Seyram A. Butame

You see the Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys/ They ain't gonna fight no wars.

Death of Tyre Nichols (RIP)

31 January 2023

A few weeks ago, Tyre Nichols was killed. Turns out police officers from an elite unit of the Memphis, TN Police Department (MPD), pulled him over and then proceeded to meet out a brutal, and most violent beating. The video is truly horrendous. There is an angle from a street post, where you see several officers (now former) holding Nichols up, as others take turns pummeling his body and face. I struggled to hold my gorge as I watched (I think I have to stop traumatizing myself like that). The angle where you see them from above is silent. However, there are other videos, from the officers’ body cameras, where you hear the exertions and heavy breathing as they beat the life out of Nichols. It is harrowing to watch. And as I watch, I wonder why policing as an institution has lost its humanity, or if policing ever had any humanity to begin with.

Television and film would have you believe that police are agents of good. Good hearted people concerned about their communities, looking to ensure little girls and boys can frolic in the streets without fear of bad guys and malcontents. But is that really the case? Perhaps individually, there are some who join institutions and departments in hopes of doing something like that. But do institutions themselves favor that? Or once people join do they merely become cogs in an unfeeling machine rolling over the humanity of the citizenry in an automated quest for resources?

There is always that one TV show or movie with a cop who just wants to do good, so much so that he (and increasingly she), will go outside the law. Not fully of course, they are not “monsters”. But they will stray just this side of the law, bend the rules just a bit. Threaten someone, make a suspect uncomfortable, cause them harm, show them a knife, or gun. Describe what could happen to them. Show up unannounced at their work or home. And rarely do such shows make you think to ask whether it’s useful for officers of the law to behave this way. You know the kind of shows, they are on television every night. Some have decades of back catalog of this kind of behavior, and they are beloved. You have your Hawaii Five-0, all the NCISs, all the Law & Orders, and even sitcoms such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Through all these we are encouraged to think of officers as sympathetic figures, the proverbial good guys. These are shows that seem to say, “Come on, cut them some slack, they are the good guys. The laws are restrictive and if criminals flout the laws, police can be given just a bit of leeway. Just this once. It’s for a just cause. They are trying to catch that drug-dealer, that kidnaper, that trafficker, that mass-murderer”. It is such a prevailing message, that whenever you do encounter elements within those shows that seek to uphold the law and preserve order, you are encouraged to think of them as the villain. I think back to all those movies and TV procedurals where an internal affairs investigator showing was a reason to groan.

I remember watching an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine where J. Peralta encounters a defense attorney and later develops feelings for her. She’s initially characterized as the enemy, but Peralta is such a lovable scamp, that particular poisoned line of thought dips under the radar. Defense attorneys, particularly those serving in a public capacity, are a critical bulwark in a system trying to ensure justice and fairness. Yet, television portrayals frame them as lazy, disheveled, incompetent, ditzy defenders of criminals. Or they are corrupt barriers to achieving justice. Or they are criminal friendly activists filled with a burning zeal to empty out jails and burn every police officer at the stake. I remember in one episode of Five-O, a lawyer representing a suspected “bad guy” is handcuffed to a metal chair, in a windowless, tiled room, with a drain in the floor, for several hours. Of course the law abiding officers are not going to torture him, but you know, making the lawyer of a suspect think they are going to be brutalized so they reveal privileged client information is just okay(:ok_hand:).

Such shows often contrast the law bending behaviors of the officers with dire situations, they bend the law to catch a serial killer. They plant evidence to ensure that a drug dealer is off the streets giving them time to build a case. They brutalize legal counsel to access incriminating evidence. It makes for compelling TV and often satisfying conclusions. The effect is a world where police and policing as an institution are given a lot of goodwill, and a cultural belief that police are a solution to many societal ills. But what happens in a world where police have so little care for the people and communities they interact with, and enjoy all this goodwill?

In the real world, the one we don’t see portrayed on TV or in film, is what just happened to T. Nichols. Where the members of an “elite” police unit, called SCORPION beat a man to death over a traffic stop. Why would a group half a dozen burly men, armed to the teeth, be compelled to torture someone like that? What could they gain? Why would they think it is alright? Because culturally they are permitted to do just that. It is a system that has been encouraged, both by the institution they represent and by the media we consume, why would they not feel comfortable behaving in that manner. It is what happened to G. Floyd (I remember in that case there was another officer standing casually by, as his compatriot snuffed the life out of Floyd in real time, and it was not a course of concern for him at all). It’s what happened to K. Brouder, to W. Scott, to P Castillo, to E. Garner and on and on. And these are just the instances of death. There are all those other instances of slights against humanity that we don’t hear about or simply don’t have the emotional space to process.

How can a police department claiming to care about peace, set up a specialized unit such as SCORPION, then proceed to staff it with officers who behave in such a manner? On the video, you hear one of the officers breathlessly proclaiming that he hopes his colleagues “stomp his ass” (i.e., T. Nichols). To me it suggests not only a pattern of behavior, but a pattern that has been permitted in the past. Why would stomping someone out be part of policing parlance? Other choice quotes from the police after beating Nichols into a stupor and leaning his limp body against their vehicle include:

“I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog”


“I jumped in, started rocking him.”

– “Tyre Nichols Body Cam Video Shows Police Officers Boasting about Arrest.” The Independent, 28 Jan. 2023,

It is the sort of thing you hear about when gangs ambush a rival. How can an institution supposedly focused on “restoring peace” devolve into such monstrous madness? SCORPION stood for, Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The symbolism of choosing a vicious, venomous, and notably irritable arachnid as the symbol for how the police intended to restore peace is not lost on me. And no doubt at the time of its choosing it was seen as clever and cool. Similar I imagine, to police who sometimes employ the logo of The Punisher (A psychotically violent, antihero archetype in the Marvel comic universe).

In writing about this recent case of police violence, the media are quick to mention that leadership in Memphis was in support of the SCORPION unit. But political leadership, like the broader culture that elects them, tends to give police a great deal of lee-way. And furthermore, they often lack the courage, and the political fortitude needed to tackle the underlying problems of crime and social disorganization. For example, in a recent piece from the New York Times, a city Council Member said the following:

“We were all tripping over ourselves to give them compliments because we have a violent crime problem and drag racing problem,” said one member of the City Council, Worth Morgan. “But it was done under the pretext that they would protect and serve and not violate anyone’s rights, and these officers did in a hugely problematic way.”1

That statement points to all the hallmarks of a desire for a TV show resolution to an extensive and complicated social problem. A specialized police unit, meant to strike with alacrity and decisiveness. Swooping onto the streets of Memphis, it would identify the sources of all violent crime and drag racing. The unit’s actions would culminate in criminal gangs being neutered and rounded-up, enabling the children of the city to play and laugh in the streets. The question is why do we (and our leadership) think that a group of armed people would be the ones to effectively address such problems? What is it about a person with a gun that we think makes them capable of preventing violent crime, or preventing street racing? They’re not embued with powers of precognition. Also violent crime and drag racing constitutes such a broad mandate in terms of social interventions. And now the results are there for all of us to see T. Nichols spent his last hours bleeding, in great pain and strife. All for what? Because he drove erratically, and didn’t immediately snap to, when they was screamed at him?

Damn, it is sad, anger inducing and just disappointing all over. Ultimately, I wonder what can be done. What can we do?

Anyway, here is a beautiful video edit his friend made of him skateboarding and generally living his life. Hopefully it will clear the images of the police brutalizing that man in his last hours of life from my mind.

Heading Image Source: liftarn - Police Brutality (A silhouette showing a police officer striking a person, symbolizing police brutality). Retrieved from: (Last Accessed: January 31, 2023)

  1. Jiménez, Jesus, et al. “Scorpion Unit Emerged as Memphis Pursued Get-Tough Strategy.” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), 29 Jan. 2023. ProQuest,