On Friday, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’s department released the video of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols being killed by five Memphis police officers. The officers reportedly arrested Nichols near his home, and when he allegedly attempted to flee, they beat him, with Nichols dying in the hospital three days later, on January 10. The footage has been described by all who have seen it as horrific and barbaric, with the Memphis Police Department timing the release of the video until the weekend to reduce public “disruption.”
The police officers who killed Nichols are Black, which has prompted many people - particularly online - to attempt to counter the idea that his death is linked to systemic racism and police brutality in the law enforcement system. Not only is this a simplistic and illogical argument, but it’s one meant to distract us from our fight. The fight against police brutality has never just been about white cops or racist cops. It’s about how the entire system encourages all those who join it - no matter what their own racial background - to dehumanize and target people of color.
All of the officers involved in Nichols’ death, who have been fired and charged with second degree murder, were members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods) unit, a type of policing associated with discriminatory stops and searches in low-income, Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Tyre Nichols’ family attorney, Antonio Romanucci, has urged the Memphis Police department to disband the unit.
In his call to action, Romanucci said SCORPION units "wind up oppressing the people that we care about the most — our children, our young sons and daughters, who are Black and brown, because they are the most vulnerable.” This is a systemic problem that goes beyond the race or ethnic identity of the police officers involved in this tragedy. It is shockingly easy, in the leviathan of unjust systems, to train people to hate their own, to detain their own unlawfully, to abuse them, and end their lives.
If anything, the fact that the officers who beat Nichols were Black themselves should prove to us that this fight is even more urgent, that change needs to be even more radical. This is not a problem that can be reformed, that can be chipped away with initiatives like diverse hiring practices or racial sensitivity training or body cameras. The law enforcement system in our country is rotten and evil. Defunding the police and prison abolition are the only paths forward that offer any kind of moral clarity, any kind of hope for freedom. Black people have suffered so many indignities and cruelties at the hands of this racist state, for centuries. No matter what race the foot soldiers are, the system is irredeemable and must be dismantled.
Similar to the outrage at the death of George Floyd, many fear that the video’s release will cause widespread uprisings. While I encourage everyone who stands against racist law enforcement systems to flood the streets in protest, I do not believe watching the video is necessary for this spark to catch. There have been reports and indications that this video will be particularly upsetting. Whether or not individuals watch it is up to them, but I challenge readers to consider what watching it will actually do. What is the function of watching yet another Black man killed by the police? Will traumatizing yourself or others you share it with help ignite change or cause more harm? I don’t have the answers for anyone but myself.
As for me, I don’t need this video to know the scope of cruelty that police departments are capable of. I won’t be watching. My heart is weary of seeing Black people’s deaths being made into a spectacle, a blip of virality that plays over and over again on a loop in my nightmares. Instead, we should let the images of him happy and alive mobilize us. We should watch the videos that show an exuberant Black man reaching toward the light of the sunset, floating on a board and defying gravity.
We should look at pictures of Nichols playing with his four-year-old son who these monsters have deprived of a father; we should look at photographs of Nichols holding his mother, who he cried out for as he was being beaten to death. The experience of viewing the horrific incident itself should not be the only thing that galvanizes us. Rather, we should be galvanized by his joy, his potential, his humanity. We should feel incandescent rage when we see footage of him alive and well, because his life was taken from him, and because we are tired of our lives being taken and our deaths being broadcast.