On the evening of 7 January, in a poor, mainly black, area of Memphis, Tennessee, a 29-year-old black man driving home in his car was stopped by police and beaten to death. Tyre Nichols had committed no traffic violation that can be found on any traffic cameras, police car cams or the officers’ body cams. The only ‘evidence’ to link him to any crime at all comes solely from the mouths of the officers who murdered him, and that is contradicted by all the available camera evidence.
Another black man killed by police in the USA doesn’t qualify as surprising news. In fact, it is just another name on an incredibly long list. But this one is a little different. All five of the police officers who committed this murder are also black, part of a special unit, mainly made up of black officers, targeting traffic and traffic-related crime in poor/black areas of the city. The unit was set up by Chief Cerelyn Davis of the Memphis police, the first black and female head of the department.
Cerelyn Davis had only been in this highly sought-after and advantaged law enforcement position for a short while in 2021 when, she says, in response to popular demand from local people, she decided to set up the special unit, Scorpion, (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighbourhoods) to combat the dangerously wild driving and the drug and alcohol-fuelled car races that we are told are quite usual in some of those poorer areas. She apparently instructed this special team that they were to focus less on writing tickets and more on an all-out strategy of seizing cars from the most dangerous drivers and making them not want to be caught by Scorpion again.
Violent offenders needed to be targeted with new urgency, was her message to her team. If the state could not take a case to court, she determined, her agency should ask federal prosecutors to take the case instead. “We all have that understanding about being tough on tough people,” she told a community event she was speaking at in November 2021.
Within a very short time, the Scorpion team were drawing serious complaints from many locals who had been stopped and abused by this increasingly out-of-control group who considered themselves to have been given carte-blanche to terrorise locals on the roads; to legally take their cars away; to do constant stop and searches on the slightest of whims – all accompanied by blatant threats and often overt acts of violence.
This all met with a pat on the back from the governor so long as the officers kept on producing the right ‘anti-crime’ statistics!
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been quite muted over this murder, and some local BLM activists are on record as saying that they will not watch the video of the killing of an unarmed, passive man who was crying out for his mother by uniformed thugs taking it in turn to kick him on the ground, beat him with night-sticks and hold him up so that they could constantly punch his face while they laughed and joked about how well they hit him.
These beatings followed the initial threats when the officers pulled Tyre from his car, threw him to the ground, screamed at him to “get on the ground” while he lay there explaining that he was on the ground, threatened him with a taser and their drawn handguns, and then pepper-sprayed him in the face. It was at this point that the terrified victim jumped up and tried to run away while shots were fired both in the air and in his general direction. Within minutes, the blood-lusting butchers had caught their victim and vented their anger on him because he had actually tried to escape.
BLM could not but have a problem with this, as, to put it in very simplified terms, those who are running that movement have a narrative of ‘black=good; white=bad’, and this case not only does not fit that narrative, but, in fact, destroys it.
Although the current mayor of Memphis is white, the city has had black mayors since 1992. The current police chief is black, as are about 58 percent of the department’s commissioned police officers. Black people hold an 8-5 majority on the city council in a city that is about 65 percent black, according to census figures.
The murder of Tyre Nichols has to be understood not in race terms, but in class terms. The ruling class maintains its power against the interests of the majority of the people by means of a special instrument, the state. The state is an instrument of force employed to hold down the exploited and oppressed masses, whatever other functions it may take on in order to disguise its coercive character.
Its essential elements are the judiciary (which includes all the penal methods used by said state), a standing army and police force, to enforce the class laws and protect the billionaire exploiters from the power of the masses. Anyone who wishes to look into this matter in depth, and we sincerely hope all our readers do, should study VI Lenin’s classic 1917 work, The State and Revolution, in which the entire system of bourgeois democracy/dictatorship is laid bare for all to see and understand.
But no state can be run without enrolling a very significant number of proletarians willing to carry out ruling-class orders against others of their class. The personnel of the army and police, for example, are overwhelmingly proletarian, as were the policemen who killed Tyre Nichols; as are the soldiers who are sent into combat against fellow proletarians at home and abroad.
People are mobilised as enforcers for the bourgeoisie by the need for paid employment, and in some cases partly by misplaced altruism or patriotism, which has them believing that they will be doing good for the public or for their country. However, once enrolled into service they will be trained to see the public through the eyes of the bourgeoisie, as people who are potentially dangerous and need to be kept firmly under control.
As can be seen from details emerging regarding the culture of the police unit to which Mr Nichols’ murderers belonged, these servants of the bourgeoisie are given every incentive to advance in their profession by achieving ‘results’, which encourages some police, for instance, to go after people who have committed no offence of any kind whatsoever just so as to boost their arrest record.
What Black Lives Matter seems to be reluctant to recognise is that the murder of poor black people by the police is not a question of colour, but a question of class. There is very little chance, within any capitalist society geared primarily to enhancing the wealth of the super-rich, for a legacy of colonialism and slavery to be eliminated at short notice.
Because of this legacy, in all imperialist countries a disproportionate number of black people find themselves within the ranks of the poorest people in society – the people for whom bourgeois society has least to offer, the people who are the most alienated, and the people the bourgeoisie most fears and most diligently seeks to restrain. Because a disproportionately high number of black people are poor and alienated, they are also disproportionately represented among the victims of police violence.
Given the right circumstances, people of whatever age, race, nationality, etc can become capable of what is commonly referred to as ‘inhuman’ behaviour. Anyone who possesses even a cursory knowledge of American history will readily understand that white people in America have been, and many continue to be, guilty of the vilest behaviour against black people. But this does not detract from the fact that nobody is immune from being mobilised by their exploiters to blame their problems on persons of another race, religion, colour, nationality or whatever.
Black people as well as white people can be mobilised to oppress others, although admittedly in American history white people have had for greater opportunities in this regard. However, emancipation of both black people and white people lies in the proletariat refusing to allow the past to stand in the way of fighting hand in hand for the emancipation of their class.
If we are divided, there is no hope of defeating the ruling class that oppresses and exploits all of us – and, incidentally, endlessly churns out propaganda designed to keep the oppressed fighting each other rather than turning the sights on their real enemy.
When British communist journalist Alan Winnington visited a corner of pre-revolutionary China where slavery still persisted into the first half of the 20th century, he was astonished to find that among these slaves the predominant conception they had of liberation was themselves to become slave masters. They could not envisage the end of the slave-owning system.
Black Lives Matter shares the same limited vision – a vision of a better deal for black people within the capitalist system that has been severely oppressing them for generations, rather than the destruction of that vicious system itself.