On Jan. 7, five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, stopped Tyre Nichols, an African American man, for an alleged traffic violation. After removing him from his car, they sprayed him with pepper spray and attacked him with a taser. Finding himself helpless, the 29-year-old man tried to flee but the police caught and beat him for three minutes. His injuries were so severe he died three days later. Several videos showing that this was undoubtedly murder — the victim never presented any danger to the uniformed officers, nor was there any cause to stop him — has generated a new wave of national indignation in the United States as protests against police brutality take place in many cities.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump began his campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in the fight for the White House in 2024 on the same day that thousands of Americans protested against unjustified violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials, and in particular against the racism inherent in these assaults. (Almost one-third of those killed by police in 2021 were African American, despite the fact that this community represents only 13% of the population.) Without any hint of remorse or self-criticism for his conduct during four years in the Oval Office and in the months after he had to leave, the business tycoon claimed he was “more angry now … than I ever was.” He then resumed his misogynistic attack on former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lashed out at transgender people, electric cars, his predecessor, Barack Obama, and of course, delivered a string of xenophobic lies about the immigration situation, claiming 15 million people may be crossing the southern border illegally, many of them from prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
Also this week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ratified his alliance with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who went from being a fringe legislator to a central figure in Washington with appointment to the House Homeland Security Committee and the Oversight Committee (charged with auditing the federal government). Until recently, fellow caucus members viewed Greene as an outlandish and unpresentable figure, given her public endorsement of wild conspiracy theories, statements in favor of executing prominent members of the Democratic Party, and her harassment of a school shooting survivor. In February 2021, she was removed from legislative committees after publishing an image on social media of her sporting an assault rifle next to three African American representatives with the banner “Squad’s worst nightmare.”
It’s impossible to separate police brutality and institutionalized racism from the normalization of figures like Trump or Greene within American politics, and the presence of similar figures in the higher echelons of power emboldens and gives the impression (which is, unfortunately, often correct) that there is impunity for both officials and civilians corrupted by hate speech. The fact that the five officers who killed Nichols were also Black adds further nuance to the rampant social breakdown being experienced in the United States, and shows how internalized discrimination is, and that African Americans are not safe even among their own from racial profiling that makes them criminal suspects who are persecuted due to the color of their skin.
While there is no room for optimism in the U.S., we can hope the Nichols tragedy will be the catalyst for a movement of deep reflection and moral renewal to end the scourge of racism and state violence in the world’s richest nation.