U.S. Systemic Racism: From Slavery to George Floyd and Tyre Nichols

by Malik Miah, published on Socialist Action, March 9, 2023

Tyre Nichols, 29, was murdered by police in yet another modern-day lynching in Memphis, Tennessee on January 7. The city is nearly 70 percent African American, including a Black female police chief.

What was unexpected and a surprise to many is that the five police officers were all African American. Some asked how could the police be a racist institution if the savage beating was done by African American officers who live in the community? The police officers were immediately fired and later charged with second-degree murder. That rarely happens to police (especially white cops) — to be disciplined, much less fired and charged for murder.

Nichols was only eighty yards from his mother’s home on January 7 when a special police unit called Scorpion, which has now been hastily dismantled, pulled him over for “reckless driving.” The five Black police officers punched, kicked, tasered and pepper sprayed him. He laid in anguish on the ground, crying out for his mother. The beating over an unproven traffic violation would result in his death three days later. His stepfather posted [a photo of] his brutalized body. His family wanted the world to see what police brutality looks like.

What Happened on January 7

According to the “official” statement from the Memphis Police Department, officers approached Nichols to arrest him then a “confrontation” occurred, and Nichols ran away. A second “confrontation” occurred at some point before Nichols was ultimately arrested, police claimed. Following the arrest, they stated that, Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath, at which time an ambulance was called.” Nichols was finally taken to a hospital in critical condition. Three days later, on January 10, he “succumbed to his injuries,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said, but did not elaborate on what those injuries were. An official cause of death has not been released. A forensic pathologist hired by the family conducted an independent autopsy that showed extensive internal bleeding.

Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, according to CNN This Morning, said that Nichols had supposedly been stopped for reckless driving, but that an investigation and review of available camera footage found “no proof” that this was the case. “We have not been able to substantiate the reckless driving. That was why he was supposedly stopped in the very beginning,” she continued. “It doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen. But there’s no proof. The cameras didn’t pick up.”

Protests broke out immediately in Memphis. They were peaceful, demanding that more must be done to hold the cops accountable. While it’s unusual in police killings for the cops to be fired and charged, the road ahead will be long. It is expected the police will carry out a smear campaign against Nichols and his family.

Videos Expose Brutality

What is also unusual was the quick public release of police body cams and other security videos. In almost all police shootings the police and district attorneys refuse to do so for months or years. Surveillance footage released on January 27 revealed what policing is in Memphis. The elite Scorpion squad targets “high crime areas” and is free to do whatever they consider “legal,” not much different than in any other U.S. city.

While Nichols’ injuries were clearly severe, the videos indicate that an ambulance crew did not arrive for more than 20 minutes. And the two emergency medical workers took their time to administer help and move him to a hospital. The videos, which I and the public watched, were released by the police department in four parts. They included both body camera and street lamp-mounted cameras.

Get the f**k out of the car!” one officer shouted several times. An officer pulled him out of the car. Nichols replied: “I didn’t do anything.” An officer said, “Get on the f*****g ground” and warned that he would “tase” Nichols, who responds,  “I’m on the ground.” Nichols also stated, “You guys are really doing a lot now… I’m just trying to go home.”

Nichols, after being beaten to the ground, ran from the officers in fear of his life. “I hope they stomp his ass,” one of the police officers could be heard saying. The fatal beating unfolded when he was later apprehended at an intersection. The key video came from a camera attached to a light pole. It provided the most wrenching view. As Nichols, who appeared cuffed, remained on the ground, one officer delivered multiple  kicks to his head. As several of the officers restrained a beaten Nichols, who did not appear to be resisting or presenting any threat, another officer repeatedly clubbed him with a baton.

The police body cam shows Nichols being brought to his feet. He was repeatedly punched and, when he fell to the ground, was kicked again. They dragged his limp body to a police car shortly thereafter and sat him against the side. None of the officers involved appeared to stop the beating or help Nichols. This video appears to show eight officers milling about as he languished against the car.

As video of the deadly beating was released on January 27, protesters by the thousands took to the streets across the country.

The Charges

While it was positive that the five cops were fired and charged quickly, the family’s lawyer said that others present were not. The video showed more than five officers present at points during the assault when Nichols reeled from his injuries and was not taken to the hospital in an expedient manner.

Steve Mulroy, the Shelby county district attorney, told reporters the day before the videos were made public, “While each of the five individuals played a different role in the incident in question, the actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols and they are all responsible.”

The five charged cops are Black – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, and Justin Smith. The Memphis Police Union issued a statement following the release of the video, saying it is “committed to the administration of justice and NEVER condones the mistreatment of ANY citizen nor ANY abuse of power… We have faith in the criminal justice system. That faith is what we will lean on in the coming days, weeks, and months to ensure the totality of circumstances is revealed.”

Shelby county sheriff Floyd Bonner announced that two other deputies had been relieved of duty in relation to the events. “Having watched the video for the first time tonight, I have concerns about two deputies who appeared on the scene following the physical confrontation between police and Tyre Nichols,” Bonner said in a tweet. “I have launched an internal investigation into the conduct of these deputies to determine what occurred and if any policies were violated. Both of these deputies have been relieved of duty pending the outcome of this administrative investigation.”

The Nichols family’s legal team said that Tyre “was a human piñata for those police officers.” One family attorney, Antonio Romanucci, said to reporters. “Not only was it violent, it was savage.” Only the Black cops who did the beating were fired. The white police officer who was part of the unit was not charged. He had stayed with Nichols’ car (per department rules) as the others chased him down when he ran after his initial beating. Other police and sheriff officers were on the scene. Some face investigation and suspensions after it became clear none of them did anything to help Nichols. In fact, some were seen at the scene joking and laughing.

A Grand Jury was convened by the county’s district attorney, who filed second-degree murder charges against the five now fired cops.

Who was Tyre Nichols?

Nichols, born in Sacramento, California, was a father who worked at FedEx where his stepfather also worked. It was near his mother’s home where both ate lunch. He has been described by friends and family as an avid skateboarder. He lived in Sacramento before moving to Memphis in 2018, and friends from his teenage years in California spoke to CBS Sacramento about how much joy he brought to those around him.

I know Tyre. I know how great he was,” said Jerome Neal, who had just visited Nichols in Memphis in November. “I see him interacting with like almost everybody at the skate park when I’m with him. He was just well-loved.”

He just touches anybody who gets around him,” another friend, Austin Robert, told the station. “He’s a fantastic person and that’s how I really want everybody to remember him.”

A critical point is that cops don’t know who their Black victims are. The police – and not only the white ones –assume that Black men are all potential criminals. A traffic stop is the start to end the “threat” before it happens.

Memphis police officers dragged Nichols out of his car before he even knew what law he violated. That Tyre Nichols was a skate border, photographer, father and loved friend of many never entered the cops’ mind. He was just someone they could beat up savagely.

Family and Lawyer Demands

Ben Crump, a national civil rights attorney on the family’s legal team, said, “Tyre was brutalized by Memphis police, much like how Rodney King was beaten more than 30 years ago – but unlike Rodney, Tyre lost his life from this violent attack.” Crump said that while Nichols’s mother couldn’t watch the video, she wanted others to do so, believing that “people need to see how and why her son was killed.”

Crump also said that he had received inquiries about why other officers, including a white officer present, hadn’t been charged. “There’s a lot more questions that need to be answered after this video has been made public.”

Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush, also an activist in her St. Louis African American community, said more must be done to prevent police violence – and that Congress needs to act: “Charging the officers who brutalized Tyre is not enough. Our country will continue to sanction the taking of Black lives with impunity until it embraces an affirmative vision of public safety and dismantles its racist policing system rooted in enslavement and government control.” Bush continued, “And let’s be clear: merely diversifying police forces will never address the violent, racist architecture that underpins our entire criminal legal system. The mere presence of Black officers does not stop policing from being a tool of white supremacy.”

Questions About Black Cops

Qualified Immunity” is the so-called legal protection for police that makes “legal” shootings, beating and murder possible. It’s why few cops, even those charged, are ever convicted. Congress refuses to pass legislation to remove this protection for police.

What explains the quick response to the five African American cops? The beating was “normal” for police everywhere. Some believe it was because of a Black police chief. Others cited the fear of violent protest.

I believe that it reflects the changing social consciousness in the Black community about cops in general, including Black police. The change is a byproduct of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that emerged following the May 25, 2020 videotaped murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops. Twenty five million protestors then took to the streets in thousands of U.S. cities and towns – the largest protests in U.S. history. There have been subsequent mass protests against police violence where local police and officials did not release videos of brutality and shooting deaths of Black people.

Some people ask about the role of Black police officers. In the 1960s and 1970s when police forces were mainly white, the community demanded hiring Black police officers, and more Blacks elected to higher office.

I grew up in Detroit during the 1967 rebellion and afterwards a common demand arose for more community control, that is, control of the police-beleaguered Black and Latinx communities by the oppressed themselves arising via their independent political and social organizations based on a program that directly represented their interests as opposed to the interests of the corporate elite and their twin capitalist parties.

Policing was never meant to serve and protect average citizens. It was created to serve and protect the ruling class and its property, and to suppress formerly enslaved people and their descendants, as well as striking workers and protesters.

The  Civil War Slavocracy becomes the Southern ruling class

Black police officers are servants of the same violent racist system as white cops. Black police officers know when in civilian clothes they are treated like all Black people, that is, with racist contempt. The root of police culture is white supremacy, racism and national oppression, all institutionalized in the capitalist system. The original sin of the United States, written into the Constitution, is acceptance of slavery and the associated political-economic power given to slaveholders, who, 12 years after the Civil War, became part and parcel of the ruling capitalist elite. With the smashing of the gains of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era the former slavocracy was reconstituted as the Democratic Party – until the Nixon era, when the Southern Democrat leadership revolted against desegregation and other anti-racist civil rights legislation and joined the Republicans. The “solid South” Democratic Party racist machine became the “solid South” Republican Party standard.

Anti-racist protests and demands were never directed solely at white cops. The sophisticated awareness of policing was always focused on winning democratic reforms and radical changes to the institution itself, beginning with the institutionalization of the political and economic rule of the oppressed nationalities themselves.

Memphis makes that clear. Cops are cops no matter their skin color. Police violence reflects the internalization of racist ideology, that is, the systemic racism inherent in the system itself that was so clearly the target of the mass Black Lives Matter protests that emerged in Minneapolis and then nationally with the George Floyd murder. While Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, was white, along with another complicit white cop, the other two officers on the scene were an Asian and a Black.

The challenge to abolish systemic racism 

It is this systemic racism, not just the police murders of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless others, that has infuriated the vast majority. That daily racist police murders of unarmed Blacks has been the norm for decades is no longer denied with impunity.

A century and a half before these murders, during the 1865-1877 post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, 2,000 racist lynchings of Black men, women and children were recorded, that is, after the Emancipation Proclamation. And another 4,400 lynchings were recorded between 1877 and 1950. And countless more since.

Systemic racism is the only explanation for today’s school-to-prison scenario, where ever-segregated, underfunded schools in the communities of the poor “graduate” near majorities of functionally illiterate students channeled into the ever-privatized-for profit mass incarceration prison-industrial-complex to work at Fortune 500 corporations at slave wages rates averaging 50 cents per hour. Half of the incarcerated are people of color. The nation that ranks first in the number of billionaires ranks first in the number and percentage of its population in jail.

This the same systemic racism that accounts for the fact that COVID-19 deaths of Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans are nearly triple the rate of whites and quality health care, if any health care, is absent for the great majority.

The same with the poverty wage, part time, “gig” economy, “flexible” workforce largely of the poorest “essential workers” forced back to work in deadly unsafe/unprotected conditions to boost the profits of corporate America. The common racist wage differential applies more than ever today; “The darker the skin color, the lower the wage rates.” And triply so for the lowest rungs of the scale largely occupied by poor, Black women.

With undaunted millions in the streets, frightened figures in power promised a few cosmetic changes. Statues honoring the secessionist slavocracy have been removed at the hands of the people and even by decree of local and state governments and in the nation’s capital. Their portraits have been ordered disappeared from the halls of Congress. Buildings honoring racist Klan member U.S. senators and their ilk were renamed. A handful of police chiefs resigned. A few racist cops have been charged with murder and may be convicted in contrast to yesterday where such charges, not to mention convictions were the rarest of exceptions.

Generations of racist brutality and discrimination were pledged to be remedied with the passage of a few piece of paper. They came to naught. Politicians’ promises of  “police reform,” instantly announced in cities across the country when millions were in the streets, aimed at buying time to channel the movement and its largely corporate-funded NGO leaders into Democratic Party “lesser evil” election campaigns, including for the Biden presidency.

Where do we go from here?

We begin with the proposition that the term police reform is an oxymoron. Tyre Nichol’s murderers will stand trial only because his careless killers were caught on multiple tapes. Killer cop Derek Chauvin’s knee has been on our necks for four centuries. His police ancestors were the slave patrols of yesteryear formed to track down escaped slaves. They were the post Civil War police who arrested en masse Black Code designated “vagrants” turned into instant prisoners transferred to plantation chain gangs to work free for former slave owners; they were the racist Bull Connor heads of Birmingham’s Public Safety Commission hired to enforce the state’s “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws; they were and remain the scab-herding cops employed to break union strikes and club civil rights demonstrators. They are all part of the system’s inherent function to maintain the social order of the few against the vast majority.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it well, “Power cedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”

Malcolm X, a century later came to the same conclusion, “Power never takes a back step – only in the face of more power.” Malcolm added: “I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. too: “Since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”

Systemic racism in U.S. society will be fundamentally altered only with profound changes in relations of power between those who hold and abuse it, and their victims – between the one percent who own nearly half the wealth of the nation and the vast majority who live pay check to paycheck, and the Black, Latinx and Native Americans who are compelled to live on even less.

Democratic Community Control: The Right of Self-determination

The right of Black, Brown and Native American people, all oppressed nationalities, to democratically control and govern their own lives and communities will only emerge today with the formation of new, united and independent organizations dedicated to the freedom struggle in all its manifestations. The struggle to disarm, defund, and disband the racist institutions of police power can only be envisioned in this context – in a political, social and economic framework where the $billions spent on the institutions of racist police repression can be deployed to defend and safeguard our interests not theirs – where the $trillions spent on bailing out the corporate elite, and the $trillions more transferred to them in “tax reform” bills will be spent on re-building the nation’s poor neighborhoods, inner cities, and tribal lands.


The Black Lives Matter example of the most poor and oppressed uniting en masse to advance their freedom struggle undoubtedly inspired working people of all races and creeds to join in wholeheartedly. The courageous spectacle of unprecedented numbers of inspired white youth standing firm and side by side with their Black, Latinx and Native American sisters and brothers, in defiance of curfews, police clubs and exploding noxious gas grenades, portends wondrous victories to be won now and in the future. The construction of ever-broadening united coalitions and movements, led by nationally oppressed peoples themselves – in alliance with the broad working class – to advance humanity’s best aspirations for a new world where systemic racism and systemic  and social and economic inequality are truly relegated to history’s distant and dark past is within our reach.

*Featured Image: Thousands of protesters demand justice for George Floyd on Tuesday, May 26, outside the precinct of the cop who killed him in Minneapolis. (2020 Image Star Tribune / Carlos Gonzalez)

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