Reforms and revisions

What the Tyre Nichols case says about America’s policing system

When I was about 14 years old, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D.C with my school. At the museum, I saw gruesome pictures of Emmett Till’s open casket. At 14, Till was violently beaten and lynched in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman. At the museum, I felt such an onslaught of emotions from seeing another 14-year-old completely disfigured and dead because of hate, that I actually started crying. Now at 18, the same gut-wrenching emotions resurfaced while watching the graphic footage of Tyre Nichols’ beating.

The footage I’m referencing is of five Black officers violently removing Nichols from his car at the start of the traffic stop, and Nichols later fleeing. As the video continues, viewers see Nichols tracked down by police and being repeatedly bludgeoned, punched, kicked and pepper sprayed by these same officers, all while being restrained at a suburban intersection. Later, Nichols was finally rushed to the hospital and died after suffering cardiac arrest, kidney failure and extensive bleeding from his beating. 

It is no secret that police brutality is a serious issue in this country. But seeing an unarmed Black man beaten like a piñata by five other men over “reckless driving” (which hasn’t been proven via footage of the traffic stop), is sickening. I felt similar feelings of rage, frustration, and despair as I did while watching the 10-minute video of George Floyd dying from a police officer kneeling on his neck in 2020. But now, after three years and worldwide protests against American police brutality (during a pandemic I might add), I feel as though not much has changed. 

Conversations surrounding race and police brutality are less taboo, and I would say that the media at least acknowledges the injustices of Black people dying by the hands of police. But, I would argue that previous conversations on police brutality have centered on Black vs. white racial injustices. Though I agree racial injustice perpetrated by white police officers in power is an issue, I don’t believe that America as a whole has fully recognized that the policing system in itself (beyond race), is deeply flawed. If five Black police officers can beat another Black man to death over a traffic violation, what in their experiences as police officers has allowed and possibly even encouraged them to commit such heinous acts of inhumanity? What in the policing culture has created and/or even encouraged them to act so aggressively while on duty (with body cameras on as well)? This proves that the issue with policing is not race alone, but that power corrupts individuals and requires change. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Congress introduced the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.” To me, this act is one of few systemic solutions to the problem of police brutality. Some major reforms that the act would require are: a ban of chokeholds, carotid holds and other potentially lethal forms of force at the federal level, as well as restricting funding for local and state police agencies that continue to allow these forms of force. Additionally, qualified immunity, or protection of law enforcement officers from civil lawsuits would also be prohibited; meaning that families who’ve lost a loved one to overt use of police force can sue individual officers for killing their family members. This would create actual monetary repercussions for cops where and when justice is slow or completely fails to prevail. Also, the act would create a national police misconduct registry that would prevent police officers who have been fired or removed for poor performance from simply moving to another city and becoming a police officer there. 

I think this act is a great example of what types of reforms are necessary to begin making true systemic change within the police force. Unfortunately, the act died in the Senate twice in 2020 and 2021. But while adults are dragging their feet, us students can still make a difference. First, I think that student understanding of the complexity of this problem and its importance is vital. Death over a traffic violation, counterfeit bills, or illegal cigarette selling is absurd, and yet it is a reality in this country. I would also suggest that we as students start seriously researching and discussing alternatives to employing police for all types of law enforcement. Are a gun, baton, pepper spray and handcuffs really necessary to carry-out a simple traffic stop? Should police officers be the first responders for mental health crises if they specialize in detaining threats and NOT de-escalation? And should police officers be the first responders to domestic violence calls when many female survivors often feel that police involvement either won’t help their situation, or may make things worse?

Although not all of us are of voting age, freedom of assembly, speech and petition are all rights granted by our First Amendment. So I say, students, let’s use these rights. I think peaceful protests and demonstrations are always a great start. But for those who may not want to take on an activist role, leading or even participating in educational seminars and discussions on the topic of policing can be a great source to inspire real change. I personally would suggest participating in seminars led by other similarly-aged youth to help you better engage and understand the material. In addition, students can always use social media to help strengthen their voice and impact. If you can’t attend protests or sign petitions, you can definitely spread the word about these events on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like. Similarly, if you can’t vote, you can definitely spread the word about election information (i.e, where to register, what candidates’ platforms are, where to vote, etc) for new voters. 

As history continues to repeat itself and proof of violent hate against Black people in America is more accessible, I believe it’s up to the current generation of students to make changes now. Educate yourself, use your rights, and start working to make a difference.