Being Black Has Never Protected Us From Black Police
Photo: Lucas Ninno/Getty Images

Being Black Has Never Protected Us From Black Police

The conversation around the race of Tyre Nichols’ murderers is not nearly as complex as some would like to make it

Three weeks ago, on January 7, five Memphis policemen brutally beat Tyre Nichols, a Black man guilty of no crime that we can ascertain. Nichols died three days later from his wounds. It is a death that would not have occurred if not for their actions, and for which the officers in question are not only unrepentant about, but fabricated a report to cover.

This is where we are now. After centuries of protests and demands in the interest of justice and Black survival, this is where we are. After the flare of worldwide protests in 2020—which netted us the worst year of police killings on record (2022) and more DEI training than you can shake a Black Lives Matter sign at—this is where we are.

Tyre Nichols was killed. Not immediately. Not right away. Not instantly, like we’re used to. They restrained him, beat him with their hands, maced him, then chased him when he feared he was about to be killed, then beat him some more, until he could not move. Afterwards, they stood near his seated and bleeding body, puffing their chests in that locker room way, as if they had just run a flawless game of 21 at a rec center court. They didn’t care what Tyre Nichols overheard or needed. They did not consider if any family were looking for him. They did not care that he was well out of the weight class of any one of them, let alone five of them. They did not care about his rights or his health or his anything. They did not care about the mother he was calling out for near the end. They did not care that he was drowning in their disinterest, cast aside like a toy played with too roughly once the stuffing began to leak from it.

That the five cops are Black is irrelevant because they're cops. If this comes as a shock to you or you think this somehow changes anything people who have been critical of policing have been saying, then you’re either obtuse or haven't been listening to Black people who aren’t cops. We told you about Black cops in Boyz n the Hood, when the Black cop put a gun to Tre's throat for no reason other than to terrorize someone powerless before his authority. We told you this in 1993 through KRS-One with the song "Black Cop." James Baldwin—who white people love telling you they studied in college—told you in 1985 in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, writing:

  • Black policemen were another matter.  We used to say, “If you just must call a policeman”—for we hardly ever did—“for god’s sake, try to make sure it’s a White one.” A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a White policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that though he was Black, he was not Black like you.

Don’t spend too much time getting hung up on the race of the officers in this case or any other. We’ve had this understanding with the police since Black people started putting on blue uniforms to “change things from within the system.” If there is one thing to come out of this specific public instance of horror and anti-Blackness, let it be that we stop pretending like adding perfectly decent Black people into horrific systems built entirely on their demise might actually be changed.

The inability to reform policing is not an issue of ignorance. This is, always has been, and always will be a question of will. Forget what people say about policing. Having an opinion is not having a position. We must constantly ask civic leaders what they’ve been doing about this rotten institution. How do they plan to overhaul a system so profoundly evil that it can make five Black officers—men who on a different day could’ve been pulled over and subjected to a similar violence themselves if not for their uniforms—torture a single terrified Black man into a dying daze?

Once police of any stripe have decided to harm you, you have no background, no context, no history. You become the object of whatever their biases may be. Being Black, you understand that those biases are almost always rooted in fear, guilt, or insecurity.

And because it is easy to allow the race of the officers to distract us from the deeper issues embedded in policing, I offer this observation. Yes, the five Black cops are being treated more harshly than in most cases of police abuse that we get to see. That doesn't ever mean treat them more like white cops. It means lobbying for more white cops to be treated like these five Black cops. (They could start with Preston Hemphill, the white officer who allegedly tased Tyre Nichols but hasn't been given the same attention as his cohorts.) Treat cops like cops, period, and we never have to have this conversation. But under no circumstance should we come remotely close to defending this gang of Memphis thugs against the racism they signed on to implement and sustain.

Upon hearing that Tyre Nichols was, among other things, a fan of photography, I was reminded of the science behind aperture. Camera lenses have diaphragms, and depending on how open or closed that diaphragm is determines how sharp or blurry a photo is. Not the whole picture, but the background behind whatever is closest to the lens. If the aperture is set low, lens opened wide, then the background is blurry. As you adjust the aperture to higher settings, the background comes into sharper focus.

Imagine Tyre Nichols that night. See him beaten by a gang of policemen in the dark. If you are someone who refuses to watch the video, just know that however you imagine that violence is just about right. In fact, all you can see is the violence that would eventually end his life. In that moment, there is no skateboard, no waiting child, no photography class. All of that is in the background somewhere, turned to smoke and dappled ghosts. We do not see any of those facets of Tyre in the face of such brutality. All we see are swinging limbs and fists, the holding up of a body that has no wind left in it, still being bludgeoned. That is what most of us saw in our minds when we first heard about this incident, sans video. All of our apertures regarding police violence are set low, but as some of us receive more information, the lens tightens and aspects of his life snap into focus. He becomes less of a target and more of a person. By contrast, the aperture of the policemen who killed Tyre Nichols was set to the most myopic level possible. In fact, they had no higher setting, focused only on the body in front of them, not as a person, but as a thing to tenderize into submission.

We so rarely see police officers stop during the commission of violence, or stop another officer in the act of violence, because they are incapable of seeing the subject of their abuse as a person. Once police of any stripe have decided to harm you, you have no background, no context, no history. You become the object of whatever their biases may be. Being Black, you understand that those biases are almost always rooted in fear, guilt, or insecurity. Being Black doesn’t protect you from Black police; it exacerbates such confrontations. That the officers were Black just means they can skip the part where you as a Black target see them for what they are: power drunk hands of a value-compromised state. Then it’s just a question of whether or not they see themselves in you or above you, and if they feel the need to prove it that day.

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