The Fable of the Scorpion Unit

The story of the scorpion and the frog is a classic animal fable cited with a frequency that threatens to dilute its message. To those unfamiliar, here’s a brief synopsis: a scorpion wants to cross a river, so it asks a frog to carry it over on his back; the frog is understandably afraid of being stung fatally, so they initially decline. “If I were to sting you,” the scorpion argues, “then both of us would sink and drown.” Convinced by this simple observation that neither of them wants to drown, the frog agrees, letting the scorpion crawl onto their back as they begin to swim. Suddenly, midway across the river, the frog feels a sharp pain jolt through their back as their body goes limp. “Why?” asks the frog with their dying breath. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist the urge to sting. It’s in my nature,” the scorpion answers as they both sink to the bottom of the river.

In politics, this cautionary tale is often utilized to depict opposing forces (both real and perceived) as beyond reform, inherently predatory, and unable to be repaired. With regard to the SCORPION unit, the task force to which Tyre Nichols’ murderers were assigned, the parallels to the fable are almost comical. The SCORPION unit (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) was the conscious product of Memphis PD’s latest “get-tough” strategy, composed of 40 officers assigned specifically to patrol areas with higher “crime” rates (i.e. more 911 calls). Officers were reportedly focusing on auto theft, “gang-related crimes,” and “drug-related crimes.” This is a death squad. There’s no other way to describe it; a select group of the most willing and eager participants in state-sanctioned violence assigned to Black neighborhoods. The murder of Tyre Nichols wasn’t a freak accident any more than the scorpion’s drowning was an unpredictable tragedy. The SCORPION unit was designed to sting, and so it did.

As of this article’s publication, the SCORPION unit has been officially disbanded, its specific tactics criticized in the press and emphatically disavowed by Memphis PD’s mouthpieces. The likely outcome of this story will be widespread protest and justifiable outcry from vocal opponents of the expansive police state — a process we’re already seeing in motion. Beyond this, much will remain the same; special policing initiatives will continue to be implemented across the country at an unrelenting pace as the public perception of “antifa rioters” and the alleged crime wave continues to brew counter-insurrectionary sentiment among elements of the moderate, and as the radical right-wing echo chamber ensures the continued electoral success of militant politicians – either via legitimate campaigning and base mobilization, or through threatening the opposition with lethal force. Though the unit bears its name, the proverbial scorpion isn’t just 40 officers. The danger can’t merely be excised from an otherwise salvageable institution in a gradual attempt to remove its venomous organs; the danger is a white supremacist police state whose armed agents, regardless of race, gender, or identity, will always tread hardest on non-white communities, non-white individuals, and non-white bodies. It will not go away overnight, nor will it ever go away peacefully. This scorpion is too large to drown, especially if we’re left gasping for air beneath its weight.

Turning once more to fiction, we find an older version of the scorpion-frog dynamic in a similar fable: The Scorpion and the Tortoise. The scorpion follows the same narrative arc, assuring the tortoise that it can restrain itself before ultimately “whetting its sting” midway across the river. The tortoise, protected by its hard shell, shakes off the scorpion and swims to safety. If the metaphor hasn’t been laid thick enough already, we as subjects of the police state have a choice: do we take the path of the frog, trusting that the scorpion will, if its survival depends on us, think twice before stinging, or do we heed the wisdom of the tortoise, recognizing the fundamental antagonism of our situation and acting to keep ourselves safe? It will not be easy to protect against the next attack, especially as states have deployed lethal force against forest defenders, empowered cops to enforce minor curfews for the “safety of the children,” and sought to forcibly hospitalize the homeless to fulfill a “moral obligation.” These expansions are couched in the language of protection and safety, encouraging us to believe that “one child saved will have made this policy worth it.” Of course, this plea rings hollow to anyone with a healthy distrust of government; we who have suffered at the hands of the state’s paternalism, whose cries for abolition have been met with insistence that we are “false positives” in a system designed for public good, understand intimately how none of this is designed for our protection. 

Whatever security may be provided by the white supremacist police state is a happy accident, because this machine does not operate for your protection. Cops are groomed to be killers, and the fact that many don’t have a high body count isn’t a defense of the system. The police state is still a machine for murder that will kill again and again as a product of its continued existence. If we truly believe the words we say when denouncing the police state as a tool of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we can’t afford politicians and police department mouthpieces the benefit of the doubt when they say they’re doing everything in their power to “correct” these “mistakes.” The continued existence and expansion of the police force is the reason why these murders happen, and no amount of rebranding, privatization, or internal training reform will fix that. An armed white supremacist street gang will continue to kill Black people until it ceases to exist. I sincerely hope no further explanation is needed as to why this is the case. We may not live to see the day the scorpion gets cast off into the river, but we sure as hell won’t let ourselves drown. So long as there are cop cities, so too will there be forest defenders ready to act, ghost guns ready to be printed, and unlit matches ready to burn. The shell is already under construction.

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