Memphis shows us the winding path toward liberation
For Christians, police and prison abolition is the only answer, but the path to get there is complicated.
The five cops that beat Tyre Nichols to death have been fired and charged with second-degree murder. For those of us who have been crying out for justice against killer cops, in many ways this is a welcome development. Justice and progress in police killings, in addition to releasing videos of the events themselves, have taken a long time and involved a legal process. But here, while the pattern of obfuscation was followed in some ways (the initial statement from the Memphis Police Department was dishonest, for example), after two weeks, the five cops were fired, and a week later, charged with second-degree murder.
What complicates this story, which could be considered a “win” for advocates for justice, are the five cops who beat Nichols to death are Black. It’s hard to observe these events and not name race as a factor in them. At the same time, there is also progress in the swiftness that the department acted. We find ourselves in the complicated space between being grateful that justice was swift and wondering if that swiftness was racist.
If you have seen the video or read the reports, the beating of Tyre Nichols was heinous and completely unjustified. It was violent, excessive, and completely disgusting. In some ways, the relentless assault is set apart from other violent encounters between police and Black men, the assault was so egregious that some think that such a swift response was warranted. So, the question that follows is whether we’ve made progress or whether we’ve regressed so much in how we tolerate police brutality, that it got to the point of brazen, unquestionable assault. Has the justice system responded more readily to police brutality, or is this just another case of the anti-Blackness in the justice system? Would white cops have suffered the same charges?
Questions abound, answers are few, and perspectives vary. There isn’t a “right” or singular perspective. In all likelihood, what we saw in Memphis is complicated to say the least. We want justice, but the ways of the world aren’t equipped to offer us it, and so in this in between time, between now and the full justice of God, we wade through murky water.
I believe that in the age to come we will have an end to violence and wars, and I believe that the work toward making the Kingdom come starts now. God will ultimately abolish systems of death and violence in the age to come. Thus, God has given us an eschatological vision for the world to come, and as Christians, we must continue to work toward that end. And yes, plainly, that means we work toward prison and police abolition.
Even if we can see a glimmer of hope in the arrest and charge of Tyre Nichols’ murderers, we understand that that justice occurred with the same knife that killed Nichols himself. The power of the state is insufficient is giving us true justice, and the justice it offers us is flawed, messy, and complicated. That doesn’t mean we need to discard the progress that we can make incrementally now, but it does mean that we cannot celebrate it as a true victory. Would it have been better for Nichols’ murderers to walk free and go unpunished? No. But it is still not the justice that we hope for. Even in the case of Tyre Nichols, when conceivably so much progress was made, we see problems and flaws that are endemic to a violent and racist system such as ours.
The fundamental flaws of our political order demand a complete re-imagining. We can and need to imagine a world where our communities are safe and free of violence. We do need to defund and abolish systems that are broken, but we also must acknowledge that even within our current system, progress can be made. This is the tricky party of advocating for justice in a broken world: it comes in trickles, it is rarely satisfying, and sometimes it leads us to despair.
We must continue to hold our prophetic imagination for what seems to be politically practical or possible, while being as wise as serpents when it comes to engaging in practical politics that leads to real change here and now. The hope of God and the promise of victory give us transcendent hope, not just that victory is coming, but that lofty ideas like police and prison abolition are possibilities. We can imagine a new world because we are assured victory through God.
That assurance also allows us to endure present circumstances that are insufficient, without discarding them whole sale. Because of our faith, we can look to Tyre Nichols and the arrest and charge of his killers with grace, understanding that though our system is flawed, we can see where progress occurs. More than that, because we have hope for a new horizon, we are not condemned to operate only within a flawed system, but can imagine a whole new world. Police and prison abolition are possible because of God’s vision for the world. Because of this God-given prophetic imagination though, we can name progress even in our winding and messy road toward liberation.