The nation has been rocked by the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Memphis resident, at the hands of five members of the Tennessee city's police department. On January 7, 2023, at 8:25PM, Nichols was stopped by police at a traffic intersection due to an alleged charge of reckless driving (though no evidence has come forward to substantiate that claim). Upon stopping Nichols, officers at the scene pulled him from his vehicle and threw him down on the ground, initiating an encounter ultimately involving five policemen and encompassing approximately 15 minutes of violence without the young man ever fighting back. An ambulance arrived at 9:02PM to take Nichols to the hospital. He died of his injuries on January 10th.
On January 26th, the five officers who killed Nichols, all Black men, were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, assault and misconduct; bodycam videos of the incident were released to the public the following day on January 27th. In a reflection on this harrowing cross of police brutality and Black-on-Black crime, artist and writer Ciaran Short, co-founder of the ALL ST NYC community, shares an op-ed about the toxic masculinity and racism underlying the case.
Reacting to the Murder of Tyre Nichols
On Friday, January 27th, I turned 25 years old. Rather than going out and celebrating on the night of my 25th birthday, I decided to ring in a quarter century on this earth with my eyes glued to a computer screen, scrolling through the City of Memphis’s Vimeo page. The footage of Tyre Nichols getting beaten to death had just been released.
I understand the trepidation many have in viewing such footage; I see merit in arguments for and against the sharing of such heavy content. Ultimately, I think it’s a personal decision that people need to make for themselves; having clips and soundbites being spread ubiquitously across the internet and social media is a reckless practice and inconsiderate of those who don’t want to be further traumatized by such horrific imagery. I, however, didn’t accidentally stumble upon anything, but intentionally sought these videos out.
I tore through the videos. I watched them slowed down, sped up, with my eyes closed to accentuate certain moments of audio, I honed in on watching different officers during different viewings. I was desperate to find something. This story had gripped and deeply unsettled me and the video would perhaps provide answers.
When the identities of the five police officers involved were initially released, I was appalled and deeply confused. I didn't understand how five Black men not only let this happen but actively took part in the killing of another Black person. Further, it wasn’t a split second decision; Tyre Nichols was not shot and dead in an instant, he was continuously punched, kicked, tased, pepper sprayed and bludgeoned with a baton. Distinct decisions were made to ignore Tyre’s humanity as he was bombarded with an onslaught of abuse. There should have been moments of pause and contemplation in the recognition of the bruises inflating upon Tyre’s face, the strain in his harrowing cries for help, and the limpless of his weakening body. Rather than exercising restraint, five people all decided to push further.
Toxic Masculinity, Police Brutality, and Tyre Nichols' Death
After scouring the video for insight and clues, what I kept going back to was what transpired following the final attack on Tyre Nichols as he laid in the street, barely conscious, seemingly drifting towards death. The continually growing mass of officers did little to help Tyre other than prop him up against a car like a lifeless sack slowly falling over onto itself. They stood around watching this and spoke amongst themselves. Missing from their discussions was regret, concern, or even a modicum of panic. Instead, they commiserated in their shared experience as if they had survived a battle of epic proportions and it wasn’t five armed men mercilessly tormenting a lone individual.
Although the context of their situation was extremely unique, the content of their conversations and the manner in which they communicated was intrinsically familiar to me. It was just a bunch of men posturing to flex their masculinity, a commonplace exercise in masking insecurity and embarrassment. Having grown up playing sports, having had the unfortunate luck of being in fights and seeing friends get into fights, and generally being among concentrated groups of men, such talk about asserting one’s physical dominance upon opponents, enemies and strangers is widely accepted. I’ve heard nearly every man I’ve known say something to the effect of, “If so and so would have done that, I would have done x, y, and z to him.”
When I saw Tyre Nichols’ arms held behind his back by two officers assuming the positions of every classic bully and mafia trope to allow for a third officer to freely wail upon him, my first impulse wasn’t to sign a petition or post about it, I had an overwhelming urge to run up on those officers and start swinging. I thought, “It wasn’t a fair fight, it wasn’t a fight at all but a coordinated assault. Obviously those officers are cowards and if another dude and I were there with Tyre that night we might have been able to take ‘em.” Such delusional machismo, that I’m aware has infiltrated my manner of thinking and being, is what I know allowed this to happen in the first place.
Black-on-Black Crime? The Police Officers, Systemic Racism, and Tyre Nichols
Often, the cops who commit such atrocious acts of police brutality are so removed from the experiences of their victims that, although it is horrific, it’s easier to find reason. These assailants, however, were five Black men who had almost certainly experienced some forms of prejudice and violence in their lives. On a surface level, these men were no different from Tyre Nichols and just as easily could have taken his place in a “routine” traffic stop that went bad.
There’s been a lot of use of the word “gang” in reference to the five officers, and certainly their actions were vicious and cruel, but the association with the word gang is used to highlight the lawlessness of the officers' actions. This usage situates the police in a diametrically opposed position as bastions of the legal system and thus making this a greater sin, but in actuality the dubious practices of police departments have long operated outside the bounds of the law. Further perpetuating the use of this racially charged word in reference to this crime is counterintuitive as it distances these men from who they really are and focuses on their race in alignment with the looming specter of Black-on-Black crime which obscures what's at the heart of this situation. These men were not in a gang, they were trained police officers.
The police system in America accentuates and awards the most dangerous aspects of toxic masculinity in the celebration of physical prowess, displays of force, blind loyalty, and codes of silence. The patriarchal nature of society is embedded into the institutions that were erected to preserve the unequal power structures of a race and gender based hierarchy. As seen in this instance, the agents of institutions either unknowingly or not are indoctrinated to a point of self-disintegration.
When these officers saw Tyre Nichols, they no longer saw themselves akin to him: he was a Black criminal and they were the law. The egregious recklessness with which they behaved indicates an innate confidence that these officers believed what they were doing was either okay or that they wouldn’t see any discipline. Either way, such a line of thinking highlights the function of the police as an arm of a punitive and unrelenting legal system, unconcerned with justice or validity, just violent results.
Do you have thoughts about this case? Share them with us by reaching out at @honeysucklemagazine on Instagram and @HoneysuckleMag on Twitter.
Find Out More On Social
Featured image: Still from the bodycam footage of the beating of Tyre Nichols; screengrab courtesy of NBC News.