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Black Cops Killed Tyre Nichols. Systemic Racism Is the Death of Us All.

We live in a country where recognizing Black humanity has always been a fight.

Tyre Nichols,Associated Press

Home is a lot of things.

Our physical address, the place we grew up, the people we love, the country we claim.

Tyre Nichols was just trying to go home, to his mom, in Memphis. He faded in and out of life not even 100 yards away from her house. Police beat him so badly he died days later, a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

King had a dream, but he also knew we must confront our American nightmare.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?,’” King said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

After cursing, tasing, kicking, punching, and baton-clubbing Tyre into the place between living and dead on film, officers casually stood around chatting about the violence with a normalcy as routine as drinking coffee.

Cops killed Tyre in the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And everyone tuned in to watch it Friday night as if it were a primetime drama and not real life trauma.

Cable television seemed to be hosting a countdown of coverage ahead of the release of the video of the police attack on Tyre. And the shock-and-awe of Black cops beating a Black man took center stage. A Memphis police chief said it took race off the table.

Does it? Black police officers were involved in the killings of Freddie Gray, George Floyd, and Sean Bell, and the names can and unfortunately will go on.

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Systemic racism is exactly that: systemic. It affects the entire institution, a disease infecting the whole body. Not just the police body, the American body.

Two cops snatched Tyre out of his car. The department still hasn’t offered a substantiated reason why. They slammed him on the ground while telling him to get on the ground. These men deployed pepper spray so recklessly they hit one another and punished Tyre for it. At every turn, they were brutal. He ran, as most of us would when faced with imminent danger.

He almost made it to the home where he might find help. But police knew all they had to do is call their network and a few more cops, without question or much explanation, would carry on the violence.

The intention was never just to catch him. It was to “stomp his ass.” On the video, at least eight officers get involved in the detainment, disregard, and destruction of Tyre Nichols.

“Mom, mom, mom,” Tyre cried. Officers did not care. They were home in their terror.

These men alleged to one another that Tyre reached for one of their guns, how he must have been high, how he wouldn’t go down. These men held his arms and beat his body while yelling “Give me your hands.” There was never any interest in his survival or recognition of his pain.

The medics did not immediately help either, mirroring the ongoing bias we see from doctors. Compared to white patients, studies found Black patients are 40 percent less likely to be prescribed medication to ease the hurt from acute pain.

If we cannot register one another’s pain, how can we ever know love? And if we do not know love, can we sustain liberation?

A nation born of violence, in the most broken and suffering way, we seem to need to binge and feed off brutality. We don’t change. We adapt to the pain. We devolve, becoming the rage that stitched these states together.

This land was stolen from Native peoples and called America. And then the colonizers trafficked Black folk and forced them to build this country. The roots of policing lie within these systems. There were slave patrols. And then Jim Crow laws, the Tulsa Massacre, COINTELPRO, the MOVE bombing, stop-and-frisk, and many more methods to use American policing as an enforcer of Black subservience.

About 1,100 people were killed by police last year, according to The Washington Post. More than a quarter of those people are Black — we only make up 13 percent of the population.

According to Mapping Police Violence, one in every three people killed by police was running, driving, or otherwise trying to get away. Black and Brown people were more likely to be killed while fleeing.

Police, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, unnecessarily countered with a Blue Lives Matter call of their own. That affirmed the system as a force that does not rely on individual identity, but thrives off power and superiority.

Hiring Black police does not solve a toxic policing system any more than a Black president magically made us a postracial nation with a functioning democracy.

At least five Black police officers took part in killing Tyre. And within two weeks of his death, before the video aired, all five had been fired, arrested, and charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. And the #BlueLivesMatter crowd is in a rare silence. Official oppression.

Representation matters, but dismantling systems that were meant to oppress and building anew is required for change. Not even good cops, of any race or gender, can make comply-or-die policing humane.

Justice is never having to fight for your life at a traffic stop in the first place. A just nation does not thrive on violence that teaches us to hate.

In an anti-Black society, where laws, the economy, education, and opportunities are set up to deny your humanity and rights, people of color suffer from internalized racism.

Sometimes you hate yourself. Other times you hate others. Or you want the kind of power that lacks love and seeks hierarchy because monuments and history books celebrate that way of being. These are cogs of a supremacist system that kills us, regardless of our identities.


‘We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.’

Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”


The standard use of force in America has never been reasonable. Our split-second inclination often goes for the kill. We say this is not who we are, but we just keep on letting the violence sprawl, be it police killings or politicians policing our bodies, be it mass shootings or domestic violence. Violence begets violence, and it is our ebb and flow.

At our best, we witness one another, grapple with the truth of what is and rise to make change for what can be. At our worst, we’ve become spectators, making trauma a sport, chasing that next brutal episode.

Until we choose love and liberation, our home, as Americans, will always be in the arms of violence.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.