There are two layers of context – one local, one national – that everyone must first understand before they understand Tyre Nichols’ murder.
These layers of context should demonstrate, again, that white power was the determining force behind the beating death of the 29-year-old Black man. Yes, despite that the police officers who beat him to death were Black.
Context Layer No. 1: Nichols was the fourth person to die at the hands of Memphis police over the last five weeks. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, those killings are under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “By comparison to the attention and action on the case of Nichols’ death, authorities have released little information.”
The Rev. Earle Fisher, a prominent figure in local Black politics, said: “As much as they want to try to isolate this, we have been saying this is part and parcel of the larger system and structure of policing. When the smoke clears, and when the cameras leave, and when the national figures leave, [the Memphis police department] will go right back to business as usual.”
There’s more here than one man’s death.
Context Layer No. 2: Police around the country killed more Americans in 2022 than any year since 2013. At least 1,176 people died at the hands of law enforcement last year, according to Mapping Police Violence. That number may be an undercount, Bloomberg Newssaid, “as the organization continues to compile data, which it does regularly for all of the years it tracks.”
Ninety-six percent of the deaths were from police officers shooting people. Of the total number, the victims were disproportionately Black (nearly a quarter). The Black population is only 13 percent. “The majority of these killings began with a mental health call, routine traffic stop, a non-violent offense or disturbance or a situation where there was no crime alleged,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, founder of Mapping Police Violence.
There’s more here than one man’s death.
There’s more here than three other people’s deaths.
Their deaths are a microcosm of a macrocosmic problem. If we do not understand the larger habit in American police departments of shooting and killing Black people, we can’t understand Tyre Nichols’ death.
This context is what the defenders of the white-power status quo would rather everyone did not understand, because if they did understand the existence of “an institutionalized police culture that is anti-Black,” they might come to agree with the critics of the white-power status quo.
Everyone might see that what happened to Nichols’ happens all the time on account of anti-Black prejudice being enshrined in police institutions.
If something evil is institutionalized, then more needs doing than holding accountable a few cops here and there. The whole thing needs to be uprooted and replanted, which is what defenders of the white-power status quo do not want to do, because things as they stand are working just fine.
As if proving my point, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis hurried over to CNN to say, look, five Black cops killed a Black man so obviously institutionalized anti-Black bias can’t possibly explain why the Memphis police department and cops around the country keep killing Black people, yanno, like more than any time in nearly a decade. "It takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement (are) about race," she said.
"It is about human dignity and integrity, accountability and the duty to protect our community. And as this video will show you, it doesn’t matter who is wearing the uniform, that we all have that same responsibility. So it takes race off the table. But it does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also in the manner in which we engage the community."
So bias may be the problem, just not anti-Black bias, because Black cops killed a Black man? You know, it’s possible they were not just terrible cops, but also keenly aware of a white-power status quo that pressures Black cops to go hard on Black people to prove they aren’t anti-white power.
At the top, I said they killed Nichols despite being Black.
It could be because they’re Black.
Anyway, Davis seemed to prove my point again when she quickly fired the cops who killed Nichols. Same for their swift indictment on second-degree murder changes by Shelby County’s District Attorney General Steve Mulroy.
Nothing says Black police officers are disposable to the white-power status quo like the white-power status quo disposing of Black police officers.
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