U.S. police violence stems from a long history of fighting ‘internal enemies’

Published: 15 February 2023

Many of the details surrounding the recent fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., are still unknown or disputed. Yet in many ways, all you need to know is how the encounter started: With Nichols expressing confusion as to why he had been stopped, and one officer replying that he would attack Nichols. In approaching Nichols as someone hostile — an enemy on a battlefield, rather than a member of the public — the police in this case brought nearly 400 years of American history to what was allegedly a routine traffic stop, writes Professor Jason Opal in the Department of History and Classical Studies. In a recent article for The Conversation Canada, Opal describes how the effects of slavery and discriminatory laws continue to endure. “It’s important to understand the deep and broad appeal of this approach in an apparently fearful country where there are more guns than people and where mass killings are shockingly routine,” says Prof. Opal. “It’s equally important to trace the approach itself to specific historical moments, so that clear alternatives can become imaginable — perhaps even possible.” 

jason.opal [at] (English, French) 

Back to top