convicted.

Only modest reforms have occurred in some police departments since the mass protests began in 2020.

The Justice for George Floyd multiracial movement was always about more than getting the white police officers who killed him arrested and prosecuted. It was about winning legal changes nationally to change policing.

Most importantly, the radical wing of the BLM movement continues to demand defunding the police and reimagining how a publicly control system is forged. The left wing goes further by calling for the system to be abolished.

A new culture is possible only by uprooting the old and creating a new safety force from the bottom up. These are democratic demands that are both immediate and transitional to changing the ruling system itself.

African Americans are smart about racism and white supremacy. Until the civil rights victories in the 1960s, few if any cops were Black. The demand was to change that. Some 50 years later, as Memphis shows, it did not change the police culture and function.

A statement by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” and head of the National Action Network, said of the police video:

“There is no point to putting a body camera on a cop if you aren’t going to hold them accountable when the footage shows them relentlessly beating a man to death.

“Firings are not enough. Indictments and arrests are not convictions. As we’ve done in the past — with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others — we will stand by this family until justice is done.”

March-April 2023, ATC 123

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