‘We’re not done’: end of Scorpion unit after Tyre Nichols death is first step, protesters say

<span>Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

Along Main Street, just outside Memphis City Hall, a swarm of white and Black protesters and organizers gathered under the sprinkling rain to mark a significant victory: the city police department had just announced they would permanently disband the so-called Scorpion unit whose officers were involved in the beating death of Tyre Nichols.

Related: Memphis police disband unit whose officers fatally beat Tyre Nichols

Still, they argued, that was just the first step in getting justice for Nichols, whose shocking death has stunned and angered much of America and reopened a debate over racism and police brutality. “We’re not done,” one organizer said through a megaphone. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

They called for the release of information on all officers and personnel involved in Nichols’s death on top of the murder charges laid against the five Black officers who attacked the 19-year-old. They also demanded an end to pre-textual traffic stops, such as pulling people over for broken tail lights and loud music, and the dissolution of other units and task forces the Memphis police department operates.

Before the announcement of the Scorpions disbandment, demonstrators had marched past a fire station and Memphis police headquarters and chanted “Justice for Tyre”. The protest had come just a day after the city released video footage of the brutal mass beating that had led to Nichols’s death. At one point, protesters surrounded police vehicles that had blocked off the streets.

Once the group made a loop around the area and returned to City Hall, Amber Sherman, an organizer, recounted part of the statement released by Memphis police and added: “If we can do one, we can do them all!”

Ending the unit, one of several police task forces in Memphis dispatched to neighborhoods to suppress crime, had been one of several demands protesters and Nichols’s family made in the aftermath of the Nichols’s death. In a statement, the family’s attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said that the unit’s dissolution marked an “appropriate and proportional” response to Nichols’s death and a “decent and just decision” to Memphis residents.

“We hope that other cities take similar action with their saturation police units in the near future to begin to create greater trust in their communities,” they said. “We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further.”

Martavius Jones, chair of the Memphis city council, told the crowd that it was now on city officials to take further action to reform the police department. “Hold us accountable,” he told the crowd. LJ Abraham, a local community organizer, and others looked over to Jones and reiterated they would.

Jones, who grew up in Memphis and has been on the city council since 2015, told the Guardian that he gave credit to the police chief and Shelby county district attorney for respectively firing and charging five officers but would listen to residents for guidance.

“We’re the body that can put forth reforms that can address this, and do our best to try to prevent this from happening again,” Jones told the Guardian.

JB Smiley, vice chair of the Memphis city council, called for charges against “each and every officer” involved in Tyre Nichols’s death and urged citizens to “pull up” to upcoming city council meetings to make their voices heard.

Smiley said in a statement that one police officer who “tased Tyre Nichols and who compelled the other officers to stomp him” to be fired, echoing what other organizers have expressed. He plans on introducing amendments to city ordinances that would bolster transparency by making Memphis police report traffic stops and track use of force complains and other misconduct.

“We don’t stand for police brutality in the city of Memphis,” Smiley said. “This will never happen again in any other city because we will set the standard people will take suit and will be served and policy is implemented across this nation.

Abraham, who says she has lived in Memphis since she was 12, told the Guardian that organizers are still demanding that Memphis police dismantle other task forces they run such as the multi-agency gang unit and transparency in releasing body camera footage. She showed the Guardian video from 2020 from a woman showing multiple Memphis police kneeling on her husband’s back while they tried to handcuff him, reportedly on his property.

“Right now, when somebody is shot by police, we can’t see that video,” Abraham said, adding that four people had been killed by Memphis police since November. “The only reason we got to see Tyre’s footage was because of the manner in which he died.”

Abraham recalled a moment outside a cocktail bar when she interacted with police after a patron made a “racist comment” toward her brother. During that interaction a year ago, Abraham says she was “aggressively attacked and thrown into a police car”.

“For me it shines an additional layer into how aggressive the Memphis police department feels they need to be when there’s no need for aggression. In these traffic stops, people are fearful that either they are getting the shit beat out of them or they’re going to die,” Abraham said. “That shouldn’t be an expectation from people whose salaries we pay who are hired to protect and serve…It should never constitute someone getting murdered by the police.”

“We’re not stopping until our demands are met,” she added. “This will keep going.”