by Zakiyyah Muhammad @zakiyyahmaryam_
MEMPHIS—A sixth police officer from the Memphis Police Department was relieved of duty in the aftermath of the brutal assault and death of Tyre Nichols. The graphic nature of the beating of the young, Black man has sparked outrage, anger, sadness and demands for immediate justice and for accountability for all parties—even law enforcement officers and paramedics—who actively participated or stood by while Mr. Nichols was beaten and severely injured.
“Justice for Tyre” signs waved across the gloomy skies of downtown Memphis as community organizers marched to demand the dismantling of unjust law enforcement. The non-violent demonstrations held Jan. 28 emerged in the wake of the released body camera footage of the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police.
Protesters who appeared in front of the Memphis Public Safety Building, the Memphis Fire Department, the Shelby County Jail and the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center called for defunding the police department and the implementation of a new community policing program.
Officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, who are Black, are charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression in the Jan. 7 incident that led to the death of Mr. Nichols. An autopsy report reveals that he succumbed to extensive bleeding, a broken nose and neck, brain swelling and kidney failure. The sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, who is White, has been relieved of duty, according to the Memphis Police Department, but he has not been fired or charged.
Memphis City Councilman J.B. Smiley was astonished to see that some of the officers involved in the brutal beating of the unarmed Black motorist were Black.
“The majority of people in the city of Memphis look like me. They’re Black and Brown people. The majority of the police force looks like me. They’re Black and Brown people. As my colleague said, when they were looking at Tyre Nichols, ‘didn’t they see their brother? Didn’t they see themselves?’” the councilman asked. “Instead of seeing themselves, they saw someone who was Black. They saw someone who was poor. They saw someone, if they felt like they could get away with killing him (that) no one would care.”
He said the deadly beating is a manifestation of police culture. Councilman Smiley also said he, fellow colleagues and community members have long sought police reform in Memphis.
“This council said, ‘Hey, we need to implement more community policing,’ and we still have not done that. The administration resists us. The police department resisted us. The Memphis Police Association resisted the cause of the people,” he concluded.
Blacks, Palestinians have same struggle
Palestinian-American Seema Rasoul was among community organizers leading the Jan. 28 afternoon demonstration. She said the struggle Black people face is intertwined with the Palestinian struggle.
“It’s all White supremacy, from Israel to America. It’s all about the states controlling everybody and everything. … Police in America here are way too militarized. There’s no reason for the police on the ground in our cities to have so many weapons.
“Every kid in America that’s ever been pulled over, racially profiled or shot and killed by police here in America, is no different than every Palestinian boy in a refugee camp that’s under apartheid, an occupation in Israel,” Ms. Rasoul said.
Activists and concerned residents believe it is not enough to only fire and charge the five officers responsible for the beating. They believe any supervisor, chief of police, or anyone responsible for the training and supervision of irresponsible police officers, EMTs, etc., should be held accountable as well.
Upon viewing police footage, many viewers questioned the validity of the initial Memphis Police Dept. report that only five officers were responsible for the death, as many noted seeing more than five officers at the scene, and not all of them were Black.
Their cries signal total dissatisfaction with a justice system full of corruption and lack of accountability. In 2015, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam called for 10,000 Fearless “to go into the communities and make them a decent and safe place to live.” Now, those words are coming to life as people are demanding community-based policing.
Rodney Wells, stepfather of Tyre Nichols, stated at a Jan. 23 press conference that “our son ran because he was scared for his life. He did not run because he was trying to get rid of no drugs, no guns, no any of that. He ran because he was scared for his life. And when you see the video, you will see why he was scared for his life.”
In a Jan. 27 press conference, Rowvaughn Wells, the mother of Tyre Nichols, stated that the five Black officers “shamed their families.”
“I hate the fact that it was five Black men that actually did this to another Black man,” she continued. Despite the tragic loss of her son, Mrs. Wells said she believes the purpose for her son’s death is to bring justice to those killed unjustly by police.
“I believe in my heart that my son was on assignment from God. He finished his assignment and God took him back home,” she said. Mr. and Mrs. Wells are currently represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and attorney Antonio Romanucci.
A web of police lies
Prior to release of the tragic footage, Memphis police reported that Tyre Nichols was pulled over for driving recklessly and for fleeing arrest on Saturday, January 7, 2023. However, these reports were not supported by video footage.
In the video, an unidentified officer points a weapon at Mr. Nichols, aggressively shouting, threatening, and commanding the motorist to get out of the car and get on the ground. Another officer forcibly yanks Mr. Nichols out of the car and, along with the other officers, begins to pepper spray, kick, tase and ruthlessly beat him. Mr. Nichols is heard calling for his mother, who lived only 100 yards away.
At the onset of the pretextual traffic stop, no officer asked Mr. Nichols for his driver’s license nor explained the reason for the stop. Instead, the video shows merciless physical abuse and the hurling of verbal expletives and racial slurs. The footage also shows Mr. Nichols being kicked in the head multiple times and receiving punches from one of the officers while nearly unconscious, as other officers pin him down and watch.
Defense attorney Blake Ballin represents former Officer Martin III and attorney William Massey represents former Officer Mills Jr. It was unclear at presstime whether the other officers had legal representation.
Responding to media questions, Atty. Ballin said officer Mills Jr. is a “gentle, respectful father” and is “devastated to be charged with a crime.” Likewise, Atty. Massey said officer Martin III is committed to protecting the community and that it’s “devastating” to be accused of a murder.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a video message that the beating of Mr. Nichols was a “horrific circumstance” and promised “full and complete cooperation of the Memphis Police Department with the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office to determine the entire scope of facts that contributed to Tyre Nichols’ death.” She added that “aside from being your cop, I am a citizen of this community we all share. I am a mother. I am a caring human being who wants the best for all of us. This is not just a professional failing. This is a failing of basic humanity to another individual.”
Prior to release of the video, the Nichols family requested that protests be peaceful. Mrs. Wells also cautioned parents to not allow children to view the disturbing footage.
On the day of the video release, universities and colleges in the city and surrounding areas planned for classes to be virtual, out of fear and speculation of unrest and threat to public safety. Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) also canceled all afterschool programs, practices and events. Subsequently, protests in Memphis and in other major U.S. cities were relatively peaceful.
Protesters in Memphis blocked Highway I-55 on the bridge that connects the state of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, extending over the Mississippi River. This prevented commercial truck drivers from getting through the city. Protesters peacefully left the bridge when the demonstrations concluded.
At the Jan. 28 demonstration, Oyenini Olaitun told The Final Call, “I don’t feel like it’s a victory that it got, you know, that it was recorded. But, you know, it just makes it (vindicating) for brothers and sisters, you know, like myself, who witness this all the time and when they try to tell people about it, they’re always told, ‘oh man, you had to (do) something. You did something.’”
Mr. Olaitun also revealed he had an encounter with the MPD and suggested it could have been an officer from the Scorpion Unit. The five former officers involved in the death of Tyre Nichols were a part of the Scorpion Unit. Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. also announced that two deputies on the scene have been relieved of duty and are under investigation.
“Just about maybe a month or so ago, you know, I was pulled over for a pretextual traffic stop not too far from where we are now in North Memphis. The officer claimed that I didn’t show my turn signal. Then when I questioned that, he said that my tag was improperly displayed,” Mr. Olaitun recalled. He described seeing an unmarked car, no badge and claimed the officer would not provide their name.
The list grows longer
Previous police brutality cases in the Mid-South area include Darrius Stewart, 19, Chavis Carter, 21, and Brandon Webber, 20. Mr. Stewart was gunned down by Memphis Police Officer Connor Schilling on July 27, 2015. The Black teen was unarmed and was mistakenly identified as a suspect. Eyewitnesses of the incident said Stewart was running away from officer Schilling, which differed from the initial narrative that he was advancing toward the officer. The U.S. Department of Justice stated in September 2016 that “based on a careful and thorough review, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Schilling violated Section 242.”
The case of Chavis Carter was closed, claiming that the 21-year-old committed suicide by shooting himself while handcuffed when he was pulled over by an unnamed Jonesboro police officer. Mr. Carter died on July 29, 2012.
Brandon Webber was shot 16 times and killed by a U.S. Marshall on June 12, 2019, for allegedly ramming his car into an officer’s vehicle several times. His death sparked protests and riots in the Memphis neighborhood of Frayser. At present, no charges have been filed in the murder of Brandon Webber.
Funeral services for Tyre Nichols will be held Wednesday, February 1, 2023, at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church at 10:30 a.m. His services will be eulogized by Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network.
Councilman Smiley asked residents to bring their demands to the upcoming Feb. 7 Memphis City Council meeting.
“We have to change policies and the only way we can do that is to do legislative action in that building,” he said.