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This Is the World the Cop People Want
The politicians who decry Tyre Nichols' killing are the same ones protecting the power of the police to tyrannize us.
It is horribly fitting, somehow, that the release of the footage showing five Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols to death came so soon after the most recent string of high-profile mass shootings in California.
In the space of a week, we have seen two deeply interconnected examples of the American addiction to violence, and of our political system’s total unwillingness to do anything to stop it. Because just as the gun people are happy to accept a world of endless death, the cop people are, on a fundamental level, content to accept the institutional tyranny that constitutes policing, even if things get a little out of hand now and again.
By “cop people,” I mean the political, economic, and cultural forces that have collaborated to give the police almost infinite sway over our lives. Their language may have gotten smarter, but their devotion to the power of the cops has not changed one bit. This is especially true of the Democratic Party, which hides behind talk of “systemic racism” and “better policing” to mask its fealty to the police.
It’s now a bit of a cliché to dwell on how rote and standardized our response to mass shootings has become—the thoughts and prayers tweets, the anguished public statements, the debate over how much to focus on the killers, the demands for change, the sinking feeling that nothing much will ever change. We all know the drill. But the same kind of leaden routine happens when the police kill a Black person in America. The president issues a statement decrying the killing but urging people to stay calm. The victim’s family is interviewed about their incalculable grief, often accompanied by Benjamin Crump, the most prominent lawyer fighting police brutality. The police say that this is not what “good policing” looks like, that the officers disregarded their training, that no decent cop would ever approve of something like this. The mayors and governors and congresspeople vow to press on with some grand new “reform” that will finally make cops behave themselves. Protesters take to the streets, flanked by a sea of cops tasked with controlling the people’s rage. And then things subside.
All of this has happened in the wake of the Nichols video. Joe Biden statement decrying the killing but urging people to stay calm? Check. Interviews with Nichols’ family and Benjamin Crump? Check. Police distancing themselves from these supposed traitors to the cause? Check. Mayors and governors and congresspeople vowing to press on with reform? Check, check, check. Protesters in the streets? Check. (The biggest difference this time around was that the Nichols snuff film was heavily trailed in advance, lending the whole thing a noxious similarity to the way Beyoncé releases new music or Marvel drops a new movie teaser. Police depravity now comes with its own hype cycle.) Just as with mass shootings, everything happened right on schedule.
And just as with mass shootings, everyone involved in these cycles—with the important exception of the protesters and the families—is playing a con game with the public.
In his statement about the Nichols footage, Biden referred to the “profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.” But this is the same Joe Biden who screamed “fund the police” at his last State of the Union, and then pushed for billions of dollars to hire 100,000 extra cops. New York Mayor Eric Adams said that, as a former cop, he felt “betrayed” by Nichols’ assailants. But this is the same Eric Adams who revived an NYPD unit just like the now-disbanded Scorpion unit responsible for Nichols’ killing. Cory Booker, who has taken the lead in the Senate on policing, issued a solemn statement about the need for further reform. But this is the same Cory Booker who went viral for gleefully telling Republicans how much he wanted to support the police. The Memphis police chief spoke of her wish to see more reforms enacted. But this is the same police department that, as Zak Cheney Rice noted in New York, has already enacted all of the leading reforms pushed by liberal supporters of the cops. Didn’t help much, did they?
Of course they didn’t help—because at the same time that all of these politicians were talking about how much they wanted police to be better, they were sending those same cops out into the streets to crush the biggest anti-police movement in history, and working hard to destroy its political viability. At the same time that they were telling stories about how much they valued accountability for cops, and how important it was that people like Derek Chauvin got locked away, they were shoveling even more money into police departments across the country. (A recent ABC News investigation found that the overwhelming majority of municipalities have increased funding for their police in the past three years.)
All of these people are cop people—people whose ultimate loyalty is to the continued violent oppression of the police. This is the world the cop people want. The politicians who wonder when America will put down its assault rifles and stop the violence, or set aside its embrace of white supremacy, are the exact same people who align themselves with the biggest purveyors of state-sponsored, institutionally racist violence in the country. (And yes, Black cops can perpetuate institutional racism—that’s why it’s called institutional racism.) Have they ever stopped to think that the two things might be connected?
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that police officers looked at governments everywhere stampeding to hand them more cash and annihilate any opposition to their continued rule and concluded that they didn’t actually need to change much of anything. Money and political support are not what punishment looks like. They’re what a reward looks like. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that all of that cash and support led not to a decrease in police violence, but to a record number of police killings in 2022.
The cops understand that the politicians are making hollow promises. They understand where these officials’ true loyalties lie. They understand that our political system sees their repression and bloodthirstiness as a feature, not a bug. They understand that violence and corruption are at the heart of what makes them such an asset to the forces that govern this country. They understand that, even if they sometimes go too far for the system to be able to defend, that system poses no real threat to their continued domination.
The cops aren’t mistaken in this understanding. They know that the cop people are in their corner, ready to stand in the way of anyone who challenges them. It is time that everyone else understands this too, and accepts that the only thing that will really change policing is its destruction.