Opinion: The Slow Burn

By: Eugene Caibal

The visceral beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis leaves no room for question: policing feeds the cycle of systemic racism

On a cold January night, five police officers of the Memphis City Police Department brutally beat a 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, a Black motorist who was accused by the officers of speeding and reckless endangerment. What precipitated that night is an example of how police violence is part of systemic racism in what is—ironically, called the criminal justice system. 

That night, upon arresting Nichols, they yelled at him and threatened to taser him, even though Nichols was calm and was already on the ground. 

He then took off from the officers, not because he had drugs, had a warrant, or was a criminal, but because he feared for his life. When police finally caught up to him, they beat him bloody, breaking his neck and face, and leaving him unrecognizable to his family. He died three days after the incident, succumbing to his injuries.

This case, sadly, is nothing new to the United States. Hundreds die annually due to police encounters, with Mapping Police Violence reporting that nearly 1,200 died as a result of police encounters in 2022 alone. Black people were three times more likely to die as a result of police encounters, making up 26% of all people killed despite only being 13% of the United States population. It is horrifying how these cases of police brutality keep happening, and yet no real reforms have been made to the US policing system. 

Policing in the United States revolves around the tactic of minority oppression through violence, harming minority communities, and seeking to incarcerate black and brown inmates into prison to prolong the traditional social norms upheld under 18th-century slavery. Those that try to resist this violence, such as Tyre Nichols when he tried to escape the clutches of the Memphis police officers, are met with even further violence and brutalization in an attempt to scare communities into submission.

In a paper written in The Conversation, Clare Courbould, an Associate Professor at Deakins University, described how the roots of modern policing are intrinsically tied to the oppression of immigrant and minority groups. She wrote that “since [George] Floyd’s murder, [many have noted] the origins of U.S. policing lie in the control of supposedly disorderly populations– whether of enslaved people or, after the end of slavery, an impoverished class of laborers including Black people and immigrants.” 

This oppression is not accidental: these tactics of violent policing against minority communities directly contribute to systemic racism, even drawing from 18th-century slavery practices. 

In a report written by Kala Bhattar published by the University of Alabama, the first unofficial forms of policing in the American South appeared as “slave patrols,” bands of hunters in charge of hunting down fugitive slaves and bringing them back to their masters. Potential slave rebellions were a “threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts,” Bhattar wrote. 

Even after prisoners are arrested and released, many still find their way back to prison, a process coined as the Revolving Door Phenomenon. According to Bhattar, this “is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented.”

Because of the increased rates of incarceration among minority communities like the black and brown, LGBTQ, and those who are mentally ill, they tend to be more likely to fall victim to the Revolving Door and its societal effects. This cycle of incarceration fans the flames of poverty and homelessness within these communities, turning the door once again and keeping these communities down. 

The entire policing system, and the subsequent judicial system beneath it, still hold these values of minority oppression, even when police chiefs and conservatives say they do not. With prisoners not having the right to refuse forced labor imposed on them, prisons make profits on inmate labor for pennies on the dollar, or sometimes not even paying the inmates at all

Courbould argues that “The ‘justice system’ in the United States generates enormous revenue for a small group of people,” that being the prison officials who siphon on labor in the form of staffing call centers and making garments. These prisoners are often disproportionately black, with the University of Texas School of Law reporting that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.

“Where African-descended people were once enslaved to provide cheap labour, they are now policed, charged, indicted, and incarcerated at staggering rates,” Corbould said.

The officers, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, and Justin Smith face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. All five were black, and all made bail by Friday morning, less than 24 hours after their arrests.

However, the fact that all the officers were black is not an exception: it is an indictment of the system. It was not just the five convicted of murder that were present at the scene of the beating: EMT personnel as well as other officers were on the scene just minutes after the beating occurred, and yet none called out the behavior of the five offending officers. Under the supervision of their fellow officers of the Memphis PD, five officers bashed an innocent 29-year-old black man lifeless, yet none protested their actions at the scene of the crime.

There is no possible scenario where these police officers’ actions are justified. The city of Memphis must serve justice. We must never forget Tyre Nichols and the countless other black and brown people brutally taken by militant police forces who continue to oppress minority communities throughout the nation. 
Change must occur within our police system for the better. Not just in this case, but in the whole system. Police violence is part of a larger system of racism endemic to the United States. Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people, feeding the system of prison labor that still holds elements of 18th-century slavery. Reforms must be made to the system as a whole, and restrictions on policing as well as policing as a form of intimidation must be enacted. Unless true action is met, protests will turn into riots, and cities will continue to burn until justice is delivered.