Police Murder in Memphis

by Michael Ian

On Friday, January 27, Memphis, Tennessee city officials released over an hour of video showing the murder of Tyre Nichols, a black resident beaten to death by police. Recorded earlier by three body cameras and one stationary surveillance camera, the videos were made available to family members, lawyers, and various public officials, who universally described the contents as disturbing and inhumane.

Events of January 7

At 8:25 pm on January 7, Tyre Nichols was pulled over at a suburban intersection by three police in unmarked cars. The police immediately drew their pistols and pulled him from his car. He was restrained on the ground, pepper sprayed and shocked with a taser, but then broke free and ran. The police briefly pursued, then stopped and called for backup to intercept him. The cop wearing the camera said “I hope they stomp his ass” but he remained at the first intersection with Nichols’ empty vehicle, while the other police continued to the second location, about 500 meters down the road.

At 8:32 Nichols is tackled, restrained, and again pepper sprayed. He repeatedly asks “What did I do?” and calls for his mother, who lives some 100 meters away. He is kicked in the head repeatedly and with full force, while two officers restrain him on the ground. For the rest of the video, Nichols appears unconscious and limp, other than twitching or mumbling, and occasionally either flailing or spasming. Another officer then beats him with a baton – so severely that the baton appears bent, unable to retract. Two police pull him to a standing position so others can punch him in the face repeatedly. They again pin Nichols on the ground as a fifth officer arrives, who also immediately begins kicking him. A sixth and seventh officer arrive and also restrain Nichols, but seem to do little else. 

Around 8:37 p.m., the officers casually mill around talking to each other while Nichols is lying face down on the ground, legs twitching, unrestrained. One complains he injured his knee from kicking too hard, another bragged “I was hittin’ him with straight haymakers”. They drag Nichols towards one of the cars, lean him against it in a sitting position, and later complain when he slumps over to the ground. They also take some time to craft their own narrative, speculating that he’s “high as a kite” (while clearly unconscious) and saying at the initial stop “motherfucker swung, almost hit me” “he reached for my gun” “he literally had his hand on the gun” while gesturing to demonstrate. All cops seem in agreement with this story, despite the video of the initial stop clearly showing none of this happened. If Nichols had survived, he would have presumably been arrested based on this narrative. Overall, the officers’ tone would imply an eventful but reasonably normal day at work. One can only wonder how many similar assaults they committed unnoticed, either because the victim happened to survive, or because the false narrative was more successful.

Paramedics arrive at the scene at 8:41, while the officers are talking. The paramedics arrange Nichols in a seated position leaning against the car, but take no other action for an extended time. Around 9:03 they load him into an ambulance, as the last video ends. He arrived at the hospital in critical condition, with a broken neck and numerous other injuries. A later photo shows his face so swollen that he appears unrecognizable. He suffered cardiac arrest and kidney failure, and died on January 10.

Reactions to Nichols’s death

Killings and excessive force by police are common across the U.S., but the murder of Tyre Nichols has come to the forefront due to the utter brutality of the killing. Public officials and police unions typically justify these instances with familiar excuses: a split-second decision, the officer’s fear, self defense, or simply a mistake. Indeed, Memphis officials have used such excuses in other disputed cases in recent years, and the officers themselves were recorded fabricating a ‘self defense’ narrative in this case. However, unlike a shooting, five officers beating someone to death over an extended timeframe is simply impossible to excuse.  Any attempt to do so would have been completely untenable. Instead, the city and the police had to try to deflect public anger, and preserve their own reputations, by firing and charging these five officers. Now the same institutions that enabled this murder are calling for a calm response.

Memphis Police Department Chief Davis recently said that the beating was “incomprehensible”, and that she “hadn’t witnessed anything of that nature in my entire career.” This is another transparent police lie, no better than the lies the police were rehearsing in the crime scene videos. Davis has been a police officer for decades, most of this time in various leadership roles. Despite her media skills, this is not her first controversy. Most of her career was spent in Atlanta, where she served in a variety of roles, including supervising the infamous RED DOG unit. The latter was an anti-drug “strike force” which was disbanded in 2011 for a pattern of violence and impunity, including a notorious raid on the Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar. Davis also spent time as Commander of Internal Affairs until, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she was fired from the force for her involvement in covering up a series of sex crimes against minors. She disputed the firing and was later reinstated; the incident did not seem to otherwise impact her career.

Local and national media, as usual, took their lead from police and other city officials: condemning the five officers charged, humanizing and sympathizing with the victim and family, emphasizing the “unique” nature of this killing, and calling for peace while the prosecution begins. The resulting coverage has been a complete inversion compared to previous cases. We see mugshots of police officers, and casual and relatable images of Tyre Nichols. We hear discussion of his hobbies, his family, his young son, his job, his daily life, with an absence of the unsavory rumors they usually spread about victims (such as ‘what was he doing earlier that night?’, etc.). While in some ways a relief to see this reversal of the common narrative, this media coverage shares the same goal as Chief Davis, Mayor Strickland, and other officials: deflate public anger.

But public anger is far from defused. Many cities have seen large and militant protests. Several of these blocked traffic and engaged in civil disobedience, but none involved violence by protesters. Property damage has been limited to a few scattered incidents, such as vandalizing a police car in New York. The atmosphere remains tense, and there seems to be a general feeling on all sides that things could easily escalate, but not so far.

The State of Policing

While this case has drawn major attention, it cannot be fully understood without considering the wider context. According to all available data, 2022 was the highest year for killings by U.S. police, despite recent mass protests and attempts at reform. Indeed, just within the past few months there have been several significant cases of police killings under dubious circumstances. Many protests highlighted these cases locally. This includes:

  • Jan 18: Georgia state police shot and killed a longtime activist known as Tortuguita (Manuel Terán). This occurred during a police raid against the long-running protest camp opposing the construction of the “Cop City” facility. One officer was shot by a pistol during this raid, allegedly by Tortuguita.  Activists say they were unarmed and the incident was friendly fire. Other activists were chased with police dogs, arrested, and charged with “domestic terrorism”. Many details are being withheld by police.
  • Jan 3: Keenan Anderson, a teacher from Washington D.C. who was visiting Los Angeles at the time, was tased by LAPD while handcuffed at the scene of a traffic accident. He later died in the hospital. Many details remain unclear.
  • Dec 17: Two local police near Miami detained and handcuffed Mr. Ortega Gutierrez, a homeless man; they drove him to a remote location, severely beat him while still handcuffed, and left him for dead. A passer-by later noticed Gutierrez and called an ambulance; Gutierrez survived. The officers made several attempts to cover up this crime, including pressuring Gutierrez to sign false statements. They were recently charged with armed kidnapping and battery, as well as charges related to the coverup attempt.
  • Dec 13: a SWAT team in North Carolina surrounded the home of Jason Kloepfer, a disabled veteran. They woke him at 5 a.m. via loudspeaker and instructed him to surrender and come outside. He opened the front door, put his hands up, and was shot repeatedly within 5 seconds of opening the door. A video of this shooting was captured on the victim’s surveillance camera, and later published. Kloepfer survived and was released from the hospital, but was still charged with “communicating threats” and “resist, obstruct and delay” because of the incident. On Jan 23, police confirmed that the charges against Kloepfer “remain ongoing”. North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the shooting.

Memphis exemplifies many recent trends in policing. It is a relatively liberal city with a Black majority population and many Black officials, including the police chief and all 5 officers charged. The current prosecutor has a background in civil rights law, and won election on a platform of systemic reform. According to the “8 can’t wait” group, the city has implemented 6 of the 8 proposed policies, including “exhaust all alternatives before deadly force” and “require de-escalation”. On the surface, it appeared that some promising reforms were occurring.

However, the city also spends nearly 40 per cent of its budget on police, in addition to the significant county and state spending on police. All 5 officers charged were members of the SCORPION unit, a “street crime” body focused on policing data-designated “hot spots” and being “visible within the community”. The unit was created in the fall of 2021 by Police Chief Davis, shortly after she was appointed to office. It was a response to the ‘rising crime’ narrative and public concerns over gun violence. The unit boasted of some early successes in its enforcement strategy, seizing large amounts of guns, drugs, and cash, and making many arrests. However it soon became clear that this was being achieved by completely disregarding the rights of local residents. The SCORPION unit quickly gained a reputation for randomly stopping and harassing residents, using assault and intimidation to get the results they wanted, and generally acting ‘above the law’. Numerous complaints have been filed against this unit, with no investigation, no accountability, apparently no follow-up whatsoever, until this unit was hastily disbanded very recently. As long as the numbers looked good in the media and the true costs could be swept under the rug, Chief Davis, Mayor Strickland, and the rest of city leadership were glad to take credit for its “success”.

The Role of the Police

It’s viscerally disgusting to see police kick a man in the face while he’s restrained on the ground, but no one (other than Police Chief Davis) can say this is surprising. This is what policing is. In any country, police have the same role: to defend current power structures with as much violence as they think is needed. Police don’t prevent crime, at best they respond to it after the fact, and this response is entirely determined by race and class. “High crime” (read: racialized) communities experience heavy enforcement for minor offenses, while richer and whiter areas see little police presence and often lenient enforcement. Theft is a serious offense, which can be punished by lengthy prison sentences, except when it’s wage theft by a boss, which is not a criminal offense at all, only a civil violation. Eric Garner was choked to death for selling untaxed cigarettes. Loblaw offered customers a $25 gift card after conspiring to raise bread prices for over 15 years. “Equal Justice” is impossible in a system of structural inequality.

Capitalism employs white supremacy and racialization. Modern racial ideas and categories have their historical roots in the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism, all of which are fundamentally tied to the origins and development of capitalism. Racism as an ideology is used to justify historic and contemporary inequality and violence. It divides workers and oppressed people, undermining solidarity and unity in action by workers. United mass action threatens the capitalist system, so it is thwarted by every means possible.

Racism is indispensable to capitalism, so a capitalist state relies on racist police to enforce its law and order. This is true regardless of the beliefs or the identity of individual police or other officials. Diversifying the police force or elevating racialized individuals to positions of authority may be a marginal improvement, but that does not change the function of these institutions. As this latest killing illustrates, changes will not prevent racist violence when the system itself is designed to inflict racist violence.

Today, the capitalist system appears threatened by many forces: economic weakness, an unstable and changing climate, a strengthening labor movement, deep geopolitical shifts, dysfunctional and discredited government structures, among other problems. As the ruling class becomes more desperate, with fewer options, we can expect that they will increasingly employ direct violence, delivered by the police. This is the logic behind ever-increasing police spending and police militarization. Despite calls to “defund the police”, every city in Canada is spending record amounts on police, with no sign of slowing. To the contrary, the small but concerning increase in violent crime in recent years has led to a media panic, with calls for more and harsher policing. We need to continue our movement for defunding and ultimately abolishing the police, for our own safety, and the safety of all working and oppressed people. But we should do so with an understanding of the inherent and fundamental role of police violence within the capitalist state.

Michael Ian is a Socialist Action member who spent many years living in Tennessee and organizing for labor rights, police reform, and other causes.