Full Disclosure: We couldn’t watch the entire video of the savage beating to death of Tyre Nichols by five armed thugs of the state, all twice his size, all seized by “a wild, punishing violence” as they screamed a barrage of orders to their prostrate victim. What struck us: The “wolf-pack” pathology as they clustered afterwards, like homicidal football players, to revel in their total dehumanization of a kind, young, “damn near perfect” father, skateboarder, photographer, and, yes, human being.
A slight 29-year-old Fed Ex worker, son of Sacramento, dad to a four-year-old and amateur photographer, Tyre D. Nichols was pulled over by Memphis police Jan. 7 on his way home from taking pictures of the sky; most weekends, he liked to head to the city park and try to capture the sunset. He was just steps and moments away from the home he shared with his mother and step-father, who worked the second shift at Fed Ex with him; police said he was driving recklessly, but they’ve offered no evidence. When officials released the sickening videos Friday night—three from body-cams, one from a surveillance camera—Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis warned they show “acts that defy humanity.” And so they do, escalating swiftly after Nichols’ car is boxed in by two unmarked police cars for a supposed traffic stop and several cops jump out, guns drawn, and begin bellowing often-contradictory orders.
Perhaps blighted by a discredited “warrior mindset” that sees any civilian as a potentially deadly enemy—or perhaps because they’re sociopaths—a growing pack of cops swiftly, brutally ramp up the violence against one defenseless, 145-pound man already on the ground. For 13 minutes, one analysis found, they unleash a torrent of 71 “confusing, conflicting and sometimes impossible to obey” commands while hurling blows and curses. Over and over, they scream “Get on the fucking ground” when he is and “Give us your fucking hands” when they’re holding onto them; they kick him in the ribs and head, punch him in the face, pound him with batons, pepper-spray his eyes, prop up his limp body, Mafia-goon style, to punch him in the face again—though police training teaches that’s the worst and most lethal way to subdue someone—and yell “I’m gonna tase your ass,” “I’m gonna baton the fuck out of you,” and when he tries to flee, “I hope they stomp his ass.”
It quickly turned out they were part of a SCORPION Unit, launched in 2021 to address high murder rates that helped rank Memphis—which urges residents to “Re-Imagine policing—the most dangerous city in the U.S. Often using traffic stops as a first step, SCORPION’s 40 officers ostensibly focused on homicides, assaults, robberies, and carjackings in high-crime areas. But many were young, green, bellicose “go-getters” hungry to “catch the bad guy” with insanely inadequate training: three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of “criminal apprehension instruction,” one day at a firing range. Patrolling in groups, they wore black hoodies and tactical vests, drove unmarked Dodge Chargers, and often acted as “oppression squads” terrorizing communities of color “under the guise of crime fighting.” One earlier victim described being met with, “Freeze! Put your MF hands up before I blow your head off” as he crossed the street to get a pizza. The police chief said “they did good work,” but when they confronted Tyre Nichols, “They went off the rails that night.”
Nichols died on Jan. 10, after three days in the hospital, from cardiac arrest and kidney failure; after police got done beating him to a pulp, another 23 minutes reportedly passed until EMT’s arrived. The video ends with him slumped to the ground, bloody, alone, in handcuffs; his attackers—all black, all youngish at 24-32, all hired in the last few years—gather in a circle raucously re-living their kill, like wolves or lions strutting in victory. Most are beefy; several are out-of-breath from their exertions; at least two were former football players. Even before the video was released, five—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills Jr.—were swiftly fired, then charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Almost as quickly, officials announced they were disbanding the SCORPION unit. And in one final American perversion, writes Charles Blow, officials offered “the spectacle of a televised countdown” to the video’s carefully orchestrated release.
Still, the brutality they expose sparked furious protests nationwide. Activists have already issued several demands: the city name all officers present at the scene, release their personnel files, and end pretextual traffic stops and use of often-untraceable plainclothes cops in unmarked cars. But those steps, even convicting the killers, are just a start to fixing a policing system fundamentally broken.
Many argue police have always been institutions of violence; they work as designed to serve the status quo, not marginalized communities; trading white cops for black ones was never a solution, nor was throwing more “armed, agitated, uniformed people at it”; like mass shooters, brutal cops are not “monsters who appear out of thin air” but (almost always) pathological men with a thirst for armed power “under color of law;” justice means changing the culture and systemic conditions that give rise to them. “How much more bloodshed will it take before Congress acts?” asks NAACP head Derrick Johnson. “Get up and do something. We are done dying.”
For now, 2 more cops have been removed, as have three Fire Department medics and two sheriff’s deputies; the D.A. says more arrests could be coming. The actions likely offer little solace to friends and family grieving a kind, joyful, “good human,” “quirky and true to himself,” “good spirit and soul” who attended church youth group and worked to be a good dad. “This man walked into a room,” said one friend, “and everyone loved him.” At the scene of his murder, just doors from his parents’ house, Nichols pleaded with police, “I’m just trying to go home.”
His last words, his lawyers said at a news conference, were calling for his mom, three times. “Oh my god, oh my God,” wailed his mother Row Vaughn Wells. “Nobody’s perfect, nobody. But he was damn near perfect.” On social media, some posted Nichols happily skateboarding: “This is the only video of Tyre we should be watching.” We can also visit his photography website This California Kid, where he urges viewers, “Welcome the world through my eyes.” “People have a story to tell,” he writes. “I hope to one day let people see what i see.” It’s signed, “Your friend, Tyre D. Nichols.”
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