The Constitution Failed Tyre Nichols

Urban League Twin Cities Interim CEO & President, Marquita Stephens responds to the killing of Tyre Nichols.


The Constitution Failed Tyre Nichols

The sight of a 140-pound man being beat to death by five police officers in the street under the cloak of darkness is unnerving to say the least. It is painful to watch. It gets more painful each time it happens as we watch innocence trampled right before our eyes. My heart bleeds for the parents, and the family and friends of Tyre Nichols, and for his wider community, as they remember the skateboarder he was, the loving son he has ceased to be.

My heart also hurts for the mothers of the five officers who watched their sons beat a man to death. No mother knowingly raises their son to be a killer, so they are hurting too. I recognize that officials responded swiftly to remedy the harm done by the squad it created but unfortunately for all of us, this is a local story that is too often repeated nationally.

Areas with high crime rates are often dubbed “hot spots.” The outcry of citizens in these areas is often met with the birth of specialized police units. In Memphis, this unit was called SCORPION. As seen on tape, it was as vicious as its name implies. Too often the officers in these units abuse their power and too often the abuse occurs in Black communities. It is a national problem.

Whether it’s bad policing by individuals, as is generally thought in the case of Derek Chauvin with the murder of George Floyd, or by squads like we just witnessed in Memphis with Tyre Nichols, or 24 years ago in New York City with Amadou Diallo, the political system birthing these practices must be honest about the causes of crime and then address the structural changes that need to occur. If reckless driving is a problem in “hot spots,” as was claimed in the case in Memphis, then look for solutions that address the problem, speed bumps and round-abouts come to mind, a common consideration in predominantly white communities.

The job of a police officer is to apprehend and arrest. Simply stated, the five police officers surrounding Tyre Nichols were not doing their job. They should not have acted as judge, jury and executioner. Apprehend and arrest — and with reasonable cause! No one should risk being killed by a police squad because of the street their mother lives on.

Police get their authority from the state and that authority emanates from the constitution. No law gives them power to operate outside the constitution. All the reforms were present in the Memphis case — body cams, commissioned studies, at least two officers on the scene, officers who were familiar with the community — and yet all those reforms failed to prevent this killing. An approach that ignores the causes of crime — the disparity of opportunity that exists — has no place in a society whose preamble of the Constitution of the United States talks about establishing justice.

We are still operating with a document written with a quill.  Written some 150 years after the first slave ships landed, the US Constitution imbedded anti-blackness with a 3/5 of a man clause making an attempt to ensure the interests of Black people would not be represented in government.   The 14th Amendment, ratified shortly after the Civil War, granted citizenship, and provided for equal protection under the law but anti-Black attitudes and actions have remained imbedded in American culture and thus its enforcement –or lack thereof—and is seen in Institutional structures that reinforce this racial domination exist today.  This provision clearly did not apply to Tyre Nichols. We must write the humanity of Black and other marginalized people, together with all citizens into law with a different framing document that carries greater guidance around enforceability and gives the Supreme Court clearer rails for interpretation. We cannot continue to ignore the dissonance. By the actions of people sworn to protect us, people living in “hot spots” are too often treated as being outside of Constitutional protection.

We have to get comfortable talking about anti-Blackness and “othering” in general. It’s at the root of the problem. Until we do, we will never have the “inalienable rights” as penned in this country’s founding documents.

Marquita Stephens

Interim CEO and President

Urban League Twin Cities

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