We find ourselves, as a nation, in a nauseating position.
In the hours before Memphis police released video of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man from Memphis, cable-news anchors filling some of their copious time, spoke of the police footage as “hours away from release,” “soon to come,” and with other terms typically reserved for sporting events, major political speeches, moments of scandal, and Hollywood film premieres. The city, newscasters said, is on edge. Memphis’s Black female police chief, Cerelyn Davis and surrounding Shelby County’s District Attorney Steve Mulroy, a white man and Democrat, have been lauded for their comparatively swift, decisive action. The five Black officers involved in the January 7 beating have been fired and indicted on multiple charges including official misconduct and oppression, second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated kidnapping. Davis described the contents of the tape as revolting, reflecting a disregard for human life.
So here we are now, just after the airing of what is effectively a police snuff film, an execution on tape for what may have been no crimes at all.
That stomach-churning fact is, of course, possible because of America’s stop-start, sometimes hard-to-call-sincere commitment to do something about the number of people killed by police each year, a disproportionate share of whom are Black. And, at the same time, there have also been a range of – in many cases, well-intentioned – warnings, suggestions, and publicly declared refusals to watch the tapes’ contents. Instead, these people, including Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said in the hours before the tapes were released, that Nichols should be remembered the way he lived. He was, his mother said, tall and lanky, weighing in at “a buck fifty.” He was a “beautiful soul,” artistic and “his own person,” not perfect but, “damn near close,” Wells said at a Friday press conference before the videos were made public. He was a man who liked to take his chances on a skateboard and photograph Memphis’s architecture, scenery, and sunsets. But when she saw him last, comatose in a hospital bed, his neck and nose had been broken, the latter resembling an “S.” Nichols’ head was swollen, Wells said, ”like a watermelon.” His on-tape beating, some who refused to watch it said, was just more Black death porn on the pyre, and unnecessary psychic wounds for people who already know all about the damage done by American policing.
Years ago, a newsroom colleague, a white woman who also liked to joke that on her frequent getaways she could tan to a color browner than me, asked me if she was obligated to watch yet another police-execution tape. That time, it was 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s 2014 shooting death by Chicago Police. It had taken more than a year since his killing to get the tape released, unlike the 20 days since Nichol’s beating in Memphis. I gave her the answer I knew she wanted and perhaps needed to hear. Only you know your own limits, what you can and cannot handle. So do whatever that demands, just find a way to connect with the facts of what happened, to be well and accurately informed. And I’d probably say the same today to those who are hesitant. But I would likely add this: Those of us who are adults, living and breathing, must contend with the fact that unchecked and unlawful policing, a state-funding force with unlimited power and little to no accountability, not only allows for assaults on citizens but threatens democracy. It’s an element of a fascist state.
I’ve watched Lora King, the daughter of the late Rodney King, peer through a steady font of tears at a looped video of his 1991 beating. She did not look away. She looked straight ahead at what America was and, it appears, is. She only briefly closed her eyes. And at least some of us – adults – are going to have to join her, to bear witness to the current contours of American brutality and consider what, if anything, can be done. Those who don’t are within their rights. It may be necessary for reasonable mental health in deeply troubling times characterized by mass shootings, child shootings, and a very young child who fired a bullet into his teacher in class. But there is also the disquieting fact that images of official violence – on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and on a Minneapolis street in 2020 – have played a role in boosting public support for policy changes and forced some people who, because of their own race, have very different experiences with police, to admit that, at the very least, some officers have broken the law. The law of qualified immunity, some of white America’s indifference, and the highest court in the land together shield some officers from accountability.
Police departments across the country have shot and killed about 1,000 people per year, since 2015, according to a Washington Post database. Those figures do not include beating, choking, and other deaths caused by police uses of force. Some of these deaths are, a policing expert told me just before Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd, not even recorded as deaths caused by police because it all comes down to what local medical examiners and coroners are willing to list in autopsy records. And overall, data on deaths caused by police or even the relationship between officer race and officer conduct are so inconsistently collected by departments that patterns are difficult to verify.
But three things, Max Markham, vice president of policy and community engagement at the Center for Policing Equity, told me before the tapes were released today, are clear. Black drivers in multiple cities are significantly more likely than white drivers to be subjected to a traffic stop, traffic stops are the genesis of a large share of incidents that lead to a use of force, and when Black Americans do come in contact with police, they are also significantly more likely to have some type of force used upon them than white Americans. And there’s one other thing. It’s too reductive to say that because the officers involved in the Nichols beating in Memphis were, like Nichols, Black that the beating and other choices made that led up to it had no relationship to race. The policies and practices that prompt officers in many cities to disproportionately pull over Black drivers produce racially disparate – some might say racist – results, Markham says.
And Memphis is an interesting place to examine policing policy, practice, and culture, or at least its history. In 1971, a group of white Memphis police officers caused the death of a 17-year-old black boy named Elton Hayes following a high-speed car chase. Police initially claimed the boy’s injuries were caused by a crash, but the medical and other physical evidence told a different story, showing the boy had been severely beaten in a ditch. Two years passed before prosecutors took the officers involved to trial, and when they were all acquitted of charges including murder and assault, what police called riots followed. Hayes’ was one of two deaths of a Black young person under similar circumstances that year. Three years later, a Black police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old Black boy named Edward Garner as the teen was climbing a backyard fence after allegedly burglarizing a house where no one was home. The boy’s father, Cleamtee Garner, was what a lawyer who worked on the case described as a “regular working man,” and a decorated WWII veteran. He was appalled that his son’s life could be summarily ended and filed a suit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During his testimony in a lower court, the officer who shot Garner was unusually candid describing a sickening police culture where he was congratulated for the killing. Some, perhaps even many, officers carried “drop guns” to plant on suspects and put notches on their service weapons for every Black person they’d killed. When the Supreme Court decided Tennessee v. Garner in the family’s favor in 1985, the decision established that police could not shoot fleeing suspects unless the officer believed the suspect posed an immediate danger. For many states, this was the first guideline for use of potentially fatal force set since the 19th century. And, for a time, it reduced the number of people shot and killed by police across the country – until officers got better at using the ruling’s precise language to render a shooting justifiable. The standard has since changed. It now varies from state to state, but generally speaking, force can be used when an officer perceives a threat to his own or other lives.
Today, despite the seeming wall-to-wall coverage of events in Memphis and the relatively quick firing and arrest of the officers, the vast majority of deaths caused by police will not lead to criminal charges. And an even smaller subset still – infinitesimal may be more accurate – will lead to an officer’s conviction. So, we who are alive to see it or at least take in the essential facts of what happened to Nichols do have a range of choices, including the degree of solemnity those of us who watch bring to the viewing and what those of us who don’t say about a man’s last moments in immense terror and pain.
The precise sequence of events is difficult to parse. In the end it is not a police body cam that provides a view of most of the beating. On the footage from the officers’ devices made public little can somehow be seen. Much can be heard. But an overhead outdoor camera mounted to a pole provided a view of the beating. An officer approaches Nichols’ car after a traffic stop. The officer is yelling curse words and commands then physically jerks Nichols from the vehicle. Nichols is repeating the words “all right,” and “OK,” then “why” as officers yell more commands and land blows on his body. Nichols flees. Officers lose sight of Nichols, chase him, curse and pant as they catch, kick, beat and possibly shock and pepper spray Nichols while he is pinned to the ground. There are blows from what looks like a police baton, along with additional punches and kicks to the head. There are demands that Nichols “give” the officers his “(expletive) hands,” and “lay flat, (expletive),” although at points he appears limp and is not moving at all and at others is moving slowly under an officer’s body weight.
Among the last things Nichols says on tape as he’s held by several officers on the ground about 100 yards from his mother’s home is the word “Mom.”
Nichols can be heard moaning, and eventually officers trying to get him up are told to “grab his foot,” and start to discuss their belief that he’s “on something,” a claim frequently made by officers in legal cases where excessive force has allegedly been used. That assertion by officers at the scene has not yet been proven by postmortem tests and exams that have thus far been made public. Nichols is not heard speaking again. Officers prop what looks like an unconscious Nichols against a police car. He repeatedly slides toward the ground. The officers, at points, chatter among themselves about what they have experienced. And despite the presence of paramedics, no one appears to check on Nichols’ condition for several minutes.