By Queen Carrasco
“A cop is a cop,” James Baldwin said in 1971. "He may be a very nice man. I haven’t got time to figure that out. You know, all I know is, he’s got a uniform and a gun. And I have to relate to him that way.”
In 2014, I was ten. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were just some of the people whose names the media popularized. All three were black individuals who died at the hands of police officers.
Now, I’m 18. And police brutality is still distressing the nation.
Issues of police violence and its particular effects on black people in America are still prevalent today. Black parents still teach their children how to interact with cops. Crying mothers appear on television, questioning why their children had to die. Protests seem to endlessly rise and fall. Yet, there is no change.
The most recent call for change was the ‘defund the police’ campaign, rising in May 2020 as a result of the murder of George Floyd. The campaign called for the reallocation of funds from police departments towards the communities they are supposed to serve. Nearly two years later, those changes have not become reality.
In Memphis, similar calls were made to defund the police during the Summer of 2020. But no significant reforms were implemented. Mike Rallings, the Memphis Police Director at the time, argued that an increase in officers on the streets resulted in a decrease in violent crimes.
Just over one year later, the SCORPION unit was introduced.
The Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION) unit was introduced in November 2021 by Cerelyn Davis, Memphis’ Chief of Police. The unit was supposed to target and address violent crimes in the city. Between November 2020 and 2021, before the SCORPION Unit, the city had around 28,800 violent crimes. The year after the unit was introduced, that number dropped by about 4,000. Though the unit appeared to be doing good for the city, it wasn’t making the citizens feel safer.
Mike Baker at the New York Times reported in February 2023 that many citizens were afraid of the SCORPION unit. Most interacted with the unit on minor offenses, such as traffic stops, marijuana offenses, and broken taillights– none of which were the “violent crimes” the unit was supposed to target. And even though only 65% of Memphis’ population is black, the unit’s arrests were 90% black people.
Tyre Nichols was one such arrest. Or, he would have been, if the unit hadn’t killed him. Both black and white police officers of the SCORPION unit violently beat Tyre Nichols after they pulled him over for a traffic stop, the Memphis officers’ body camera footage shows. First responders on the scene failed to properly treat Nichols, and he died on January 10th from his injuries.
On January 27th, the footage of Nichols’ brutal murder was released. In response, protests broke out in Memphis. During one, protestors marched to Interstate 55 and shut down the highway that connects Tennessee and Arkansas, demanding police reform.
Memphis was not the only city outraged. Mostly peaceful protests broke out across the United States. In New York City, demonstrators gathered in Times Square. In Boston, they halted traffic. And communities everywhere called for accountability and change.
" ... one can be both a victim of oppression and participant in others’ "
But Nichols’ brutal murder was not the only thing people were talking about. Some viewers of the video were shocked that black officers were at fault. “It actually hurts that it was five Black police officers who would do a young man like that. I never thought that would happen,” Cloyd Nightingale, a Memphis resident, said.
Police brutality is usually associated with white police officers. White police officers killed Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, and Daunte Wright, among too many others to count. But I don’t buy this shock that the officers were black. This shock only covers up the real issue: the system of police enforcement in America is racist.
White supremacy has always propped up policing in this country, beginning with the early American “Slave Patrol.” Those who joined spread terror, apprehending and ‘returning’ enslaved peoples to their ‘owners.’ After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era, militia-style groups enforced Black Codes, targeting Black Americans. These codes enforced racial segregation and limited the economic and voting abilities of black communities. Eventually, these militia-style groups began to establish themselves as local police departments, and they enforced Jim Crow Laws until the late 1960s.
These law enforcement groups were extremely white and closed off to black people. And the racist ideologies they were founded on persist.
There’s an idea that black people are a part of one big community, that we look out for one another. We are never supposed to harm one another, only support and uplift. This idea, perpetuated by outsiders looking in, is simply not true. The truth is that black cops can kill black civilians, and the system supports their actions. In 2015, three of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black. Later, all six officers in that case were either acquitted or had charges dropped.
Four of the five officers that killed Tyre Nichols had violations on their record, either for failure to disclose the use of physical force, failure to report a domestic dispute, or for damages sustained to the squad cruisers. Yet, they were still on the job. They were still the ones on the streets responsible for “protecting” the people of Memphis.
The lack of accountability for police officers in America is a problem that transcends the race of any individual officer. As we saw with the black officers that killed Tyre Nichols, one can be both a victim of oppression and participant in others’.
" ... police continue to get away with murdering people of color, even with their body cameras turned on "
Besides race, there is no difference between a black cop and a white cop. Both are cops. The only reason there is an outcry about the cops being black is to cast a bad light on the police reform movement. People against police reform– the same people that deny our system of policing targets and oppresses black people– want to say we are not racist. And some are using the crimes of the black officers that killed Nichols to do so.
Right-wing opposers of police reform continue to blame everything but the systemic failings of our police institutions for the horrific crimes officers commit against the people they are supposed to protect:
"Tyre Nichols, was a black man beaten to death.
By black Officers.
In a Democrat city.
With a Democrat Mayor.
With a Democrat City Council.
With a Democrat Congressman.
Charlie DiLorenzo, a Twitter user who describes himself as ‘Unapologetically American’ and an ‘Anti-conformist,’ tweeted this on February 8th, less than a month after Tyre Nichols death. In this tweet, DiLorenzo implies that democratic cities and liberal politicians are to blame.
Democratic cities and politicians are part of the problem. It was never the case that they weren’t. But using this tragedy to attack left-wing politics is nothing more than deflection. This problem is bigger than a political party.
“Tyre Nichols’ death does not demonstrate white supremacy. Rather, Tyre Nichols’ death demonstrates a need to inflame the fear of white supremacy,” Bobby Burack, a writer for Outkick, a Fox-owned conservative media organization, wrote. The organization claims to expose “the destructive nature of “woke” activism.”
In Burack’s article, he claimed that “the Left” wants to manufacture racial tensions so they can leverage them for political power. “A racialized society is susceptible to the manipulation of information,” he argued.
I strongly disagree with Burack. Society and policing have always been racialized. Black people were once denied loans because people believed that their presence in white neighborhoods would cause property values to decline. During the early 19 century, Historically Black Colleges and Universities were created to provide educational opportunities to black youth, who before the Civil War were discouraged and often prohibited from attending university. Today, police continue to get away with murdering people of color, even with their body cameras turned on.
The concept of race is the foundation of this country. While we can never truly decenter race within our society, we can recognize how it has historically and continues to impact us. We can also recognize that race does not stop anyone from being a killer.
Black and white police officers carry the same views within their job because it is just that: a job. Rather than accepting police officers, and the criminal justice system, as the end-all-be-all of morals and ethics, we should understand that officers are just people in uniform with the power and money to get away with violence against the communities they are supposed to serve.
In 2023, Memphis’ proposed budget for “police services” was $284 million - an almost $9 million increase from 2022. These funds could be allocated to community centers and resources for vulnerable populations. That money could uplift the communities that police violence continues to plague.
Grieving mothers and family members should not have to beg for legislation that will end this violence. Stop supporting the police. Stop supporting candidates that are pro-police. This is a matter of life and death.