The Police Killing of Tyre Nichols Was Heinous, but not an AberrationRoundup
tags: Police, Black lives matter
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.
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.
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