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Op-Ed: What finally sunk me on the Memphis videos? Five Black officers’ embrace of racist depravity

Protest signs that read "End Police Terror" on a sidewalk with people's shadows
Protest signs in front of the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters on Saturday, the day after the release of videos of Tyre Nichols being beaten by officers in Memphis, Tenn.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )
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This one hurts.

Of course, they all do, all the deaths of Black people at the hands of police, deaths that continue to be among the most painful and potent reminders that racism is not some abstract problem but a precept of American life that’s particularly evident in street-level law enforcement. The death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols joins too many other, similar reminders, from Trayvon Martin to Breonna Taylor to George Floyd. These are deaths that simultaneously stoke our national conscience and grow our national shame.

But this tragedy is also different. I know because my reaction is different. Usually — terrible to even have to say that — these excessive-force scandals outrage me. I want to hash out the details immediately with other people, post comments, attend a protest. But Nichols’ death had the opposite effect. After watching the video, I collapsed.

Pain hit me like a migraine; my senses overwhelmed, I just wanted to get into bed and turn the lights out. I wanted desperately to unsee what I’d seen: five Black cops, over the course of an hour, hunting down and violently assaulting a young Black man as if it was their right, without a shred of remorse. The atmosphere in the video footage was tense but at points almost gleeful, as if the officers were contestants in an urban version of “The Hunger Games.” It hit a new level of appalling.

The Tyre Nichols beating video is being cited as evidence that race isn’t a factor in excessive police force, policing can’t be reformed, a few bad cops are ruining the profession, nothing has changed in law enforcement, and victims of police violence are to blame. But the video shows none of that.

Jan. 30, 2023

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I know what many people, especially Black people, are thinking now, what they’ve already said: This isn’t a problem of Black-on-Black violence; it’s a problem of police culture. Systemic racism is the culprit. Cops of all colors embrace a bedrock notion that Blackness is suspect, dangerous and punishable by injury or death. The racial optics of the Nichols killing are awful but no more or less awful than all the other cellphone and body-cam footage we’ve seen in other cases with other cops. And this is hardly the first time that officers of color have been involved in high-profile brutality.

I get all that. I totally agree that without endemic racism built and nurtured by white people, we wouldn’t be here — again. But none of that lessens the personal horror I feel at watching Black officers unleash the full force of that racism on a single unarmed Black man. It doesn’t alleviate the anguish of seeing the most pernicious effects of internalized racism — the little-discussed phenomenon of Black people devaluing their own the same way the rest of the world does — on such public display.

When we think of internalized racism, we tend to think of street gangs like the Crips and Bloods killing each other, which is deplorable. But violence committed against ordinary Black people by Black cops who are sworn to protect and serve communities already reeling from violence is beyond deplorable; it’s depraved.

It is the easy, almost thoughtless embrace of that depravity by the Black officers in Memphis that really sunk me. From the first moment of the encounter with Nichols, they bullied, threatened and threw around profanities like they were itching for a bar fight.

They didn’t bother to tell a clearly terrified Nichols what he was being stopped for. They knew, as cops and as Black men, that no explanation was required. Being part of a special unit charged with reducing the homicide rate in Black neighborhoods emboldened them further: Using any force necessary to tamp down Black criminality, a spurious given, is a time-honored American tradition.

While the video of Nichols’ beating by five since-fired Memphis police officers racked up nearly 2 million views in less than 24 hours, some people say they’re refusing to watch the footage because it feels exploitive of Black grief.

Jan. 29, 2023

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I get all that too. What flattened me up-close, in real time, was the officers’ absolute refusal to see Nichols as human or, at least, as a citizen with rights. They shout at him contradictory orders that are impossible to obey, designed to confuse. When Nichols initially seems to be trying to address them as fellow humans and fellow Black men — “OK, dude, dang” is one thing he exclaims when they yank him out of the car onto the ground — they double down, as if he had insulted them. His screams of pain and fear, informing the officers he had asthma, calling out to his mother who lived nearby, moved them not at all.

It was shattering, especially after the trauma of George Floyd and the national awakening about the nature of racism, about the racism embedded in policing, that Black people from all walks of life have long understood and experienced.

I’d be willing to bet that those officers now facing murder charges understand racism very well. But they could still compartmentalize, draw a bright line between us and them — between cops and Black people, between upstanding Black folk and whomever they deem Black riffraff. Each line is bad on its own, but when they operate together, the outcome is noxious, and deadly. It’s racism on steroids.

I hate that I feel the need to say this: Tyre Nichols was a human being. He was a young man who loved skateboarding, whose life mattered. He was simply, in his infinite vulnerability and possibility so brutally cut short, one of us.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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