On Jan. 7, Memphis police officers beat a black man to death.
But this incident was a little different than past high-profile police brutality incidents.
All of the officers involved were black.
Perhaps this will make people realize that police brutality isn’t a racial problem. It’s a policing problem.
Officers initially pulled over Tyre Nichols, 29, for reckless driving, but Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis told the Associated Press the department has been unable to substantiate the reckless driving allegation.
Based on descriptions of the video footage, Nichols was initially calm. Officers were not.
“As the officer approaches the scene, an officer is yelling at Nichols to ‘Get the fuck out of the car.'”
Davis told the AP that officers were “already ramped up, at about a 10.” She described the officers as “aggressive, loud, using profane language and probably scared Mr. Nichols from the very beginning.”
After a brief scuffle, Nichols tried to run. When officers caught him. They beat him to death.
Police violence is almost always framed by race. According to the narrative, racist cops are beating up black people. But that frame falls apart in this case. Everybody involved was African-American.
This underscores a point that I’ve been trying to make for years. Police violence is about the police, not race.
I don’t deny that racism exists in America’s police departments. I recognize that, in general, policing falls disproportionately on minority communities. But this obscures the deeper underlying problem. A culture of authoritarianism and violence pervades America’s law enforcement agencies. It’s an institutional problem that has little to nothing to do with race.
Command and Control
Simply put, policing has morphed from “protect and serve” to “command and control.”
I wrote this back in 2020 after New York Police beat an 84-year-old man after stopping him for jaywalking.
“I agree that most cops are not ‘bad people.’ But the problem is they work within an institution that has become increasingly obsessed with authoritarianism and violence. Sadly, even ‘good’ people eventually buy into their institutional culture. And when that culture embraces aggressive violence as an acceptable first response to any perceived resistance to its authority, it leads to old men getting the crap beat out of them because they try to walk away from a jaywalking ticket.”
I blame the “war on drugs.”
In the early 1970s, Pres. Nixon fired the opening salvo.
We must wage what I have called ‘total war’ on public enemy number one in the United States – the problem of dangerous drugs.”
While Nixon declared war, Pres. Ronald Reagan kicked it into high gear. Spending on the drug war tripled in the 1980s and 37 federal agencies entered the fray.
But the feds couldn’t fight the war alone, so they enlisted the help of state and local law enforcement. The U.S. government armed local cops with military-grade weapons and trained them in military tactics. They encouraged the use of asset forfeiture to incentivize state and local law enforcement agencies to prioritize fighting drug crimes in order to reap a financial windfall.
Simply put, the unconstitutional war on drugs serves as the driving force behind police militarization, domestic mass surveillance and aggressive policing in urban areas. By prohibiting certain substances, the federal government created a black market. When black markets exist, they create immense financial incentives to deal in the forbidden goods. The opportunity to make millions of dollars in the black markets leads to organized criminal syndicates willing to use violence to protect their market.
This comes as no surprise. History already taught us this. Alcohol prohibition brought you the mafia.
With their “war on drugs,” the feds created violent cartels and perfect markets for criminal gangs to exploit, leading to rampant street violence and crime. Then the feds used the existence of these violent cartels and street gangs to justify militarizing your local police department. Now, instead of peace officers committed to ‘serving and protecting’ their local communities, we have heavily armed soldiers fighting a “war” – a “war” that happens to prove very profitable for their bosses. (Think federal grants and asset forfeiture.)
And we wonder why we’ve witnessed a huge increase in cops using excessive force and operating with an “any means necessary” mentality. Too many police officers view themselves as soldiers on the battlefield, not “peace officers” protecting their neighbors.
After all, when you dress local cops like soldiers, arm them like soldiers, train them like soldiers, tell them they’re fighting a “war,” and that everybody they come across is a potential enemy, how do you expect them to behave?
Why is anyone surprised when they act like soldiers instead of peace officers?
National Police State
During debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution, Patrick Henry warned about the consolidation of power in a national government, saying “Consolidation must end in the destruction of our liberties.”
Henry was right and this is yet another example of how the centralization of power has led to disastrous results.
The federal government used the war on drugs to turn the United States into a national police state.
The money and power that flows into local police departments from Washington D.C. incentives police to focus on “national” priorities such as the “war on drugs,” federal gun control and “anti-terrorism” efforts instead of prioritizing more routine local policing such as murder, rape and property crime. The unconstitutional “war on drugs” has also led to the militarization of law enforcement and an increase in police violence.
The problem is that most Americans don’t concern themselves with nationalized policing, government spying and violations of privacy. They want the government to “get tough on crime.”
It makes them feel safe.
The average person doesn’t see the police state pointed at them. They don’t get it. “I have nothing to hide,” they say. “We’ve got to get these thugs under control,” they say. “If you don’t break the law, you have nothing to worry about,” they say.
In fact, they don’t even realize what’s going on until some particularly heinous episode such as the beating of Tyre Nichols hits the news.
As long as the violence, spying and violations of civil liberties remain mostly hidden in poor urban areas, vast swaths of the American population will continue to cheerlead the police state.
Ironically, the loudest voices cheering and defending the police state belong to the so-called conservatives – the people who claim to revere limited government. Limited government and a police state stand as mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, big government created the very problem that big government claims to need a police state to solve.
If you want to solve the problem you have to strike the root.
And the root of the problem isn’t racism.
This latest episode of black-on-black police brutality proves that. The root of the problem is the militarized police state with its tentacles intertwined with centralized, nationalized government. If you want to fix this, end the unconstitutional war on drugs and return law enforcement to local control.