Tyre Nichols and the Need for a Cultural Revolution

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The death of Tyre Nichols will be added to a long list of Black, Brown and White U.S. citizens innocently subjected to overwhelming force by those entrusted to protect them. The video of the young man being beaten by five Black policemen will lead to renewed cries of “Enough, enough.” Calls for local, state, and federal laws will be heard, and maybe some legislation will be passed. But the fundamental issues behind the excessive use of force by police officers in the United States will go unheeded. That would involve a cultural revolution, a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement.

We are familiar with different types of revolutions. Political revolutions, like the French Revolution or a coup d’état, are easy to observe. People are in power one day and gone the next. Scientific revolutions may also be dramatic. The discovery and mapping of DNA would be another example as would the work of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein.

Cultural revolutions are more complex. First, because any definition of culture is open to debate. Second, a scientific breakthrough may be revolutionary for scientists, but not for the general public.

The United States needs a cultural revolution.

What happened in Memphis is part of an American cultural phenomenon. “It’s not racism driving this, it’s culturism,” said Robert Sausedo, head of a Los Angeles NGO dealing with police violence in speaking about Tyre Nichols. “It’s a culture in law enforcement where it’s OK to be aggressive to those they’re supposed to serve,” he added.

What cultural revolution is needed in the United States? It is one not only dealing with violent police, including the militarization of police, “the increasing domestication of the counterinsurgency warfare paradigm,” as described by Bernard E. Harcourt in his excellent The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens. Superficially condemning uncalled for police violence is not revolutionary enough and does not recognize the depth of the problem.

To start with:  The Memphis killing video shows the extent to which police officers dehumanize their victims. Tyre Nichols was beaten when defenseless; he was given no immediate medical aid by the five officers. Tyre’s touching, very human cries for his mother also elicited no response. Much like the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s windpipe and the officers watching Floyd slowly die, the Memphis five officers involved showed no humane responses throughout the incident.

The police who killed Tyre Nichols were members of the Scorpion unit, (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), a special unit established by the Memphis authorities in 2021. The squad was designed to deal with “high crime hotspots,” targeting homicides, assaults, and major felonies. Although little has been said about their training and methods, it is obvious that they were prepared to use violence, even when dealing with a simple traffic situation.

As Harcourt points out in his description of how counterinsurgency has become a Counterrevolution within the United States: “It generates a narrative of insurrection that turns whole groups and neighborhoods – of American Muslims or Mexicans, of African Americans, of Hispanics, of peaceful protesters – into suspected insurgents.” Most relevant for the Nichols case and the Scorpions, he goes on: “In the process, entire families, blocks, and neighborhoods that could benefit from public services are transformed into counterinsurgency military targets.” A most apt description of the Memphis “high crime hotspots” and the violence that ensued.

While the Scorpion unit has been deactivated, their mentality cannot be suspended or abolished in one day, or after one incident. The ripple from George Floyd’s death in 2020 has had no obvious effect. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act limiting police immunity has not passed the Senate. The Scorpions are just the tip of an iceberg involving authority, power, and dehumanization; counterinsurgency tactics brought home.

The perverse relationship between authority, power, and violence has been described by the French philosopher Michael Foucault in, among other works, The Order of Things. Foucault traces the sociology of prisons and authoritarian paradigms, showing how violence, penal codes, and prisons are fundamental to the perpetuation of whomever is in power. It is worth noting that the Scorpion unit was praised by the Memphis mayor in 2022.

(It should also be noted that similar squads, known as “anti-crime units,” were disbanded by the New York City Police Department in 2020. “Make no mistake, this is a seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great city,” the Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said at the time.)

What is most relevant is how policemen see their jobs and the very establishment of the Scorpion unit. The Scorpion unit, like other special anti-crime units throughout the U.S., represents the general dehumanization of those considered in violation of society’s norms. Beyond the beating of Tyre Nichols and the video of George Floyd’s horrible death is the paradigm of dehumanization, a paradigm fundamental to the entire U.S. penal system. It is estimated that there are over 2,000,000 people incarcerated in U.S. correctional facilities. The United States has the highest rate of prisoners per population – 639 per 100,000. While the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population, 20% of the world’s incarcerated population is imprisoned in the United States.

In some situations, the federal government has had to intervene because the conditions in local prisons have been deemed unacceptable. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, the largest in the United States, has been regularly condemned by inmates, lawyers, and government officials. Criticized for its corruption and “deep-seated culture of violence” by the U.S. Department of Justice already in 2014, it has yet to be closed. Various reviews have also found poor oversight in California prisons.

Excessive violence by police, questionable arrests – Nichols was called over for a supposed traffic violation – overcrowded and “inhuman incarceration,” all point to a deep societal malaise that is highlighted by the beating of Tyre Nichols. Foucault’s genealogy of the relationship between order and power points to the larger picture of how societies deal with those who violate norms. Ben Crump, Tyre Nichols’ family lawyer, said: “We believe that this was a pattern and practice, and Tyre is dead because that pattern and practice went unchecked by the people who were supposed to check that.” He called on federal officials to investigate such teams and their tactics.

Violators of the law can be assumed to threaten the locus of power. And the reaction of the power structure, when threatened, can be violent. The video of the beating of Tyre Nichols shows no relation to what force was needed in the situation. It was blatantly not proportional. He was not armed; he did not threaten the five officers. Commentators have used words like “horrific” and “inhuman.” But that does not only refer to how Tyre Nichols was treated. The same could be said for how inmates are treated in U.S. prisons. I have visited Rikers Island prison and seen how dehumanizing incarceration there can be.

Whatever positive will come out of the Tyre Nichols’ death should be measured against the entire penal establishment in the United States. As Harcourt concludes: “Counterinsurgency abroad and at home has been legalized and systematized…It is ruthless, game theoretic, systemic – and legal. And with all the possible tactics at the government’s disposal – from total surveillance to indefinite detention and solitary confinement, to drones and robot-bombs, even to states of exception and emergency powers – this new mode of governing has never been more dangerous.” That’s what Tyre Nichols’ death is all about. That’s why a cultural revolution is needed.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.