As he lay beaten and bloodied, Tyre Nichols pleaded for his mother. Seeing that — feeling that — made me lose whatever composure I had left at that point. It was eerily reminiscent of George Floyd’s live execution. The ostensible role of the police is to protect and serve. Instead, these “peace officers” were there to pummel and subdue.
Floyd’s mother was deceased. As his life was being extinguished, perhaps his cerebral cortex recalled a moment when she had cradled and comforted him. Or perhaps his fading consciousness conjured a vision of the woman who gave him life — and who was now awaiting him in death.
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, was alive and a mere 80 yards away when he called for her. But she could not hear his screams. Tragically, reality would soon impose its unforgiving will, moving her from peaceful oblivion to painful knowledge. Even at age 29, Tyre was her “baby.” Mothers are funny like that. You never cease being their “baby,” no matter how old you are.
My mind strains to perform the psychological somersault of wondering what Mrs. Wells is experiencing, even as I try to block it out completely. I also can’t help but to wonder what the mothers of the five Black former officers who murdered Tyre Nichols are thinking and feeling. In a superhuman display of compassion, Mrs. Wells has expressed concern for them.
Incongruously, the first thing that comes up on the Memphis Police Department’s website is an ad calling for officers to join their force. What would they be joining? And who would want to join right now? Of course, Memphis police are not alone in their egregious failures. Like COVID, police brutality is endemic to our society.
From 1936-1938, the NAACP flew a now-famous flag at its national headquarters. It read, “A man was lynched yesterday.” (The organization’s landlord threatened to evict them unless they removed the flag, so they did.) In 2015, artist Scott Tyler — known professionally as Dread Scott — created a flag that read, “A man was lynched by police yesterday.” We cannot escape the sad fact that Black police officers are part of a racist system that dehumanizes Black people. In 1993, rapper and activist KRS1 recognized as much in his song “Black Cop”:
Recently police trained black cop
To stand on the corner and take gunshot
This type of warfare isn’t new or a shock
It’s black on black crime again NONSTOP
Black cop!! Black cop black cop…
Here’s what the West and the East have in common
Both have black cops in cars profilin
Hardcore kids in the West got stress
In the East we are chased by the same black beast
The black cop is the only real obstacle
Black slave turned black cop is not logical
But very psychological, haven’t you heard?
It’s the BLACK COP killin black kids in Johannesburg…
Your authorization says shoot your nation
You want to uphold the law, what could you do to me?
The same law dissed the whole black community
It’s crucial to remember that the history of policing is inextricably tied to slavery. Men patrolled the land looking for enslaved people who had escaped penal colonies (aka “plantations”). Given that some of the patrollers were Black, it is appropriate that KRS1 pointed out the “black-on-black crime” that Nichols’ death highlights. It also reenforces stereotypes regarding “violent Black men.”
I will also point out that the other so-called “first responders” during Nichols’ trauma are not worthy of that appellation. They did not respond. They loitered. They acted as voyeurs with a prurient interest in the macabre. They were spectators when they should have been interrupters.
What can we do, right now, to change things? First, we must ensure that the police are required to wear body cameras that they can’t turn off. This has substantially increased police accountability. Second, we can demand that paramilitary programs like the SCORPION Unit are substantially reformed or dismantled. Third, we can pressure prosecutors and state legislatures to make it easier to fire and prosecute police offers who act like gang members. As attorney Benjamin Crump said, the swift action in Memphis is “the blueprint” for how to handle such situations. Finally, we can demand that Congress revive the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We must boisterously call out any member who doesn’t vote for it.
Tyre Nichols’ unspeakable death proves that Black people’s humanity is not a given. Our humanity has proven to be malleable, negotiable and expendable. For some, it is fictional. The race of those who act in accordance with that moral failure is irrelevant.
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.