I have written about the murder of Tyre Nichols in each of my last three essays. This is unusual for me; ordinarily, I do not linger on a single event. But I have never seen a case that so perfectly captures so much of what is wrong with the myth and reality of policing in American life. So, with your indulgence, I will stay on this tragic night, in the hope that I might tease out some valuable lessons.
Perhaps most importantly, the Nichols murder challenges the oversimplified conception of authority and race that prevails in this country. For some people, the fact that five young, Black officers beat a young, Black suspect to death does not fit with their understanding of the way race operates in the United States, and in particular with the way racist policing operates.
That the Memphis SCORPION unit was created and championed by a Black police chief, in a city with a majority Black city council, creates even more confusion. When these people think of race and policing, the image of Derek Chauvin driving his knee into the neck of George Floyd is much easier to comprehend. As horrific as Floyd’s murder was, they could make sense of it by anchoring it to their preconceptions about race and policing.
But supposing that police brutality is merely an expression of anti-Black racism leaves far too much of political, historical, and economic life unexamined. As the historian Robin Kelley put it in 2016, “if we argue that state violence is merely a manifestation of anti-blackness because that is what we see and feel, we are left with no theory of the state and have no way of understanding racialized police violence in places such as Atlanta and Detroit, where most cops are black” (emphasis in original).
The silver lining in the Nichols murder is that it forces us to seek explanations for police violence far beyond the behavior of individual officers. In any given case, an officer may be a racist, and in any given case, that racism might contribute to the result. But as Kelley suggests, the more fruitful approach is to think of police violence as the end result of a racialized process. This widens our lens from the individual to the systemic, and places both policing and crime in their social context.
This is less esoteric and academic than it sounds. Criminologists have long known, for instance, that certain types of crime and disorder tend to appear in particular environments. Likewise, we have long known how those environments come into being. We know, for example, that if you create an environment where a small number of people have access to potentially valuable insider information, some of them will cheat the system and commit financial fraud. The environment, in other words, is criminogenic of a particular sort of crime.
To prevent the crime, we pay attention not merely to the back end by punishing insider trading, but to the front end by altering the environment. We require publicly traded companies to make timely and detailed financial disclosures, and we punish them severely in the marketplace if they fail in that obligation. Indeed, of the two forms of regulation, altering the environment is vastly more important because it helps create a transparent playing field for all investors, which is essential to an open market and without which investors will not participate. Punishment after the fact simply does not engender the same kind of trust in the process.
Similarly, we know that if you create an environment where wages are depressed and mobility is low, and where schooling is deficient, a small number of people will try to cheat the system by selling what the law forbids them to sell. Likewise, if you create an environment where people live in substandard housing with poor or unreliable transportation, in a neighborhood marked by a high incidence of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and mismanaged property, a small number of people will engage in various types of disorder.
And if you create an environment where residents must endure extravagantly high levels of stress without access to adequate mental health services, many people will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. We know that some of these people will become addicted, which will lead inevitably to additional crime and disorder of various types. Some of this crime will be violent as people try to sustain their addiction and other people try to profit from it.
And finally, we know that if you put all these things together in a single location, you will create the sort of places where the SCORPION unit spent its time.
But importantly, we also know how these places were created. We know the history of de jure housing segregation that ended in 1968 and de facto segregation that didn’t; of deindustrialization and disinvestment; of unequal access to capital and liquidity; of flat wages and shrinking unions; of unfunded social services, inequitable distribution of green space, and unjust concentrations of environmental pollution. We know the politics that produced this history and these places. We know the economic choices that prioritized distant suburbs over city centers and highways over bus lanes. We know all this in granular detail, and we know the debt this history owes to racial prejudice. This is the history of race and political economy in American life.
Yet unlike with insider trading, when we imagine solutions for these places, we fixate primarily on back-end punishment rather than front-end changes to the environment. We suppose crime and disorder are pathologies of the people who live there rather than a predictable response to a particular environment. Sadly, punishing and regulating the people who live in these places has become the primary role of the modern urban police force. And when people in positions of power feel that things have gotten out of hand in places like Memphis, they demand units like SCORPION. It’s not fair to the police or the public, but it happens all the same. From this perspective, SCORPION is not a mistake at all. It is precisely what we would expect from the history that preceded it.
This history is what Robin Kelley means when he says, quite rightly, that police violence of the sort visited upon Tyre Nichols is the end stage of a long, ugly, thoroughly racialized process. To suppose that this violence happens only because, and only when, a White officer beats a Black suspect—to suppose, in other words, that it is paradigmatically what happened to George Floyd—ignores this entire history.
If there is a saving grace in the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols, it is that it brings this history to the surface, where it belongs.