Tyre Nichols's Death and America's Systemic FailureRoundup
tags: Police, criminal justice, Black lives matter
Peniel E. Joseph teaches history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.
The killing of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, at the hands of the Memphis police illustrates the need to reimagine public safety in America. The Friday evening release of body cam footage and video from a pole camera has left the city of Memphis on the edge of a political eruption, with Nichols’s death adding new layers of grief to a city known as much for being the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination as for being the birthplace of the blues.
Coming a little over two years after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked the largest social justice demonstrations in American history and a searing round of national soul searching, Nichols’s death reveals what has and has not changed since then.
In the run-up to the release of the footage, many expressed shock and surprise that all five officers who stopped, detained, pepper sprayed, then brutally beat Nichols to death were Black.
We should not be surprised.
The police killing of Nichols should not be misinterpreted as an example of Black racism but as a byproduct of systemic failure.
Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter Movement has called for a reimagining of public safety through redistributing the resources designed to support punishment toward investments in the mental and physical health, well-being, and safety of Black communities.
Memphis is a case study in the ways in which structural racism within law enforcement can impact Black residents living in a predominantly Black city that has a Black chief of police, Cerelyn Davis. The fact that all five officers had been fired and were facing second-degree murder charges even before the release of the video speaks to a kind of progress, but one that is nonetheless itself racialized. Apparently, justice is much swifter against law enforcement who kill Black people when the perpetrators themselves are also Black.
Chief Davis has been eloquent in her public statements. “This is not just a professional failing,” she observed. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”
If only it were that simple.
The heartbreaking interviews offered by Nichols’s parents, who described their son as having “a beautiful soul,” echo the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (whose killing at the hands of the Louisville police in a botched no-knock raid in March 2020 came to light only after Floyd’s murder), and countless other grieving Black parents, relatives, family members, and communities.
Nichols would be alive today if America had embraced an abolitionist perspective on punishment, prison, and policing that recognizes more of the same will only produce further preventable tragedies. Nichols’s death reflects a broken system, one wherein armed police routinely turn traffic or even pedestrian stops into violent and deadly confrontations with unarmed citizens. But it is also just the tip of the iceberg.
The modern-day abolitionist movement is rooted in the centuries-long struggle to abolish racial slavery and its supply chains. W.E.B. Du Bois, the Fisk- and Harvard University-trained intellectual and civil rights leader, referred to this era as “abolition-democracy” in his monumental 1935 classic — still the best book on the post-Civil War era ever written — “Black Reconstruction in America.” What Du Bois meant by “abolition-democracy” was the simultaneous eradication of the institutions, vestiges, and badges of racial slavery and new investments in Black citizenship and dignity.