On January 7, police pulled over 29-year-old father, photographer, and FedEx worker Tyre Nichols at a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee. Police say Nichols was stopped for reckless driving, but they have not been able to produce any evidence to substantiate the claim. After three days in critical condition, Nichols died in hospital as a result of severe internal bleeding. Body cam footage released last week shows what everyone feared and suspected: the police brutally beat Nichols to death. He was less than 100 yards from his mother’s home at the time of his murder.
The footage of this latest police murder was met with a weekend of nationwide protests. These came just days after environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Teran (known as Tortuguita) was killed by police at a protest against Atlanta’s hated new “Cop City” training facility. Many protestors feel a sense of déjà vu. It’s little wonder why. The organization Mapping Police Violence reported that 2022 was the deadliest year for police violence in a decade, with a total of 1,192 killed at their hands. Especially in the wake of the mass protests against George Floyd’s police murder in 2020, Black communities and their allies are left wondering how many more people must be slain by deadly police forces before something changes.
Protests and Firings
Seven officers involved in Nichols’ murder have been fired or suspended from the Memphis Police Department (as well as two medics and a fire department lieutenant). Several officers involved were part of the so-called “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods” or “SCORPION” unit — a group of plain-clothes police in unmarked cars charged to deal with “serious crimes.” Following the release of the footage, the SCORPION unit was disbanded.
Protestors are calling for accountability and justice. But the officers charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression were all immediately released on bond. There will be a trial, just as there was for George Floyd’s murderer Derek Chauvin. But no guilty verdict in the courts, right though it may be, can bring back the people the police have killed or prevent them from doing it again.
Much has been made of the fact that five officers involved in the violence are themselves Black. What most of the commentary misses is that the race, gender, or sexuality of a killer cop is beside the point. The police are not a collection of individuals whose personal identities can soften their role in society. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation statement puts it well:
Although the media has spent a great amount of time drawing attention to the fact that the police officers are Black, as if that is important, let us be clear: ALL police represent the interest of capitalism and impel state-sanctioned violence. Anyone who works within a system that perpetuates state-sanctioned violence is complicit in upholding white supremacy.
From their origins in the north protecting private property, or in the south as slave catchers, the police play a systemic role in capitalism to uphold and enforce the status quo.
What happened to “defund the police”?
While Biden sailed into the presidency in 2020 with the support of progressives horrified by police violence, from day one he pledged not only to oppose popular demands to defund the police, but promised to give them even more resources. In a disgusting insult to George Floyd’s memory, the Democrats introduced to Congress (for the second time in 2021) the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Far from accomplishing any of the movement’s demands to defund, disarm, or abolish the police, the legislation actually proposed funneling even more money to law enforcement. The bill was backed by both Biden and former “top cop” of California, Vice President Kamala Harris.
Republican opposition meant the bill never made it through the Senate, but it is a similar story on the local level. After both the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s killings, some cities made modest cuts to police budgets in 2021. Denver and Oakland removed police from schools. Portland, Oregon cut its police budget and disbanded some units. Austin slashed police funding from 40% to 26% of its annual city budget.
But by 2022, nearly every one of these reforms had been rolled back. In staunch Democrat-led cities, the New York Police Department got an extra $200 million and Los Angeles upped its law enforcement budget by 3%. Bernie Sanders’ own Burlington, Vermont, went from cutting its police budget to unanimously approving an additional $1 million for officer retention — meaning cops who kept their jobs got $10,000 rewards and new ones received $15,000 signing bonuses. One Democratic Socialists of America-backed city councilor, Nithya Raman, went from calling to divest from the police in 2020 to twice voting to increase the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget in 2021 and 2022. The same is sadly the case among many DSA-backed candidates.
Rising police budgets last year were allegedly the Democrats’ response to growing crime. This is despite crime rates remaining substantially lower today than in previous decades — and nevermind the fact that there is no evidence larger police budgets have any impact on preventing or stopping crime. The truth is, whether they head corporations or work on Capitol Hill, the entire ruling elite in our society relies on the police to protect their wealth and power. The popular liberal take is that with more training, more diverse officers, and more high tech equipment, police violence can be curbed. What the years since George Floyd’s murder tell us is that no amount of reform can prevent police departments from killing with impunity.
Every person outraged by Tyre Nichols’ murder should join Black Lives Matter protests wherever they are held and help to call them where none exist. New people should be welcomed into the movement, even if this is the first time they have marched against police violence. The swift removal and charging of Nichols’ assailants and the abolition of the SCORPION unit in Memphis are in large part because the state wants to preempt and avoid another mass movement for Black Lives like we saw in 2020. These responses are a welcome sign. They also raise a crucial question for the movement: if a section of the police can be abolished, then why not all of it?
But large marches aren’t enough on their own. Asking people to show up for indefinite street demonstrations is not sustainable for most and it doesn’t win lasting change. Taking leadership from Black organizers, we must fight to create democratic spaces that can build ongoing movements to defund, disarm, and abolish the police. It is clear these demands can’t be left in the hands of Democratic city councilors locally or to Biden at the national level. We cannot afford to let the rage and grief dissipate this time. Without grassroots organization and mass mobilization, it is only a matter of time until the police kill again.