The Tyre Nichols video wrenches the heart of Black America
We might be disappointed that 5 Black officers are charged with beating a Black man to death, but we’re not surprised
Black folks have seen video of cops abusing Black citizens before. But the video of Tyre Nichols’ beating – which was released on Jan. 27, nearly three weeks after his arrest – felt particularly raw, in part because all five officers charged in the case are Black.
Nichols, 29, died three days after his car was stopped by a specialized Memphis, Tennessee, police unit that targets high-crime areas. According to a video of the arrest, the FedEx worker and father of a young boy was pepper-sprayed, tased, stomped, kicked, clubbed and punched by the officers, all of whom have been charged with second-degree murder. After the attack, the officers milled around, talking about the assault and alleging that Nichols was high and had tried to grab one officer’s revolver. One officer could be heard bragging about getting his licks on Nichols.
“Man, I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog,” the officer said.
A funeral for Nichols will be held Wednesday in Memphis. Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to attend, along with Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police in Kentucky, and Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, who was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.
It’s not the first time Black officers have been involved in cases of excessive force that received national attention. J. Alexander Kueng, one of the officers convicted in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was Black. So were three of the Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
But rarely has America seen a real-life case in which the victim was tased at one location, managed to run away, was tracked down less than 100 yards from his parents’ home and attacked again from just about every angle and with just about every tool the officers had in their possession, short of a firearm.
Nearly everyone who has seen the video has condemned it, regardless of race or ethnicity, and expressed condolences to the Nichols’ family. But for Black citizens, the video of Nichols’ death has been particularly heart-wrenching.
For years, civil rights leaders and other activists have pushed for adding more Black officers to the nation’s more than 18,000 law-enforcement agencies as a way to improve relationships with the Black community and hopefully reduce incidences of excessive force and other bad police behavior. But study after study after study has shown that no matter how much you diversify a police department, citizen complaints from Black communities don’t dip. Conservative commentators have pointed out that the five officers were Black to deny that institutionalized racism played a role in Nichols’ death. Some conservative politicians have said no laws need to be changed as a result of the case, while liberal elected officials and the Nichols family attorney are pushing for the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would make it easier to prosecute or sue police officers for misconduct.
The officers were charged within weeks of the attack. Still, many Black people in Memphis and around the nation ask why the wheels of justice haven’t always moved as swiftly when white officers use excessive force.
On social media, people haven’t been shy about saying the race of the officer doesn’t prevent the use of excessive force.
“*Never* be under the illusion that a Black cop is less likely to brutalize you or kill you,” said Elie Mystal, a writer for The Nation.
Others expressed a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment. “Such disappointment that Black brothers in Blue chose NOT to protect the members of our own community. Black officers should be the vanguard, not the vanquishers,” wrote Sonia Y.W. Pruitt, a former police captain in Montgomery County, Maryland.
But Aldon Morris, a professor emeritus in sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, said that while the community might be disappointed that five Black officers were involved in this case, we’re not surprised. He said systemic racism is the root of the issue, not the race of the cops.
“Growing up in America as Black people, you have a whole history of being abused or harassed by officers who are Black,” said Morris. “You’ve always had Blacks during slavery and during Jim Crow that worked on behalf of the racist elements in the white community.”
Nichols’ death has produced conflicting emotions. We’re outraged that Nichols is dead. But surprised that the officers were charged relatively quickly, which is not normally the case in high-profile incidents. We want the cops held accountable – but also want white cops held accountable in similar cases.
Black folks see injustices against fellow Black people differently from other racial and ethnic groups see incidents against their members, researchers say. Black people tend to look out for each other because most say that whatever happens to one Black person could easily happen to another, including them and their families and friends.
“There’s a concept in the social sciences called ‘linked fate,’ ” said Rashawn Ray, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “It’s the concept that highlights that all of us are in this together as Black people.”
“It’s actually not that difficult to think about why that would be,” said Ray. “We only represent like less than 13% of the population in any given setting. It might be one out of 10 of us [in a room]. So it becomes a little bit easier to stigmatize and stereotype that group of people.”
Ray attended college in Memphis and is familiar with the city, where two-thirds of its population of 628,000 is Black. The police department is 58% Black and, according to The New York Times, 86% of excessive force complaints since 2016 have come from Black citizens.
“When it happens with these officers, what people say is, ‘Dang, that was wrong. These guys should be fired. They should probably be charged with murder,’ ” Ray said.
But then, people complained about “the swiftness by which [the charges] happened,” Ray noted. “That becomes part of it, because we know that everything we do as Black people, that this particular incident is going to make it more difficult in some ways for us to pursue racial justice.”
In 2022, a Pew Research Center study concluded that 76% of Black Americans say “being Black” is extremely or very important to how they think about themselves. A significant portion also said that when something goes down with other Black people or in the Black community in general, it impacts what happens in their own lives, which Pew said highlighted a sense of connectedness in the Black community.
“When your identity has been grounded in hate – that you’re not good, that you’re not as successful, you’re not as smart, you’re not as hardworking – unless it’s transformed into something positive, unless it’s transformed into self-love, the negativity can have huge implications for impacting our mental and emotional health,” Ray said. “So over time, Black people have learned to transpose that and literally try to deflect all the everyday slights and cuts that show us and tell us that we’re Black.”
Some say the close connections that exists within the Black community could work against the five Black officers charged with killing Nichols.
“I don’t care what color police officer,” RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mom, said on CNN on January 27, hours before video of her son’s killing was released to the public. “But by them being Black, it hurts the Black community. They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community.”
Some conservatives wondered why Wells and others had to invoke race at all. But Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology and African American Studies at Yale University, said that the way Black people see each other – and the way white people often see Black people – has roots in history and segregation, going back to when Black people were shoehorned into urban neighborhoods.
As Black people started getting access to better jobs and moving out of those areas, Anderson said, many tried to assimilate and show white society that the negative stereotypes didn’t apply to them. On the surface, he said, the actions of the Memphis officers fit in with this pattern, which he has outlined in a book called Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life.
“The ’hood is not just a physical space anymore. It’s iconic. It a symbol,” Anderson said. “And a Black person, as he moves about in white space, he carries that community with him. They can activate it anytime they want to, so to speak, just by their presence with other Black people.”
Anderson said Black people have always paid close attention to the triumphs and travails of other Black people – and that’s what we’re seeing in Memphis, just as we saw on the sports fields in the 1940s and 1950s.
“When Jackie Robinson was hitting those home runs, Black people cared, man,” he said. “When Jack Johnson was beating up those white fellas, Black people cheered. Not all the white people cheered, but the Black folks cheered. Because they felt a connection with Jackie Robinson. They felt a connection with Jack Johnson. They felt a connection with Joe Lewis.”
Anderson recalled N.W.A.’s 1998 protest song, “F— Tha Police,” featuring some Ice Cube lyrics about a bad Black officer:
But don’t let it be a Black and a white one
‘Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top
Black police showin’ out for the white cop
It’ll take more than a few reforms to fix the issue with policing, said Rutgers University professor James Jones, whose research focuses on the experience of Black professionals in government.
“What this case really demonstrates is the limits to a number of the reforms that have been offered, particularly from the left, whether it’s like body cams, diversifying (the ranks), notions of de-escalation – how those things are just insufficient to really fix the problem,” he said.
Melissa McFadden, who is Black, is a commander with the Columbus, Ohio police department and has been a police officer for 30 years. Speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of the department, she noted the many unwritten rules that regulate cops’ behavior.
“It’s acceptable to beat the Black man up who lives in the inner city, where it’s not acceptable to beat the white woman who lives in the suburbs,” said McFadden.
McFadden said that even she has had to guard against racially profiling citizens, such as the day she saw three young Black men standing around at 10 a.m.
“I was riding in my cruiser and I saw three male Blacks,” she said. “I looked at them saying, ‘What are they doing?’ They were just walking on a sidewalk. They weren’t doing anything else. Why can’t they walk on the sidewalk at 10 in the morning?
She didn’t pull them over. But she knows others in that same situation who would make a different decision.
“I agree that some Black officers are worse than the white officers when it comes to mistreating Black people,” said McFadden, who has sued her department for discrimination. “Some are trying to fit in with the majority and get good assignments. Some of them would rather have the rewards and follow as opposed to doing the job the right way.”
She said she remained on the force because she believes you need to be part of the police department to help fix it.
“I have a duty to protect citizen from racist behavior,” McFadden said. “I’m trying to protect myself from racism inside. I’m walking a thin black line trying to protect myself and protect them [the community]. They say we’re blue but in reality they treat us [Black officers] differently.
“You need someone on the inside that’s willing to stand up to try to protect people in the community,” McFadden said. “You need people to stand up and say enough. It’s not easy.”
The Memphis officers are due in court Feb. 17.
“They know they’re beating someone in handcuffs,” she said. “I just hope that this will start making some moves to make changes. It’s not a race thing. It’s a system thing.”