Coming a little over two years after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked the largest social justice demonstrations in American history and a searing round of national soul searching, Tyre Nichols’s death reveals what has and has not changed since then.
Memphis is a case study in the way in which structural racism within law enforcement can impact Black residents living in a predominantly Black city that has a Black chief of police. The fact that all five officers have been fired and are facing second degree murder charges even before the release of the video speaks to a kind of progress, but one that nonetheless is racialized. Apparently, justice is much swifter against law enforcement who kill Black people when the perpetrators themselves are also Black.
The heartbreaking interviews offered by Nichols’s parents, who describe their son as having a beautiful soul, echoes the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other grieving Black parents, relatives, family members and communities.
Tyre Nichols would be alive today if America had embraced an abolitionist perspective on punishment, prison and policing that recognizes more of the same will only produce further preventable tragedies. Nichols’s death reflects a broken system, one wherein armed police routinely turn traffic or even pedestrian stops into violent and deadly confrontations with unarmed citizens. But it is also just the tip of the iceberg.
The modern day abolitionist movement is rooted in the centuries-long struggle to abolish racial slavery and its supply chains. W.E.B. Du Bois, the Fisk and Harvard University trained intellectual and civil rights leader, referred to this era as “abolition democracy” in his monumental 1935 classic “Black Reconstruction in America.” What Du Bois meant by “abolition democracy” was the simultaneous eradication of the institutions, vestiges and badges of racial slavery and new investments in Black citizenship and dignity.
In a similar vein, during the civil rights movement’s heroic period, Martin Luther King Jr. called for the creation of a “beloved community” free of racial violence, poverty and inequality. Black Power-era prison abolitionists, including the activist and intellectual Angela Davis, whose writings, political organizing and example has influenced three generations of activists, including contemporary abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba, Alicia Garza, and the millions who demonstrated during the BLM uprisings in 2020.
But there continues to be a purposeful disconnect between abolitionist ideas, public policy and the American public’s understanding of the relationship between policing, crime and punishment, poverty, racial segregation and national conceptions of dignity and citizenship. Abolition of systems of punishment transcend even the well-meaning legislative impulses behind the long-delayed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that may very well never become law. The proposed reforms at the federal level, including banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants and collecting data on police misconduct, still would not have saved the life of Tyre Nichols. Only the fundamental transformation of systems of punishment that have been normalized in American society and culture can do that.
This includes rethinking why it is commonplace to have armed police officers initiate traffic stops of moving or stopped vehicles. Abolitionists imagine a world where notions of public safety are more aligned with professed values of freedom, liberty and democracy. Investments in good schools, the elimination of food deserts, mental and physical well-being, environmental justice, jobs, drug rehabilitation, housing for the poor and at-risk young LGBTQ+ teens, domestic violence prevention for Black women and resources for survivors of sexual assaults would make our neighborhoods from Boston to Oakland safer than the current status quo.
The police killing of Tyre Nichols is tied to a long history of American institutions criminalizing Black bodies in simultaneous efforts to exploit their labor and to mark them with a new badge of servitude and indignity in the aftermath of slavery. Slavery’s afterlife surrounds us from high rates of maternal infant deaths suffered by Black women to the overwhelming rates of Black incarceration, to educational gaps between white and Black students, to the persistence of residential segregation and the wealth gap. Yet the most dramatic marker of Black peoples’ status as non-citizens, even after the Reconstruction amendments purported to build a multiracial democracy for the first time in America, has been the cheap value of Black life at the hands of institutional authority.
Whether those officials are white, Black or people of color is beside the point. The path toward a liberated future where Nichols might have lived long enough to dote on his grandchildren requires a move away from business as usual. That means having the hard conversation about abolition, one that impacts immigrants and the undocumented, citizens of all colors and backgrounds, and will have a generational legacy that finally allows America to treat people who look like Tyre Nichols with the humanity that they deserve.
Peniel Joseph is the inaugural Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a professor of history, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and founding director of UT’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.