What price Tyre Nichols – and what’s the message for SA?

MOLO … GOOD MORNING … GOEIE DAG … from this corner of the world where we are trying to explore possibilities around a new model of rural communication that will empower rural dwellers …

Once again, the US has been convulsed by the death of a young black American at the hands of the police. Traditionally, police brutality has been explained in terms of racial profiling – in other words, the fact that the victims tend to be black youths and police officers involved tend to be white. However, in the case of Tyre Nichols, all five officers involved were black. This has forced policy-makers and analysts to dig deeper than race to find an explanation.

Enter Jay H. Ell, the pseudonym of a former Capetonian who has lived and worked in the US for many years, and writes an insightful blog.  In this provocative analysis, in which Hannah Ahrendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial also makes an appearance, he sets out to establish just what the various psychosocial dynamics were that led up to the incident. The answer, he suggests, is both scary and complex, involving the constellation of a powerful and bureaucratic state, conditioned and unthinking police officers, and a largely docile and unquestioning public.

All this is highly relevant to South Africa. We are also a highly diverse society, with a history of racism and racial domination. We are also struggling to maintain a multiparty democracy and its accompanying values in the face of social schisms and gross inequality. We also have a tradition of police brutality, partly derived from a ‘colonial’ past, which is not adequately recognised and debated. And we also have a tradition of the more privileged segment of our society failing to protest against state excesses, and the disadvantaged and disempowered segment being largely powerless to do anything about  it. So roll on, Jay H. Ell …


Jay H. Ell

I Write What I Like / 8 February  2023

On the night of January 7, 2023, nothing was further from the thoughts of five elite police officers in Memphis that 19 days later they would all be in the cells of Shelby County Jail, having been arraigned on second degree murder and kidnapping charges.The indictment related to what they had thought at the time was nothing remarkable. It was one of many incidents involving ‘a black male suspect’. Once again society would be rocked at the unthinkable incomprehensible obscene brutality ministered by otherwise normal appearing officers of the law.

The name Tyre Nichols may or may not have immediately rung a bell in the minds of The Five, but he was no longer just another ‘black male suspect’. In death he suddenly had become a persona, a real person, who as a deceased had dramatically changed their lives. This whole episode of a suspect ‘resisting arrest and sustaining injuries while attempting to escape’ had to be a part of the routine of The Five’s unthinking job routine. It was just all in their unquestioned job definition until Tyre did them the dirt and went off and died.

The Five are not alone in their lack of thinking that characterizes everything and everybody in relation to policing and society. However, when there is a corpse the whole ball game changes, and there is a repetition of the crises that have punctuated policing for the past sixty years. In the intervals between corpses, no one gives a second thought to the fact that, in spite of increased resources, firepower and military equipment, the problems being addressed just seem to get worse, not better. Periodically, there is a death which engenders an outcry which dies down till the next ’black male suspect’ dies …

Al in a regular day’s work — until there’s an inconvenient corpse

Of course. with this ‘incident’, like all the others with a ‘black male suspect’, there was the matter of filing a report. The elite cops knew the routine drill. They were accustomed to the body cameras and the recording devices. All that those contraptions meant was that they just spat out some inane rationale justifying their violence. They could all corroborate one another. Their story was boringly straightforward, or so they thought.

Nobody knows how many times previously The Five, who were members of the SCORPION UNIT, had reported ‘resisting arrest and attempting to escape and sustaining some injuries in the subsequent altercation’. Ironically, their UNIT was the mnemonic for ‘The Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods’. Little did their boss Carolyn Davis, think when she established the Unit in 2021, immediately following her appointment as Police Chief of Memphis, that she would be disbanding it so soon in response to the anger of the Nichols family and others.


Police Chief Davis, who had established similar units in previous assignments, fired The Five following an investigation into the death of Tyre Nichols. Without being too cynical, almost anything goes till there is a corpse. With an air of exasperation, she explained: ‘They have all kinds of de-escalation training. We take them off the streets so they can have a de-escalation moment, have an opportunity to do some retraining … the officers’ actions that led to Nichols’s death showed there was a problem not just with the training, but with the police culture in Memphis.’

Forgive Jay H. Ell’s cynicism — if there had been no lifeless body, would anybody outside of Memphis ever have heard of The Scorpion Unit of Memphis? This is what Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland declared weeks after the launching of the unit: ‘The SCORPION unit has had 500 arrests including 390 felony arrests. They have seized $103 000 in cash, 200 vehicles, and 253 weapons.’ One needs to know what the hell the charges were, and what were the outcomes? As Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, commented: ‘Those numbers should have been a warning sign in and of themselves … where they are pulling 180 people into custody after the unit gets started, you’ve got to take a closer look at what they are doing … what those charges are, the probable cause, and the reason for the stop …’ The inescapable inference from all of this is that these guys were just a collection of legal vigilantes who reigned violence that finally led to this tragedy. Reverend Sharpton’s allegation that had Tyre Nichol’s been white he would have not been stopped appears to be more than just WOKE rhetoric.

The more one delves into this, the worse it gets. What were the racial percentages of those stopped by The Five? To bounce back to the Nichol’s travesty, the reason for the stop was ostensibly ‘reckless driving’, yet there is no evidence for this. The camera situated on a lamppost that blew The Five’s report reflected no images of reckless driving. The further one applies one’s mind, the sicker it gets. There is a sixth cop whose only defense is that he cleared off before they butchered Tyre. Then three EMTs have been fired because they were apparently more concerned with chatting with The Five than meeting the medical needs of the ‘accused’. The culture is sadly epidemic.

Before Jay H. Ell continues – full disclosure – he worked as an ER physician where he was in constant contact with the police and EMTs, where the culture was highly attentive to those they took into custody. They were bringing ‘accused’ into the ER on their say-so that they were feeling ill or had injuries.

Having made this obvious statement that one cannot tar all officers of the law with the same brush, Jay H. Ell maintains that society cannot rely on whether the culture happens to be positive or not as to whether ‘an accused’ is going to be beaten up or not. As with Memphis and Minnesota, tor example, the culture was not too hot, and the only window into what was going on was when there was a corpse.

Who gets the blame? The Five? Tyre, for dying? The doctors? Memphis? The culture of the Department and/or society?
The Five, Memphis, society, and the role of police cultures

Who are The Five who have been charged? Are they just taking the rap because Tyre did them the dirt and went off and died? The police chief intimated that they were just part of the culture in the Memphis Police Force which has about 2800 members. Another seven were subsequently disciplined in connection with the alleged murder.

Who could have guessed that Tyre had a weak constitution? How were The Five to know he had Crohn’s Disease, and at six foot three inches only weighed a 143 pounds and obviously was not up to being beaten up? How good were the doctors? What did they miss? For G-d’s sake, he was a young man, can’t they manage trauma?

Well, The Five in the dock have names: Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Emmitt Martin, Justin Smith and Tadarrius Bean. They are people. They have to have feelings of some sort or another. They aren’t sociopaths or even malignant narcissists. Are they married, and do they have children? Indeed, Mills’s lawyer argued that he was a ‘respectful father and devastated to be accused in the killing’. They all must have mothers and fathers. How are the shocked parents reacting to their sons being the poster children of the polecats of America?

A more pertinent question is, how come all theses bad eggs came to be in the same basket? They all colluded in this alleged heinous crime.? Four of The Five have been disciplined for violations in the course of their duty. In two of the disciplinary actions, the charge was that they failed to report that force was utilized in the arrest. The inquiring body didn’t bother to investigate whether the force was warranted or not. All this begs the question why these bad eggs were part of an exclusive squad. The Chief who formed the Unit admits that the culture in her department sucks, so anyone she would chosen would have been suspect. Seven more officers have been disciplined over the incident. The culture apparently extended to the EMTs whose job it was to minister to the sick and injured. Who are they? Did everyone who was a bad egg in Memphis enlist either in the police force of their ancillary services? The answer is scary and complex.

Difficult to buck the culture – you just become part of it

It is very difficult to buck the culture around you and defy the prevailing belief system. Hitler could not have effected the scale of genocide that he did if he didn’t receive the buy-in from ordinary Germans who bought the lie and its final solution. Daniel Goldhagen’s detailed researched treatise, Hitler’s Willing Executioners – Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, provides conclusive evidence that the collective consciousness of society unquestionably participated in the most cold-blooded genocide in living memory.

While the cops of Memphis are not comparable to Hitler’s Germany, the psychodynamics are the same. This was really the culture of the Memphis police department, its overseeing disciplinary body, and the mayor, who unquestioningly and gleefully exaggerated the scorecard of SCORPIO’S immediate successes, only to condemn The Five when it all hit the fan. He never asked the basic questions as to the why, how and who of all those early arrestees in his initial braggadocio. He never gave it a thought. It appeared that Memphis had criminals and crime that they didn’t even imagine. SCORPIO delivered what was expected and more, and they weren’t the only show in America, as other corpses have revealed.

Richard Balko has defined the morphing of the police into ‘soldiers’ in his seminal work Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of the American Police’. Since the sixties, the quest to combat drugs, crime, terrorists or whatever has led to the empowerment of the police and the loss of Fourth Amendment Right protection against illegal searches arrests and the like.

Social problems and ‘solutions’

There thus seems to be an underlying desire to rid society of abstract ill-defined problems and profiling the group or race who are the alleged perpetrators. In this instance, those who are making the streets unsafe are the African Americans. This construct quickly catapults everyday Joes into colluding with the idolatry to stamp out the perpetrators. There is a pattern in this type of scenario. It can escalate into the unbridled abuse of authority, with the power of government behind it.

This phenomenon of unthinking collusion, whether written small or written, large has the same etiology. There needs to be a a societal ill perpetrated by an entity who is victimizing society. There needs to be a response by those in power, whether it is the mullahs of Iran via the Morality Police combating sin by arresting and raping the Godless hijabless women or the Nazis claiming that their WWI defeat and subsequent economic depression was because of the Jewish vermin. it is the same old, same old …

A failure to think –from mystic Chassidim to Hannah Ahrendt’s Banality of Evil

The Chassidic mystics made the pertinent observation as to the origins of behavior – the way you think of a problem results in the way you feel about it and that consequently dictates the actions taken. So if you think society has a problem such as crime, and the criminals are predominantly black, you can feel justified in taking any action that will solve the problem. The agents carrying out the deeds feel no guilt or remorse, as their action is carrying out societal needs.

Hannah Ahrendt, who is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, reported on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1961, 15 years after the Nuremberg trials – the same Nuremberg where Hitler had held his rallies. Those trials saw high-ranking Nazis tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. Those trials took place as an extension of the Allied fight against fascism and Nazism. Those charged sat in the dock in their blood-soaked garb and were not regarded as ordinary individuals. They were regarded as monsters.

Eichmann’s trial took place away from the stench of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, in the sanitized environment of an Israeli courtroom. Germany had long repented, paid reparations, and had once again become a respected democratic nation. Eichmann did not appear at the trial in his Fascist uniform. Gone was the large cap and the collar with its buttons and Nazi insignia which had served as a frame for his angular evil-looking, sneering face. The 1961 Eichmann was stripped of the trappings of his evil persona. He was balding, with his head bare. He was a crumpled, aging man in a suit, an ordinary citizen who had been kidnapped from his mundane life in the Argentine. It was surreal to watch the prosecution try him for the genocide of six million souls. He claimed, matter of factly, that he hadn’t killed a single Jew. It seemed incongruous that someone who appeared to be a mediocre civil servant was being blamed for mankind’s greatest atrocity.

However surreal and ridiculous his trial was, he maintained he was just carrying out orders. Innocuous as the accused appeared, he was the organizer and executioner of six million Jews. And there he was looking like everyday you and me. Probably he was living the life of a citizen making ends meet, going to work daily at the Mercedes Benz factory in Buenos Aires. He was indistinguishable from those Germans who voluntarily joined in Hitler’s slaughter while going about their day-to-day living. One had to assume that he had bought the big lie, and any action to eradicate the problem was justified.

In order to cope with these paradoxes, Ahrendt coined the famous phrase the ‘Banality of Evil’. At its core, it refers to non-thinking, mindless, senseless and evil behavior. Ahrendt concluded that ideologies deaden thought as to what is good and evil, making society or social groups easier prey in participating in brutalities. All this is made possible by the massive concentration of bureaucratic and technocratic power in the nation-state. So ordinary folk who live otherwise ordinary lives join in and become numbed to their own thoughtless evil.

The positive legal outcome arising out of the Nuremberg trials was that ‘just following orders’ was no longer acceptable as a defence in the case of crimes against humanity.

Once ‘the black male suspect’ was subdued …

Once Nichols was senseless and handcuffed, and The Five had thoughtlessly and illegally executed the State’s objective, with their flimsy, rarely challenged narrative intact, what did The Five talk about? Did they discuss the Super Bowl, their children, or what they were going to do off duty when they had shed their resplendent uniforms which confirmed their status and power? Were they off the next day? Would they do gardening or shopping while dressed in the civilian garb blending in with all around them?

Then The Five had company. What passed between them and the EMTs in the twenty minutes from the latter’s arrival and Tyre being carted off to hospital? In all likelihood they had met before. Did they enquire about each others’ families? – the trivia of daily life intermingled seamlessly with the trivia of evil. All because nobody did any thinking about what was happening in Memphis. As the former Boston police commissioner observed, the sheer volume of arrests was a red flag in and of itself …

No one thought — and nobody still does — that crime is associated with poverty and poor education. Not that this absolves the criminal, or mean that, even if societal ills are somehow addressed, crime will be eliminated.

Here we go again …

So we are in for another trial. The accused will be in their suits and respectfully stand as the Judge enters. Members of their families may be present, because they have to have those who love them. Also fresh from interminable interviews, the family of Tyre will attend in the hope that justice will be served and some sort of closure to their unspeakable loss will begin. We have already heard all the pious talk by the leaders of society who unthinkingly assume no responsibility for the tragedy. Finally, for the gawking public, there was the televised church service with the singing, the sermons and the eulogies. The trial itself as the hours of tape unrolls with its brutality will leave unthinking society confused that such barbarism can take place in cold blood.

So before we educate the next generation to think, what can be done? How about ‘The George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill’?

The underlying psychodynamics have been identified — the unthinking powerful bureaucratic state and its unthinking soldiers with the unthinking society’s buy-in. BUT can anything legislatively be done now to address the problem?

For those who respect the mass of law enforcement officers who risk their lives daily as they did on January 6, surely they are owed legislation that would separate them from these bad apples.

There is on record The George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill, so named after an earlier grotesque incident when a conscientious and thinking young bystander recorded phone the systematic, shameless and mindless abuse of force resulting in the death of George Floyd on her cell phone. The Bill increases accountability, and establishes best practices. The proposed legislation lowers the criminal standard for guilt to ‘willful or knowing’ that their actions were illegal. It limits the immunity that police have from their actions, and allows for them to be sued, Mechanisms for recording and researching complaints against police are put in place. It also bans lethal actions that are known to occur, such as choke and carotid holds, and racial profiling.

Needless to say, the Bill did not receive a vote in the Senate because ten ‘GOP’ members would not break the filibuster. In fact, not even two would vote to just have it passed by a majority vote. The Democrats could have prevailed if Senators Sinema and Manchin believed that this was important enough to pass with a simple majority. In the House, one ‘GOP’ member voted for it.

The presence of Tyre’s parents as guests of President Biden for his the State of the Union address served as a stark reminder of the toll that the unthinking ‘culture’ has taken on African American parents. Biden’s gift of empathy removed any hint of the phoniness that some of the State of the Union guests engender, appearing as mere props.

Governor Ron Desantis will tell you why he doesn’t support the Bill – because it is WOKE and makes white people feel guilty even though many of the police offenders are black.

At the end of the day …

So you have the ideology, the powerful state, the leaders who mandate the soldiers, with unthinking society acquiescing to this banality of evil … until there is a corpse which precipitates an outcry, but no rethink of how this could happen again and again.

Perhaps there should be rethink about who should be issuing citations for speeding and what the job definition of those policing traffic violations should be. Why on earth should those enforcing the law against those with a non-functioning taillight be armed to the teeth? Why, if blacks are pulled over for not stopping dead at a stop sign, must their hands be visible, and they must not make any jerky movements?

A traffic officer’s job definition should just be enforcing the law relating to traffic violations. It should be separated from conventional police activity. Those in authority must surely wonder why so many who have have broken taillights, allegedly ride recklessly or speed in built-up areas seem to resist arrest as well? And the fact that they also usually happen to be not white. And knowing what we already know, it’s going to get worse …

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