In the United States, the death of Tire Nichols rekindles the debate on racism and police violence


The videos published this Friday, January 27 by the Memphis police shock well beyond the United States. We see, under the angle of different cameras, five black police officers in turn hitting a 29-year-old African-American, Tire Nichols. While he is held down by two agents on the ground, he receives a knee blow. Raised up, he suffered baton blows from another, then an avalanche of punches which made him fall again. Dragged by the police, he will not be taken care of by an ambulance until many minutes later.

“Mommy, mommy, mommy”

This violent arrest occurred on January 7, in the context of what could have remained a banal traffic check. The police mentioned a “confrontation” which would have led to the escape of the ” suspicious “, even if the images do not show the scene in its entirety. It was when Tire Nichols was caught, after having already been targeted by a tear gas spray and an electric pulse gun, that he would have suffered what the videos illustrate, before dying three days later in the hospital.

The voice of that man on the ground screaming “mum, mum, mum” has gripped many Americans, who demonstrated peacefully this weekend, in Memphis but also in New York and Washington. While the impunity of the police had been controversial in many other cases, the five leaders were dismissed, charged with murder and imprisoned. The unit to which they belonged, dubbed “Scorpion”, was disbanded. Quick measures welcomed by the family of the victim, to whom President Joe Biden expressed his condolences in person.

Reforms, little effect

However, two and a half years after the death of George Floyd and the vast political movement he sparked around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, the slogans in the processions expressed weariness with a lack of change. In Memphis, the local police chief, Cerelyn Davis, like the prosecutor, however, showed their firmness on the subject. It was Cerelyn Davis who posted the images on YouTube “so that they are accessible to all”. Since 2020, the Memphis police had reviewed its rules of intervention, insisting on the “duty to intervene” dealing with violent colleagues, and further training in de-escalation techniques. But that did not stop the police from “raise the tension directly” against Tire Nichols, admitted Cerelyn Davis.

Through the voice of his lawyer Ben Crump, the family of Tire Nichols attributes to a “institutionalized police culture” the death of the thirty-something. For the geographer and doctor in geopolitics Charlotte Recoquillon, this violence is actually based on “structural and institutional racism”. “American society has built an image around blacks that makes them more suspicious, more violent, more dangerous people”she describes.

A truly ” dehumanisation “ which allows, within the police, to justify “more violent treatment of these citizens”black people “more quickly seen as suspects”. According to the specialist, the police institution “manifest tenfold” racism already prevalent in society. A history of violence that dates back to the creation of the first police forces in the United States, created to “catch the runaway slaves”.

Many brakes

In 2022, the number of people who died in interactions with the police broke a new record. Demands for changing police doctrines and missions, such as limiting the circulation of weapons, find few concrete responses. They may have been blocked by a political balance of power between Democrats and Conservatives, but also by the breakdown of powers, from the district to the federal level, and police units, which do not obey the same rules.


Beyond these elements, there would also be a “misunderstanding” on this reform, notes Charlotte Recoquillon. When Joe Biden recognizes the existence of violence, he wants to provide more resources for the police as a response: equipment, training, recruitment… ”, she explains. Far from satisfying the demands of “deep reform” activists.


A numbered violence

1,186 people were killed during interactions with the police in 2022, a number at the highest level for ten years, according to the website Mapping Police Violence.

26% of those dead are African-Americaneven though they represent only 13% of the population.

600 people would have died in the specific context of road checks since 2017, according to the association Human Rights Watch.

66 officers were killed on duty last year, according to a fund created in their memory. A figure that illustrates the importance of the subject of carrying weapons in the United States, closely linked to that of police violence.

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