Police murder of Tyre Nichols puts U.S. civilization on trial yet again

March 16, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

by Buddy Bell

Jan. 28, 2023, rally for justice for Tyre Nichols at the Ohio Statehouse. Photo: Paul Becker/ Becker1999

On the night of Jan. 7, Tyre Nichols waited at a stoplight while men in black hoodies and ski masks came out of an unmarked car and approached him. He had no way to know it, but they were police in a special operations unit called SCORPION. They forced Nichols out of his car, then pepper sprayed him in the eyes while holding him down on the ground. Believing the foul-mouthed police would wound or kill him, Nichols found a chance to get up and run. The police shot at him with a taser, then caught him a few blocks away. He was kicked in the chest and face, punched and hit with a baton. As Nichols, the father of a four-year-old son, lay unconscious on the ground, one cop took a picture of him and sent it to a friend. An ambulance did not arrive for about 20 minutes. Nichols died in the hospital three days later.

It wasn’t until Jan. 27 that footage of his murder was released, and then only because of the outcry of the Nichols family and the Memphis accountability movement. A nationwide fury over yet another grisly murder at the hands of the police would spur protests, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to New York, where demonstrators blocked the entrance to Grand Central Station. “Why did it happen again? Why is it still happening? Why is it happening again? Why is it happening now?” a protester in Portland, Oregon, asked the question so many have.


The character of U.S. “civilization” surfaced once again, seen in the inhumanity of Nichols’s murder and the immediate attempt to cover it up, but also in the outrage and protests. It has brought back to the forefront the systemic nature of not only police killings but the ingrained racism of this society.

At the headquarters of the Chicago Police Department, Black Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef spoke: “We’re tired of being murdered, tired of being beaten, tired of being chased.” In Detroit, a protester said, “The fact that this is happening again and again and again, continuously, is traumatic. It’s devastating. It makes me angry. I feel frustrated, but I still feel optimistic to keep fighting.”

On June 5, 2020, hundreds showed up at a rally in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood for EMT worker Breonna Taylor. It was called only the day before. Photo: News & Letters.

The Interstate 55 bridge in Memphis has witnessed decades of rage and trauma experienced by Black Americans. Marching protesters occupied the bridge in 2016 after the killings of Philando Castile and Anton Sterling, in 2020 after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The bridge was once again filled with people on Jan 27, 2023. Nyliayh Stewart, whose cousin was shot by police in 2015, was there: “This should not have happened. This family should not have to bury him. My family should not have had to bury my cousin… We got to stand up for what’s right…it’s like our kids could be next.”

The next day, Memphis police announced they would dismantle SCORPION. It’s not enough. LJ Abraham, who has lived in Memphis since she was 12, was protesting outside City Hall. She called for the disbanding of other special units and more public access to the footage captured in police body cameras, such as of the four other people who had been killed by police in Memphis since November 2022. “Right now, when somebody is shot by police, we can’t see that video….The only reason we got to see Tyre’s footage was because of the manner in which he died….In these traffic stops, people are fearful that either they are getting the shit beat out of them or they’re going to die. That shouldn’t be an expectation from people whose salaries we pay.”

The protesters at Memphis City Hall asked for an end to pretextual traffic stops, such as pulling people over for broken tail lights and loud music. If city workers without arrest authority could take care of such matters, maybe fewer violent altercations would result.

Another reform floated in media and on the streets is to do away with qualified immunity, which prevents citizens from bringing city police officers directly to civil court to answer for misconduct. Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, has experienced police misconduct and harassment over the course of his own life. He said in an interview: “If these officers had understood: ‘I’m beating up this guy, it’s on video, and if I get caught, not only do I get in trouble with the force, I may have to pay thousands of dollars out of my own pocket’—that might make a difference.”


Whatever changes were made in city after city since 2020, the toll of over 1,000 people killed by police each year has continued—and even rose last year to a new record of at least 1,176. That gave new energy to those saying that this flows from the very nature and mission of the police, so only a fundamental transformation of society can stop the inhumanity.

As Sylvia Askew, whose son Steven Askew was murdered by the Memphis police ten years ago, said: “It made me reflect on a system that has not changed.”

It is common these days to hear that this kind of violence and terrorization is no exception but is what the police are designed to do. A recent analysis showed that more than 1 in 20 homicides in the U.S. are committed by the police.

Clearly, the Memphis police expect little if any reprisal for their behavior exhibited in full view of body cameras. Days earlier, they had approached Monterrius Harris in their black hoodies and masks. As one officer yelled “I will shoot you!” Harris attempted to drive away before realizing by their vests that they might be the police. He was beaten up, with his head hitting concrete. He survived but now faces charges of driving at the police. Body camera footage is being withheld.

In another incident last August, Memphis police started beating and pepper spraying Tyson Walker after he said, “Officer, you don’t have to touch me. I will step out the car myself.” The city wouldn’t release footage unless he paid $600 through his lawyer! This fee is still being challenged in court.

The Washington Post interviewed a former Memphis officer who claimed he quit in disgust: “Decades ago, it was said, if you run, you’re gonna get beat up. That changed, but you still have lieutenants who talk about how great it was back in the day, because if somebody punched you, you sent them to the hospital. So then you get these rookies on that say, ‘Man, that sounds awesome.’”

As police work becomes more unpleasant, the job attracts fewer people. Then it predominantly brings in those who are there to do harm. A 2014 decision by the city council to slash pension benefits and health insurance did not help. Nine years later, police ranks are skewed toward people who have less than 10 years of job experience, and who are asked to work 70 or more hours per week.


The Memphis PD tried lowering their hiring standards to recruit more staff. In 2018, it deferred a college requirement; in 2022, it relaxed on physical fitness and criminal history. Demetrius Haley, the man who took and sent the picture of Tyre Nichols’s body, had actually been rejected after his first application.

It has been made public that Haley was accused of assault before. In 2015, he beat prisoner Cordarius Sledge, banging his head into a sink at the Shelby County Correctional Center. The assault was so vicious that the entire cellblock of 34 other inmates signed a letter of concern. It stated in part: “We are truly asking that this matter gets looked into before someone gets hurt really bad or lose their life because of some unprofessional officers.” Yet Haley still worked at the prison as late as 2020. He beat a federal lawsuit by claiming Sledge did not follow the correct procedure of filing a grievance.

In less than 24 hours the information about SCORPION, combined with the proliferation of street demonstrations, changed Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis’s message from “they do good work [but] went off the rails,” to “it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION unit.” Although the intent of such units is to fight crime in economically poor neighborhoods, their high price tag (try $14 million annually!) strains logic.


Memphis protester Amber Sherman requested the obvious alternative—have the city address actual poverty. “Instead of offering support, we offer more police and make more taskforces.” Unfortunately, support is actually sabotaged. Lifelong Memphis resident and Fight for $15 organizer Antonio Cathey, someone whose every day of effort is to put more money in the pockets of poor people, had the police spending money installing cameras outside his home and otherwise harass him. “There’s no trust right now,” he said.

Politicians with “tough on crime” platforms want to scare people with the specter of criminals who will kill you if the police are not given every last power. It is true that the police are not the only ones killing people, as seen in the horrendous 48 mass shootings in the U.S. in January alone. That is dwarfed by the 40,000 gun deaths a year, half of them suicides.

This can only be understood if police violence and other kinds of daily violence are recognized as two sides of the same coin. They are two complementary expressions of the ingrained violence of the social system we have the misfortune to live under.


It is this violent, decaying system that is oozing fascism from every pore, whether it is the sadistic cops celebrating their soon-to-be-fatal beating of Tyre Nichols or the Florida governor’s assault on African American Studies. The special hatred of Black Studies is that the Black dimension is linked with all freedom movements in U.S. history. It is liberation and liberatory movements that they wish to eliminate from history.

The opposite to that—and therefore the opposite to all the expressions of fascism, of counter-revolutionary anti-freedom, including police violence, attacks on LGBTQ people, and the bans on abortion which are attacks against the movements of women for liberation—is not only the restoration of true history but the actual freedom movements in unity with their universalization in thought, the philosophy of revolution in permanence.

The category of Black masses as Reason is inseparable from that philosophy’s development as Marxist-Humanism. Its meaning and centrality in U.S. history were shown in the pamphlet whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year: American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard. (See pages 4 and 5.)


Tortuguita in the forest. Photo: Gabe Eisen

Another horrifying killing unfolded in Atlanta, where city finances have been drained into “cop city,” a police training center, complete with a practice course for high-speed vehicle chases and a helicopter landing pad. (See “Detroiters demand: ‘Stop Cop City!’” page 8.) A letter signed by 1,300 climate, justice and community groups said: “Mayor Dickens can somehow find $90 million for cop city, one third of which will come from taxpayer money. Still, he can’t find money to keep our already overwhelmed hospitals open or to finance much-needed affordable housing.”

The land in the South River Forest, now granted to Cop City, was constitutionally guaranteed in 2017 to become a publicly accessible green space, integral to Atlanta’s plan to combat climate change. Four years later, the former mayor and city council violated the city’s constitution and the public will in order to approve the new facility. They also blocked DeKalb County from revoking the building permits as required by law, because, according to the EPA, the construction-induced sedimentation in the South River has exceeded the maximum allowable level.


Atlanta-area students engaged high gear. At Emory University, 100 of them drafted and signed a letter to the former university president, asking her to leave the board of the Atlanta police foundation, the organization behind Cop City. The current president of Spelman College is also on that board, but insists the college itself does not financially support it. Students at Spelman petitioned her to step down and denounce the proposed facility. Petitions also circulated at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, and Morehouse College.

As bulldozers and tree removal carried on, some students and other environmental activists encamped within the forest. Very soon, they fortified themselves in tree sits because the Atlanta and DeKalb County police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the Georgia state patrol and the FBI began to send waves of officers to clear them out of the intended construction zone.

After several months of success on the part of the tree sitters, the state upped its ante. Elias, a tree-sitter, said that “since December, the police have repeatedly stormed the forest with military-grade weapons, pointed assault rifles at protesters, fired chemical weapons at tree sitters, and used chainsaws in an attempt to dismantle treehouses with tree sitters still in them.”

On Jan. 18, one or more of these officers fired 13 shots into the body of a young tree-sitter and pacifist nicknamed Tortuguita. The Georgia state officers do not wear body cameras, and Atlanta city said on Jan. 20 they would keep their officers’ footage tightly sealed. And yet the government line is that Tortuguita fired first. The activist legally carried a pistol for scaring off large animals.

Tortuguita’s death is believed by some historians to be the first killing of an environmental activist in the U.S. The murder is another menacing example of the way fascism pervades the culture and becomes accepted in some quarters as normal or even desired. Murders that explicitly target someone’s environmental stance have been commonplace in countries like Brazil or Indonesia.


On Jan. 21, protesters took to the streets in downtown Atlanta. Thanks to local politicians and to the influence of wealthy donors, the protests were widely vilified that weekend in the press. Cox Enterprises had already bought out the local paper, the Journal-Constitution, and was also a donor to the police training center. Syndicated CNN commentators pontificated while the screen replayed an ominous loop of broken storefront windows and a trampled placard calling for socialism.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp as usual took the opportunity to call the protesters “terrorists.” State prosecutors followed suit, or else were ordered to charge everyone arrested in the forest as domestic terrorists. Not a single person charged with terrorism was accused of actually injuring anyone. Attorney Marlon Kautz said: “At this point the police seem to be charging every protester they arrest with ‘domestic terrorism’ regardless of the circumstances. The other pattern we’ve noticed is they are charging everyone arrested on a given day with all crimes which happened that day.”

The charges failed to bring an end to the candlelight vigils and commemorations that occurred in more than 50 small and large cities during the week after Tortuguita’s assassination. Some were planned before Tortuguita’s identity was known. In Minneapolis, people held banners over Interstate 94, and in Boulder, Colo., a protest against Wells Fargo bank denounced its financial support of Cop City. In Olympia, Wash., a vigil took place “in remembrance of the fallen forest defender who was murdered by the police. Their death is the cruel outcome of the cold machinery that makes up Atlanta’s city governance, private interests and police department.”

On Feb. 2, Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens appeared at a Morehouse College public forum. A group of Morehouse and Spelman students stood in front of the stage to speak to attendees about the folly of Cop City. Morehouse sophomore Daxton Pettus took aim at Dickens’ crocodile tears over Tyre Nichols while he “gives support to a system that has harmed us as Black people and that harmed Tyre Nichols himself. The seven police officers who engaged in the death of Tyre Nichols were trained. We’ve been training police officers more and more, adding more training, but we still continue to see Black people murdered on television.”

Spelman junior Adrian Sean told of two students forced from their car and tasered in 2020. “We, as well as the residents of the city of Atlanta, need to be taken seriously. We’ve said it time and time again. We do not want Cop City.” Still, as Dickens verbally sparred with the students, it became clear that his donors had made up his mind.

The people who insist on racial equality in public space, and who demand true environmental stewardship, find themselves situated in opposition to a profound complacency or nihilism that persists among an alienated American population. These citizens espouse or tolerate sentiments of anti-democracy and corporate supremacy which leads to increasingly intransigent and unresponsive government. As time passes, we see the symptoms of social disarray compound.

In order to erode police, corporate, and government impunity, more people must see the fight for justice as their own fight. The philosophy of total liberation already implicit in the justice movements must be made explicit, penetrate the haze and excite a larger segment of people in the U.S. and around the world. Social movements are about more than stopping the injustices that surround us. A philosophy of liberation brings out the positive in the negative, the vision of a new human society, as a pole of attraction to focus and energize movements.

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