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Stiehm: Blood on many Memphis hands: To be Black at a traffic stop

By Jamie Stiehm - | Feb 2, 2023

Jamie Stiehm

A 21st-century policing pattern has emerged from Freddie Gray in Baltimore, George Floyd in Minneapolis and now the death of a young man, Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, who ran for his life toward home.

Plainly, we see police travel in packs to minor incidents that get violent very quickly. Their prey is a Black man, almost always.

Standard practice is to press them to the ground. Packs are made worse by the militarization of police forces in soldier gear and old Pentagon hardware.

This is a national pattern of lethal violence that must be arrested.

A pack of six chased Gray one morning for nothing and he died in police custody. A pack of four choked and murdered Floyd for a $20 bill. We’re told Nichols, 29, was stopped in traffic in his neighborhood for reckless driving.

For that, five Black Memphis police officers joined in a gruesome beating that became a bloody murder. Each was arrested for murder.

When Nichols lay near dying, the pack breathed heavy, so hard had they exerted themselves in chasing, punching and pepper spraying him, swearing in hateful shouts. Nobody rendered aid when he was in agony for near half an hour.

Can you imagine how heartbreaking it is that Nichols called out for his mother that night? He was close to home, but not close enough for her to hear.

Those officers belonged to the so-called elite Scorpion unit. Very nice. Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis launched that aggressive band of brothers, right away when she took charge last year.

I found the chief’s performance on-camera to be just that. She washed her hands of Nichols’ blood and spoke sweetly of a “lack of humanity” — and of course, “the community.”

Since this horror happened on her watch, Davis should resign. She was fired from the Atlanta police department years ago.

A Black woman, Davis and her Scorpion squad (now gone) illustrate another bleak truth of 21st-century policing.

The police culture/civilian line can be thicker than the color line. That explains why a group of Black officers could pummel a young Black man.

Hostility to civilians festers when police officers travel in packs and try to outdo one another. In Baltimore, where I was a reporter, I witnessed overwhelming force in a “police riot.”

You may recall law enforcement tanks on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, that practically declared war on citizens even in peaceful protests.

In truth, it goes back to the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when “homeland security” changed our public spaces and sowed official distrust of everyday people: totally, us versus them.

Thanks, guys.

There are exceptions, like the well-trained Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C. They know how to handle demonstrations. Eight hundred rushed to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and saved many of us from mob violence.

But we can’t let go of the tragic truth before us. Serious reform is needed now. There should be not one more death by police like this.

To judge from his social media posts, Nichols was a daring skateboard aerial athlete and an “aspiring photographer.” He held a job as a FedEx driver and sounded like a free spirit, saying, “Hey guys, my name is Tyre D. Nichols.”

Somehow the “D” gets to me.

As a white woman, I got a mild taste of how the police can take it all away — freedom — leaving bruises behind. That happened at the violent police scene I was trying to cover.

Strangely, there is a connection to the recent Idaho college murders. Three young women and one man were stabbed to death as they slept at dawn.

The police and press searched for a motive. When the suspect was arrested, it was likely M for misogyny. (Did you note how nicely the white male suspect was treated at traffic stops?)

The suspect chose his victims carefully, spying for weeks before he broke into their shared house. A criminology student, he was known to spew venom at women in class.

The male victim was spending the night; he was not an intended target.

Nichols and the three women victims were caught in the crux of being young, Black or female.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.


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