Protesters across the United States rage against the police killing of Tyre Nichols

Protests intensified over the weekend after the release of video footage of the police officers beating up Tyre Nichols. The city of Memphis was forced to disband the Scorpion Unit to which the officers belonged, a key demand of the protesters

January 31, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Protesters in Boston demand justice for Tyre Nichols who was beaten to death by police officers. Photo: Party for Socialism and Liberation

Protests continued across the United States over the weekend in the wake of the death of a Black man, Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten up by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. 29-year-old Nichols, who was pulled by the police officers for alleged reckless driving, died on January 10, three days after the brutal attack. The protests against the police killing intensified on Friday, January 27, after the video footage of the attack was released.

Protesters gathered in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, and several other US cities to protest the brutality of Memphis police. Chants heard across the country – products of the contemporary anti-police brutality movement in the US – included “Indict, convict, send these killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” and the ubiquitous “No justice! No peace!”

In Memphis, demonstrators shut down the I-55 bridge over the Mississippi River on January 27.

“I’m tired of watching Black people die at the hands of police,” said LJ Abraham, speaking at a rally in Martyrs Park in Memphis on Friday. “It’s their job to make sure that we are safe, and they are the ones that are causing us the most harm. We pay their salaries. They work for us, we don’t work for them.”

“It is what it is. It is domestic terrorism,” she said.

Video footage implicates officers

As forewarned by Memphis city officials, the full video footage of the beating, obtained from police body camera and surveillance footage, showed the brutality and callousness of the officers who murdered Nichols.

The New York Times analyzed the multiple contradictory commands officers gave Nichols as they repeatedly punched, kicked, tasered, and brutalized him. “​​Officers commanded Mr. Nichols to show his hands even as they were holding his hands. They told him to get on the ground even when he was on the ground. And they ordered him to reposition himself even when they had control of his body,” the Times reported.

When officers first wrestled Nichols out of his car and on to the ground, he pleaded with them, saying, “I’m just trying to get home.” After getting pepper sprayed, Nichols fled on foot from the officers, running towards his mother’s house. Police caught him near his family’s home, and began to pummel him. Nichols never struck back, instead attempting to shield himself from the blows. At one point he began to cry out for his mother.

After the beating, the officers were heard laughing about the attack, with one of them saying, “Man, I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog.”

Some of the protesters also alleged negligence by emergency medics, who were first responders to the scene. After the beating, Nichols was propped up on the ground, with his back against a police car. Apart from helping Nichols sit up a few times as he kept listing to the side, the medics appeared to do very little to provide immediate aid. The footage revealed that medics only started to rummage through their bags to look for equipment to help Nichols 21 minutes after the beating.

Some have pointed out that since first responders rely so heavily on instruction from police officers, the police’s accusation that Nichols was on drugs could have affected his treatment by medics.

In fact, officers were heard making several unfounded accusations throughout the video footage. After the beating, two police officers remarked that Nichols had allegedly tried to grab their guns. Nichols “had his hand on my gun,” a cop said. “Motherfucker was holding it.” Another is heard saying, “Then he reached for [inaudible] gun.” The officers also claimed that Nichols swung at officers and that he nearly hit a police car with his vehicle. “We tried to get him stopped. He didn’t stop,” one officer claimed.

Some have claimed that false accusations can be a part of formal police and police-adjacent training. “I have been taught to yell ‘stop resisting’ and ‘drop your weapon’ after firing a gun, because bystanders will remember you said it and their memory will automatically reverse the order of the events to make it make sense. Their testimony will support yours, because of this,” tweeted Katie Sponsler, a former Park Ranger. Police in the US have a history of falsely claiming that victims of brutality were resisting arrest, as Minneapolis Police did with George Floyd’s murder, until video evidence proved otherwise.

The video also shows an unidentified white police officer pushing Nichols to the ground and tasing him. In a separate clip, an officer is heard shouting “I hope they stomp his ass!” after Nichols escaped from officers on foot. It’s unclear but possible that this officer is Preston Hemphill, who was quietly “relieved of his duty” on January 30, four days after the five Black officers who beat Nichols to death were arrested and charged with murder. It is unclear if Hemphill was fired, or suspended with or without pay. Some speculate that his apparently more lenient punishment by the Memphis Police Department is due to his skin color.

What is the Scorpion Unit?

Chants of  “Scorpion? Shut it down!” could also be heard Friday night in Memphis.

The “Scorpion Unit,” which stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, was launched in 2021 by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis to supposedly fight crime. Talking about the unit in May 2022, Davis said, “This unit basically targets some of the hot-spot areas where we saw frequent aggravated assaults and high crime.”

The five police officers charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols were part of the Scorpion Unit. Ben Crump and Antonio Ramanucci, lawyers for the Nichols family, wrote in a statement, “Officers [in units like Scorpion] tend to focus on Black and Brown members of the community and feel empowered to conduct ‘pre-textual’ stops, or stops without probable cause, saying they are pro-actively looking for guns or drugs. These often aggressive encounters flat out destruct trust between police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, but as we saw in the tragic and unnecessary death of Tyre Nichols, can also lead to physical injury or death when the culture of unchecked, pro-active policing overtakes common sense.”

Units like Scorpion exist in many US cities. In New York City, plainclothes police officers are nominally tasked with fighting gun violence. However, these cops have been responsible for several of the most high-profile police killings, including the murders of Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo. Other specialized and notoriously violent units across the country include Baltimore’s “Gun Trace Task Force” (GTF) and Washington DC’s “jump-out squads”.

Cornell McKinney, a Black man from Memphis, told News Channel 11 of his experience of brutality at the hands of the same cops that killed Nichols. McKinney recounted how police pulled him out of his car and placed a gun near his head. He claimed the cops tried to falsely accuse him of drug crimes and deny him his right to an attorney, only to let him go home after a short verbal standoff.

The Memphis Police Department announced on January 28 that it would be disbanding the Scorpion Unit directly following the loud expression, through protest, of this precise demand by Memphis residents.

“We see that being on the streets, we see that when the eyes are on them, when they make national news, that’s when they make changes,” said Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer Monica Johnson at the rally in Martyrs Park in Memphis on Friday night, referencing the rapid firings and arrests of the officers who murdered Nichols. “So we gotta keep that in our back pocket, and we gotta pull it out when necessary. Not just when we’re killed, when they wanna defund our schools. When they wanna tell us there’s no money for free school lunch. When they wanna tell us there’s no money for public housing. We also need to be on their ass.”