By Caleb Dunson
“He was a human piñata for those police officers.” That’s what lawyer Antonio Romanucci said of the death of Tyre Nichols. Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten by five Black police officers after being pulled over at a traffic stop on January 7. The officers pulled him over on what they claimed was suspicion of reckless driving. He fled. They chased. They caught him. They beat him. Savagely. They bragged about the beating. He died three days later.
The video of his death has been released to the public, and news publications are playing it on a loop like it’s a snuff film. Media commentators are calling the officers “bad apples” who don’t follow protocol, officers that tarnish the good name of law enforcement. Politicians are offering exaggerated expressions of grief and calling for subdued protests in their cities. All of this feels so familiar, and so sickening.
Much of the nation is seeking a solution to this horrifying killing within the existing arrangement –– convict the officers of kidnapping and murder, place more constraints on police conduct, make police civilly liable for their violent actions. In these solutions they display a fealty to the law, even when it has so clearly betrayed humanity, even when it has allowed a man to to be so brutalized that his death paints horror across the faces of us all. But there comes a point at which we have to confront truth: the law has failed us. There is no recourse to be found in the courtrooms or congressional halls. That truth has been before us for a while now.
There is something unique about this murder, in particular. It came at the hands of five Black men, which many argue is proof of the fact that the presence of white people is not necessary for the perpetuation of white supremacy. That’s true. The fact that 5 Black men did this shows that, contrary to the beliefs of so many politicians, diversifying the police force will not make it any less of a violent, totalizing institution. Tons of police departments across the country have been trying to diversify their ranks. Police still killed over 1100 people last year (and a disproportionate number of those killed were Black). There’s more to this, though.
This murder shows that the issue of policing, while shaped and colored by race, is fundamentally one of power and democracy. Being a police officer is having the power to, under the pretense of the law, stop anyone for virtually any reason, and then subject them to harassment and physical abuse. The Memphis police chief was unable to find evidence of the reckless driving the officers say they stopped Mr. Nichols. Being a police officer is having the power to, under the pretense of the law, terrorize and threaten and intimidate. Those officers, without cause explanation, threw Mr. Nichols to the ground and tazed and beat him. Being a police officer is having the power to, under the pretense of the law, determine who lives and who dies, and almost never face the consequences of that decision. These officers were charged with murder, but they were also able to post bail and return to their families as if nothing happened. They were fired, and law enforcement around the country are distancing themselves from these officers, but that kind of action is only done to protect the legitimacy of a destructive institution. Make no mistake, there will be no defunding or abolition to come from this.
This state-sanctioned power, which the police wield with reckless abandon, is more reflective of an authoritarian regime than the democracy we claim to have. The mandate that comes with this power –– to preserve the perception of order, even if it comes at the expense of human life –– does not reflect the will of the people. It is so grimly clear that the American police state is the gravest violation of truth, justice, and equality. It is our country once again falling short of its ideals.
People will make apologies for this situation, trying to justify the individual actions and social institutions that have created this perverse outcome. A lawyer for one of the officers said, “No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” but that point is irrelevant. When you vest that much power in a small group of people and ask them to unrelentingly enforce order, abuse will happen, and death will happen. It’s been happening ever since the establishment of the modern police force. It’s bound to keep happening as long as we show deference to power and force instead of love and humanity.
I’m not entirely sure where we go from here. For the sake of Mr. Nichols’ family, I hope those officers are brought to justice. But we cannot rely on the carceral system to address the issues of race and domination that that same system relies upon. And we cannot expect police to suddenly stop killing people at rates higher than any other democracy. I do know this. I know police domination must be brought to an immediate end because our people are dying. All of our people are dying.