Summary: The contradictions of policing cannot be hidden behind a veil of “law and order” when people recognize that law and order in a capitalist society just means the continuation of racist and classist practices to maintain the accumulation of capital. – Editors
On January 7, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was pulled over by Memphis police on suspicion of reckless driving just two minutes from his home. Body camera and surveillance footage released by the MPD on January 27 show Nichols being pulled out of his car by officers at gunpoint and then being tased and pepper sprayed. After struggling with the officers, Nichols managed to escape on foot before being caught again and beaten by the officers while handcuffed.
Throughout the confrontation, the officers are heard shouting profanities and threats at the defenseless Nichols who can be heard begging them to stop. When medics arrived on the scene, he was not given immediate medical attention until complaining about shortness of breath and being taken into an ambulance later. Nichols was hospitalized in critical condition before dying three days later.
In initial statements by the officers, it was alleged that Nichols reacted violently and even tried reaching for an officer’s weapon. Footage later revealed that Nichols had not tried to fight back and was punched and kicked by officers while already in handcuffs. On January 20, the MPD announced that the five officers involved in the violent confrontation had been fired and four days later they were charged with multiple felonies including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and official misconduct. All five officers were indicted on seven counts by a Grand Jury of the State of Tennessee on January 26. Two more officers who may have been involved were relieved of duty but are still currently under internal investigation.
All five officers were part of a specialized Memphis PD unit called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods). The unit was formed in late 2021 to combat the rise of homicides in the city. Due to the increasing pressure from the public and Nichols’s family, MPD decided to disband the unit completely on January 28.
The SCORPION unit utilized a predictive policing practice that is commonly called place-based policing or hot-spot policing. The idea behind this approach is to identify hot spots with high crime activity and devote more resources to patrols in those areas. This practice has been adopted by many U.S. police departments who see it as an effective strategy for reducing total crime by tackling the areas where crime is most concentrated.
Advocates of hot-spot policing also claim it creates legitimacy within a community by having more visible police patrols and encouraging positive interactions with community members. This supposed benefit disappears when many specialized police units such as SCORPION operate with officers in plain clothes and unmarked cars. Police abolitionists and reformists have noted that heavy police presence in certain areas gives community members an impression of the police as an occupying force and creates more negative interactions, making them less likely to report a crime.
The MPD has been under public scrutiny, with people questioning why a supposedly elite crime-stopping unit was made up of officers with less than 3 years of experience and not working under direct supervision. Others are questioning how many more abuses they committed may have gone unreported. Interviews with people who encountered the unit suggest that the use of excessive force and physical escalation for minor offenses was a common practice. Within the first months of their formation, the SCORPION unit reported over a hundred arrests. A review conducted by the New York Times revealed the unit had a disproportionate policing presence in low-income neighborhoods. One sample showed Black men comprising 90 percent of the arrests by the unit. [https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/04/us/memphis-police-scorpion.html]
The dissolution of SCORPION means little when one recognizes that the other officers who were in the unit and used overly aggressive policing tactics are still wearing badges. The MPD has also refused to disclose further information about the unit, including training practices and records of past complaints.
What has only been given minor attention in news reports is the fact that Nichols was a supply chain worker at FedEx in Memphis. FedEx is the largest employer in the city, employing over 30,000 people. The main FedEx hub is also located in Memphis, where billions of packages are shipped each year. Fear of collective outrage arising among FedEx workers may have been a major factor in the quick indictments of the involved officers and the release of camera footage by the MPD. If quick action was not taken by the city to indict the officers, Nichols’s death could have sparked protests among the thousands of FedEx employees, many of whom are Black workers just like Nichols, and created huge economic disruption that would have effects beyond Memphis.
Peaceful protests across the country followed the release of camera footage on January 27 and at the behest of the Nichols family. In Memphis, demonstrators blocked traffic on the I-55 bridge for three hours, chanting “Justice for Tyre” alongside several candlelight vigils being held in the city. Protests broke out in other major US cities including New York, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore. While these protests remained mostly peaceful, they were met with a strong police response. In Los Angeles, protestors outside LAPD headquarters calling for justice and police abolition were confronted by officers in riot gear.
Much attention has been given to the fact that all five police officers indicted were Black men. This has led many activists to acknowledge that racial discrimination in policing is not solely an issue of individual prejudice but is systemic to policing itself. It does not matter what race the person doing the policing is when they all work to uphold the same racist capitalist system. The disproportionate killings of Black men by the police are a result of the dehumanization of Black people that forms the core of capitalism. This dehumanization runs so deep that a Black police officer sees a working-class Black man as just another subject to exercise their power on and beat into compliance.
Nichols’s death, in light of other police brutality victims, including Keenan Anderson who was killed by the LAPD only a week before, has led many to begin reexamining the police’s role in society. The officers’ initial statements justifying their actions and the video evidence disproving their claims have also created much more public distrust in the police, prompting President Biden to make statements about the need for more legislation combatting police misconduct.
Cases of police brutality are always painted as examples of bad police work or the misconduct of individuals, but how can the issue be just an individual one when these actions are being promoted by aggressive policing practices like hot-spot policing or stop and frisk? The problem begins not with individual police officers but with policing itself. These abuses of power are possible because the system enables such behavior. The five officers would not have beaten Nichols to death if they did not believe they would get away with it as they probably had many times before.
The contradictions of policing can be understood when police departments’ attempts to deter violent crime result in the death of innocent Black men like Nichols. When the police function as armed agents to carry out state-sanctioned violence, they can only exist in an antagonistic relationship with the working class. Their activity as police officers will always lead to more working-class people being put in cells or killed. As has been the tagline for anti-police movements around the world, the police exist to protect property not people.
At the end of the day, police serve the needs of the state, not the working class. They play a key role in maintaining the domination of the ruling class by suppressing dissent. When the masses revolt, the police act as the first line of defense to restore order by beating back demonstrators in the streets. The strong reaction by police departments in major cities in anticipation of the release of the camera footage shows just how ready they are to do so.
The police exist to enforce power disparities and class differentials. In a class society built on racism, these disparities and differentials are always mediated by racial relations leading to the racist character of policing. One does not have to go far back in history to discover the racist origins of policing. It should be no surprise then that many police units across the country are terrorizing Black communities and face no repercussions for it until one particularly egregious case hits the news cycle. While the officers responsible for Nichols’s death may be facing charges, one cannot help but wonder how many more working-class Black men are being brutalized by other units across the country.
With every case of police brutality, more people begin to realize that there is no justice for the oppressed in a system that was built on their oppression. The tragic killing of Tyre Nichols demonstrates how police attempts at reducing crime and improving community-police relations will always fall short and result in even more unnecessary deaths. The abolitionist movement that has formed in response to recent events has shown promising developments in an anti-capitalist direction. Any movement which attempts to confront the increasing contradictions of policing must confront the contradictions of capitalism itself, which lead to the dehumanization of the poor and marginalized. With legislative solutions proving to be fruitless, people interested in real social justice have begun to look for alternatives outside the system altogether. The contradictions of policing cannot be hidden behind a veil of “law and order” when people recognize that law and order in a capitalist society just means the continuation of racist and classist practices to maintain the accumulation of capital. It is from these realizations on the intersections of race and class that the call to abolish the police can become the call to end capitalism altogether.