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Perspective | Watching the unseen brutality in Memphis


Of all the footage released Friday showing Memphis police officers brutally beating up Tire Nichols, the lamppost video is the most chilling. It shows the violence from above and from a distance, with a camera angle wide enough to capture the larger context, a quiet dark corner of the suburb all around. And it happens in silence, which gives it the feeling, if not the substance, of objectivity.

Without sound, the video eliminates the emotions of the individual actors: the officers breathless rage, alternating with almost bored indifference to the man they hit. Lacking the frantic, jerky motion of police camera footage — the lamppost’s video was captured by an automated security camera mounted to a street pole — it hides the moment-to-moment escalation of a traffic stop in what prosecutors say is second-degree was murder by the police.

By avoiding the drama we seem to understand more of the facts. But that’s not true, because the sounds captured on the other videos – the screams, the conflicting orders, Nichols’ calls for his mother – are also vital facts.

What the sterile, bird’s-eye view of the video makes abundantly clear is that the officers acted collectively. They charged in to punch and kick a skinny young man like a broken puppet. It exposes the cruelty as brutal, unnecessary and unnecessary. And more than anything else seen in these lewd videos of authoritarian cops recklessly abusing their power, it advocates radical reform of the national police force. As cops swarm around a man who can barely keep himself upright as they join, leave, and rejoin the fight they fight alone, the message is painfully clear: more cops means more chaos, more violence, more death. There is no law and order here, only police.

It was demoralizing to make yesterday’s appointment with the ugly news, which appeared on YouTube, television and seemingly everywhere at once. No one should see this and no one should experience it. Here was another murder after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, after the failure of a police reform bill in Congress, after years of inaction and indifference.

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The Memphis Police Department made the right decision to show the public what their officers were doing. Withholding it would only have increased the deep distrust the citizens of Memphis must now feel for the officers supposedly sworn to protect them. The images will be unimaginably painful for the Nichols family. A once vibrant young man is seen in agony, stripped of his independence and autonomy, his entire being reduced to excruciating appeals for his first protector, his mother, RowVaughn Wells, who has publicly mourned him with superhuman dignity.

The videos violate Nichols’ privacy at the most fundamental level, but that violation started when officers apprehended him for what they said reckless driving. The more difficult question was whether they should be watched and perhaps even participate in that infraction. Not looking felt like complacency, an extension of the willful blindness to police brutality. If we refuse to see and acknowledge what is happening in this country, how can we change?

But looking alone won’t get you anywhere. Yesterday it sometimes felt as if the mechanisms of our entertainment culture controlled our reactions. An hour had been set on the day calendar for the video’s release, which created anticipation; and there was the promise of those who had already seen the tapes that they were extremely hideous. By mid-afternoon, it felt like the evening would be filled with “must-see” television, and where in that spectacle would we find Tire Nichols’ humanity?

In this context, the noise and clamor of the media, the fusillade of toxic opinion-mongering, the silence of the lamppost video felt almost sacred. If we are to see such terrible things, we must look purposefully, with humility, with sadness that transcends sentiment and anger that transcends senseless anger. In the face of great suffering, we must have the decency to remain silent and receptive to truths we might otherwise resist – about ourselves, about America, about humanity.

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And yet we have seen these things, heard these truths, faced these facts, over and over again. There is no one right way to watch these videos because there is no one right response to these events. What happened to Tire Nichols requires us to mobilize in myriad ways, not only to reform police forces and minimize their encounters with the public, but also to promote the reflexive deference to authoritarianism, the patience of toxic masculinity, the valorization of to dismantle anger and anger in public life . To profoundly change our culture.

For that you have to go past the silence of the lamppost video and listen to the voices in the other recordings. They are full of anger, but also a sense of resentment, as if the officers are personally offended by the life and hope left in a man under their control. The volume and speed of their screams drives the violence with which they have supposedly sworn to defend us. If you have no idea of ​​the commands the officers are yelling at Nichols, imagine you are him at the time. You can see from the footage that Nichols knows what’s happening. He may be incredulous, but he knows he’s caught up in the chaos of the officers.

And then it stops, and a wrecked body is propped up against a police car. Now it’s just a long wait for an ambulance (another sign of this country’s systemic brokenness) and voices talking casually as if nothing happened to Nichols. Off-screen, three days later, news of his death came.

It may seem like the violence came out of nowhere, like a dark spirit visited Nichols and the cops who assaulted him, just one of those things that happen almost every day on a street corner in the suburbs of Everytown, USA. , unknowable and incompatible with who we think we are.

Indeed, it is all too commonplace. But bad apples and rogue officers in Scorpion units (who thinks this is an acceptable acronym?) don’t explain what we’ve seen and heard. This is systemic, the crisis is urgent and too many people – black people, brown people, poor people and people with broken taillights – are in immediate danger. On January 7, 2023, there was no thin blue line in Memphis, just a small blue crowd.

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