By Socialist Alternative Black Caucus, Socialist Alternative is our sister organisation in the US
This evening, the Memphis Police Department released a four-part video of the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. Nichols was pulled over in a traffic stop in early January and savagely beaten by the officers. He died from his injuries in the hospital on January 10. It comes days after Atlanta police shot an unarmed 26 year old person who was occupying the expansion of a police academy. Last year, 1,176 people were killed by police.
Nichols, a 29-year-old father, was stopped on January 7 for reckless driving by the SCORPION Unit, a specialized unit of the Memphis Police department that carries out “hot spot” policing. Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis said the department has not been able to substantiate whether the reckless driving stop was warranted. That night, Nichols was hospitalized in critical condition with broken bones and liver failure. He died three days later.
The officers have been charged with kidnapping, official misconduct, official oppression, and second-degree murder. As of this writing, they are out on $250,000 bail, and four of the five will remain free during the trial. There are also concerning reports paramedics failed to intervene that need to be explained. While this time they have been prosecuted (undoubtedly because of the legacy of mass protests following George Floyd), we need to keep up the pressure for a total transformation of policing in the U.S.
The footage of Tyre Nichols’ murder provides grisly detail to the basic reality that racist police brutality continues to have deadly consequences for Black and brown people in this country. The fact that the officers were Black doesn’t change this. The entire SCORPION unit, of which these officers were a part, is designed to trick poor Black and brown people into committing crimes (often of self-defense).
The circumstances that led to Nichols’ murder were set in motion long in advance, and the underlying reasons for his death need to be addressed. We can’t let the political establishment claim that this is about a few bad apples. The entire structure of policing in the U.S. has this brutality as its logical consequence. Police forces operate with near-total impunity, they are armed to the teeth with military grade weaponry, and the crimes that they’re tasked with “preventing” are in most cases crimes of poverty.
We need mass protests on the scale of the response to the murder of George Floyd. This time, the movement needs a set of demands that can address police brutality, and deal with politicians who offer thoughts, prayers, and big promises, only to betray the movement later.
We need mass, non-violent, multi-racial protests across the country that disrupt business-as-usual. We need an immediate purge of the police of all cops with a record of racism and excessive force in the community. Put policing under the control of democratically elected civilian boards with power over hiring and firing policies, reviewing budget priorities, and to subpoena.
The Racist Police tactics that killed Nichols
Memphis’ SCORPION unit was created in October 2021 under the police department’s Organized Crime Unit. SCORPION-led operations promoted on the police department’s Facebook page provide a glimpse into its work: arrests that begin with traffic stops, escalate into more serious confrontations, and end with arrests of people for drugs and guns.
Terrifying encounters with what seem like civilian assailants who turn out to be police officers “suppressing crime” are a trademark of “hot spot policing.” Essentially, “hot spot policing” means the cops go around provoking people, hoping the situation escalates into an arrestable offense. Memphis Police Deputy Chief Don Crowe said the SCORPION unit’s “job is to identify the target area, flood that area with officers and suppress crime in that area.”
Keedran Franklin, a Memphis community organizer, said SCORPION behaved like “their own internal little gang”. He described them driving around Black neighborhoods in unmarked cars with tinted windows bumping loud music. Without identifying themselves as police, they force people out of their cars and terrorize them. In other cities, these special police squads are known as “jump out boys”, and their job is to escalate.
“Hot Spot Policing” – A tactic of the Democratic Party establishment
Democratic party politicians preside over this particularly brutal style of policing, and it’s commonplace across the country. Baltimore, a city run by the Democratic Party that has a Black political establishment, has tried this style of policing twice in the last ten years. The first time led to millions of dollars in police brutality settlements, mostly to working class Black victims. One Baltimore unit, the Gun Trace Task Force, faced federal racketeering charges for corruption. A detective who planned to testify against members of that unit was shot to death in November. That case remains unsolved.
The Baltimore Police Department abandoned “hot spot policing” after a wave of mass protests in response to the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015. Gray was put into the back of a police van while handcuffed, and taken for a “rough ride” where they intentionally drove the van recklessly. A few minutes later, Grey was removed from the van with a broken spine. Once the movement died down, the Baltimore Democratic Party establishment resurrected “hot spot policing” in 2018. Another wave of police brutality lawsuits followed, but the murder rate in Baltimore continued to rise.
The Democratic Party proudly adopted the language of the BLM movement in 2020, with Biden making big promises of police oversight at the federal level. All of these promises have been quietly dropped while the party establishment at the local level has aggressively ramped up policing in major cities with law-and-order rhetoric, massive hiring bonuses, and increased funding for the police. Militarized and emboldened policing led to the shooting of the 26 year old protester who opposed the leveling of 85 acres of forest to build a $90 million “Cop City” training camp in Atlanta.
As the crisis of racist police violence continues to escalate, it is only a matter of time before a movement revives in the streets. However, it will be crucial to bring forward the lessons of the George Floyd rebellion in order to win against a system of racist police brutality. During the movement in 2020, Democrats in Congress and in city governments spoke out of both sides of their mouths – pledging support to the movement while kettling protesters and raising police budgets. These same leaders may send out the National Guard to suppress protests of Nichols’ murder.
We need an independent movement rooted in working class Black communities, not the Democratic Party and NGO’s. We need real planning meetings where working class Black people can democratically shape the movement and its demands. Black workers are at the forefront of a resurging labor movement, and unions need to play a role in building a sustained, multi-racial, working class fight back against racism and inequality.
We need to put policing in the control of democratically-elected civilian review boards with real power to hire, fire, and subpoena. These should also have the power to set department priorities, and decommission all violent terror squads like the SCORPION Unit. We need to tax billionaires and corporations to win a massive investment in housing, jobs and social programs. With working people – and particularly Black and brown working class communities and youth – at the helm, ordinary people can build a movement to put an end to bloody practices like hot-spot policing, and racist police violence as a whole.