The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tyre Nichols video shows policing must be done with a community — not to it

A sign is held by a demonstrator in New York's Times Square on Friday during a protest against Memphis police for the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, earlier this month. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
4 min

Steel yourself first, but try to watch the video of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, being punched and kicked to death by Memphis police officers. See how vicious the blows are, delivered with grown men’s weight behind them. Be shocked at the way some officers hold Nichols upright or pin him to the ground so that others can take their turn, pummeling him with fists and boots and batons. Note the utter lack of concern from those hard men in blue, sworn public servants, as it takes 22 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Now, try hard to imagine the same thing happening to a young unarmed White man, pulled over in a traffic stop for “reckless driving” in his own neighborhood. I cannot.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Memphis killing is a reminder we started rethinking policing in 2020 but stopped because of politics

The fact that the five officers charged in Nichols’s death are themselves African American tragically illustrates a point that the Black Lives Matter movement has been trying to make all along: The race of the perpetrators in these police killings sometimes matters, but the race of the victims always matters. Too many officers of all races and ethnicities, imbued with a culture of us vs. them, do not see a Black man who has a broken taillight or makes an illegal U-turn as a citizen who made a mistake. They see him as a threat to police dominance and control — and therefore as someone who must be subdued, humiliated, cowed, put in his place.

That is what the slogan “no justice, no peace” means to me, and why the issue of unwarranted police violence against African Americans will not go away until the “warrior” culture of police departments — not in the suites, but in the streets — finally is made to change.

Memphis police videos show the violent confrontation after officers stopped Tyre Nichols for an alleged traffic violation on Jan. 7. Nichols later died. (Video: The Washington Post)

Conservatives who say they want small government and worry about the coercive power of the state should have marched alongside BLM activists on Friday night in protests that followed the release of video of Nichols’s killing. It is unclear what, if anything, Nichols did wrong behind the wheel. But it seems clear that there was no reason to approach him so aggressively, as though he were some armed desperado fleeing a murder scene.

Eugene Robinson: Black Americans all got Derek Chauvin's message — loud and clear

Please recall the case of Dylann Roof, the White racist who murdered nine innocent Black victims at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Roof fled all the way to North Carolina and was known to be armed and dangerous. Yet police officers, acting on a tip, apprehended him at a traffic stop without incident and without a scratch. And when Roof complained about being hungry, police in Shelby, N.C., bought him food from a nearby Burger King.

Those officers in Memphis — who have been charged with second-degree murder — didn’t have to treat Nichols to a Whopper. But they could have listened when he explained that he was going to his mother’s house, just a few hundred feet away. They could have given him a stern talking-to. If they thought he was such a lousy driver, they could have had him lock and leave his car where it was and walk the rest of the way. They could have even given him a lift.

Follow Eugene Robinson's opinionsFollow

I know that there are hundreds of thousands of police officers in this country who do their jobs honorably and well. And I know that the job is dangerous — which is one reason police departments teach techniques of de-escalation, instructing officers in ways to approach potentially volatile encounters with the aim of lowering the temperature, not raising it. But there is often a disconnect between those who run police departments — such as Memphis Chief Cerelyn J. Davis, who quickly fired the five officers seen beating and kicking Nichols — and their rank-and-file officers.

But it was Davis who formed the special police unit those officers belonged to: Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or Scorpion, which was shut down Saturday. The tough-guy nomenclature was at best inappropriate; the mission, which involved flooding high-crime zones with hyperaggressive policing, removed some criminals from the streets but could also feel, to residents, as though they were being ruled by an occupying army.

Reimagine Safety: Post Opinions project on police reform and public safety

Contrary to Fox News propaganda, African Americans are not anti-police. And regardless of racial makeup, no neighborhood wants, needs and appreciates good, effective policing more than a neighborhood plagued by crime. But that means police who know the citizens they serve. Picture two identical groups of kids on opposite street corners, wearing the same saggy pants, listening to the same music, maybe puffing the same weed. One is a bunch of little wannabe thugs; the other is the local high school chess club. The people who live around there know the difference, and the police should, too.

Policing has to be done with a community. Not to it.