Photo: Tyre Nichols
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was mercilessly beaten to death earlier this month during a traffic stop by five Memphis Police Department officers. In a few hours, the video of his murder will be released to the public. Righteous outrage is already boiling across the country, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation will be joining thousands in the streets tonight to demand justice. Only mass action can revive the movement against police terror, and to end that terror ultimately requires a revolution — a change in who holds power in this country.
Tyre Nichols was a beloved father of a 4-year-old son who grew up in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis in 2020. Tyre “was a beautiful soul and he touched everyone,” his mother remembered at a press conference, and had a passion for photography. That he was pulled over in what seemed to be a simple traffic stop and then brutally beaten for three minutes while completely defenseless is testament to the utter inhumanity of the police in this country.
This horrific murder is part of the day-in and day-out terror that Black America is subjected to at the hands of the cops. The oppression, inequality and exploitation of Black people is a defining aspect of U.S. capitalism — in fact, it owes its existence to it. From the foundation of slavery, this unjust order has always been enforced through unspeakable violence, repression and intimidation — particularly aimed at the Black community. This is not only because it disproportionately faces all the concentrated evils of capitalism, but because it has the most militant tradition of rebellion in the empire’s urban centers.
That the five officers who murdered Tyre are Black does not change this fundamental fact. The role of the Memphis Police Department as an institution is to contain and control the Black community with as much brutality as it sees fit. Anyone who becomes an officer, regardless of who they are, is signing up to be part of this.
That the cops and their victim in this case share the same skin color also speaks to police terror as a feature of capitalism itself. Wherever inequality is the sharpest, from South Africa to Jamaica to Brazil, police brutality is widespread. Around the world, it is common for institutions of repression to enlist people who are from the very communities subjected to the worst repression.
The five police officers had been in MPD’s “SCORPION Unit,” which was started in 2021 supposedly to “flood the target area” to “fight crime.” But in reality, this “special unit” — which has many parallels in departments across the country — is well known for its obsession with violence and the terror it inflicts on people in Memphis. When speaking to local outlet WREG-TV, Cornell McKinney said that he was targeted by MPD’s SCORPION Unit on Jan. 3 while at a gas station — in an encounter where police told him, “Put your hands up before I blow your head off,” while falsely claiming he had drugs in the car. The SCORPION Unit must be immediately disbanded as Nichols’ family has called for.
Drawing lessons from the struggle
In 2020, tens of millions of people took to the streets across the country and around the world against racist police killings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. This was the largest protest movement in U.S. history. While the mass consciousness against police brutality is still there, the level of protest has declined significantly in the two and a half years since. That same spirit of resistance needs to be revived by demonstrating in huge numbers to demand justice.
But with each new wave of struggle, we also need to reflect on the lessons learned in past battles for justice. The fact is that more people are being killed by police than ever, hitting a record high of at least 1,176 last year. So why hasn’t the movement been as strong?
It is obvious that the capitalist state has studied 2020 closely from the standpoint of counter-insurgency, and is doing everything it can to manage the narrative around police violence in general and in the case of Tyre Nichols in particular, to prevent rebellion.
Since the 2020 uprising subsided, pro-police political forces have been on the offensive across the country. They exploited people’s concerns over rising violent crime, and falsely presented the cops as the only answer. All the Democratic Party politicians who were falling over themselves to adopt the rhetoric of anti-racism and make symbolic concessions in 2020, so as to tamp down the movement, have abandoned the facade. Joe Biden promised to “root out systemic racism,” but then last year released his “Safer America Plan,” which called for the hiring and training of 100,000 additional police officers. We should not forget that these same politicians largely endorsed and imposed the state curfews to stop the mobilizations during their most militant phase.
Meanwhile, the liberal arms of the capitalist state directed literally hundreds of millions of dollars to NGOs. The main function of this was to artificially build up a new layer of “leaders” without a revolutionary orientation, who typically represented little in the community, and ended up misleading and dispersing the movement into a thousand little pet projects rather than building it into a powerful national social force over the long term.
For several decades now, the dominant form of progressive organization has been the nonprofit, dependent on grants from large foundations and ruling-class donors, and operated primarily by salaried staff, rather than being dependent on and accountable to the masses of people. Regardless of the motivations of the individuals involved, this is not an organizational form capable of building a sustained people’s movement and succeeding in struggle against an enemy as formidable as the U.S. capitalist class. Political direction needs to come from grassroots leaders and organizations anchored in working-class communities.
The demands raised by the movement right now need to correspond with the overwhelming mass sentiment that cries out for justice. Killer cops should be locked up in prison, not only as a matter of justice for Tyre Nichols, but also to end the culture of impunity that emboldens police officers to carry out terrible abuses on a routine basis. Raising a vision for a new kind of society is an essential part of any uprising. But it should be threaded through the immediate demands that are capable of uniting millions in the streets, not counterposed to the yearnings for justice.
The police continue to kill with impunity all over the country. We need to turn the tide with massive mobilizations. Through unity and determination, the people can defeat the cops!