Tyre Nichols’ killing a fresh reminder of us police brutality

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Every so often, America and the world wake up to yet another incident of sheer police brutality against African-American people, particularly men, who have become accustomed to the reality that they are “moving targets”.

Such unadulterated police brutality against black people because of the colour of their skin is a huge stigma on America’s image as a self-proclaimed leader of the free world.

As expected, the fatal attacks on black people are followed by a chorus of condemnation from the State and some sections of civil society groupings that predictably calls for a review of gun laws and the ease with which citizens can access guns.

The US media networks are never left behind in the fierce debate. They churn rafters of news analysis about what’s wrong with America. Across many States, violent protest that often leads to confrontation with the police ensues, resulting in louder chants of Black Lives Matter. Typically, soon each police brutality act is forgotten, if not forgiven by the powerful public opinion shapers who permeate every news outlet from print to broadcast and online platforms. And then, before the ink dries up, life goes back to a sad normal that is a template for a repeat – soon – of yet another black man, or woman, being attacked by blood-thirsty miscreants masquerading as police officers who are practically a law unto themselves.

The recent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, has not only brought back focus on the diabolical phenomenon in the US but has raised further debate about the impact of State power on the politics of race as well as the effect of State power on racial solidarity.

Of course, this discourse has been necessitated by the fact that Nichols’ attackers, nay, killers – who were caught on body cameras – were all black. This is indeed a rarity. In most cases, Black folks fall victim to the brutality of white cops, not their own supposed “brothers” who should display a significant degree of racial solidarity.

The five Memphis police officers who now stand accused of the murder of Nichols, aged 29, have been summarily dismissed from their post as part of addressing public outcry and mitigating possible riots. Their unit, the Scorpions, has also been disbanded.

The dirty cops have been identified as Tadarrius Beam, Demetrius Haley, Emmit Martin, Desmond Mill Jr and Justin Smith.

They will correctly be ostracised by their predominantly black community in Memphis. Sadly, their families would be stigmatised for their dastardly act, and accordingly shunned in reaction to the role their loved ones played in a diabolical act of public shame.

A sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, has also been suspended pending the finalization of the investigation into Nichols’ murder. She was captured in her body cam screaming shamelessly: “I hope they stomp his ass,” referring to Nichols.

Nichols will be laid to rest this Wednesday in Memphis. His funeral is expected to arouse deep-seated but dormant feelings of ill will towards the notorious police industry.

Civil Rights firebrand Rev Al Sharpton is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at the funeral, just as he did at the funeral of George Floyd in May 2020 and at many other places across Black America.

Knowing Rev Sharpton as I do, he will most likely talk about the evil side of racial power relations and the sheepish assimilation of black cops into the mainstream anti-African-American police phenomenon.

The killing of Nichols clearly brings this point home in crystal clear terms. Nichols was most probably hopeful that being stopped by the black cops posed a much lesser threat to his life than if he were to be stopped by their white counterparts. But, alas! poor Nichols would have been all wrong. The black cops that he most probably addressed as “brothers” on a regular basis were like sheep in wolf’s skin – waiting for a chance to pounce on him someday. And that day was January 7, 2023, although details of the incident only became known weeks later.

This is a sad indictment of the American socio-political make-up and the society at large. America’s imperfections are too long to list one-by-one.

A timeline of major incidents involving police officers that resulted in the deaths of African-Americans since 17 July 2014 includes:

*Eric Garner, who was wrestled to the ground by a New York police on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes.

*Michael Brown – August 2014: Aged only 18, he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on suspicion that he stole a box of cigars.

*Tamir Rice – November 2014: The 12-year-old was gunned down by a trigger-happy cop in Cleveland, Ohio, following reports of a male who was “probably a juvenile” pointing a gun that was “probably fake” at passers-by.

*Walter Scott – April 2015: He was fatally shot five times in the back after a white officer in North Charleston, South Caroline, pulled him over for having a defective light on his car.

*Alton Sterling – July 2016: He was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by two officers who did not face criminal charges. *Philando Castile – July 2016: He was shot dead after being pulled over by police while driving with his girlfriend in St Paul, Minnesota.

*Stephan Clarke – March 2018: He was shot seven times in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California, by police who were investigating a break-in nearby.

*Breonna Taylor – March 2020: the 26-year-old emergency medical technician was shot eight times when officers raided her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky.

*George Floyd – May 2020: He of the famous cry “I can’t breathe!” He was arrested in Minneapolis and held down by irate cops, one of whom had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.

*Daunte Wright – April 2021: He was shot and killed after being pulled over by the police in Brooklyn Centre, north of Minneapolis.

The truth is, the list of black victims of police brutality is simply too long. It exposes the racial inequality that is a remnant of slavery and although erased from the statute books, remains practically evident, as the empirical data shows.

On paper, America is the most-free country in the world, where equality and access to opportunities are central to the much-revered notion of “living the dream”. However, as the above synopsis of cases of select police brutality shows, the US is not yet a paradise for the millions of Blacks who were born and bred in the country.

Hopefully, someday, all this will change. Just as slavery was abolished so too, shall the practice of racist police behaviour become a thing of the past across the entire American way of life. In that way, the deaths of hordes of African-American heroes such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and W.E.B. Du Bois who died for the emancipation of Black Americans would not be in vain.

Abbey Makoe is an opinion contributor focussing on international relations.