The killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police has sparked increased demands for police reform nationwide.
By Peter White
On January 27, Memphis police released about an hour of the 20 hours of surveillance and body-cam footage they collected of Tyre Nichols’ fatal encounter with members of the Scorpion Squad, a special 40-member violent crime task force.
The video shows police kicking Nichols in the head and beating him for three minutes. He was pepper sprayed and struck with a baton as he pleaded for them to stop.
That same night, about 200 protesters marched onto the Interstate 55 bridge shutting down all four lanes for about three hours. A smaller group held a candlelight vigil in a Memphis park while others gathered in churches to honor the 28-year old father, FedEx worker, avid skateboarder and photographer.
Demonstrations were also held in Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and several other cities.
Call for police reform grow louder
“We want a disbandment of every special task force,” said Amber Sherman, a local Black Lives Matter organizer. She told the New York Times that the police have long used such units “to over-criminalize low-income, poor Black neighborhoods and to terrorize citizens. We want that ended,” she said.
Community activists also called for an end to pretextual traffic stops, where police stop motorists for minor infractions like a broken tail light and then search cars for drugs and weapons. The strategy, called “hot spot policing,” focuses on urban areas where crime is most likely to occur.
Memphis grassroots groups want the city to pass a data transparency ordinance to hold police accountable for misconduct and excessive use of force. They also called for the end of unmarked cars and plainsclothes officers patrolling Memphis neighborhoods. They want all city personnel on the scene the night Nichols was beaten, identified and their records released. Lastly, they want Memphis PD to stop traffic enforcement altogether.
Two of their demands, disbanding the Scorpion Squad and charging the officers who beat Tyre Nichols, have already been met. Another officer and three EMTs who did nothing to help Nichols after he was beaten have also been fired.
Protesters in Memphis, meanwhile, have continued demonstrating.
Last Saturday a group gathered in front of the courthouse and then marched past the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center. They stopped at an intersection and blocked traffic for a couple of hours.
About 50 skateboarders also gathered in front of the National Civil Rights Museum to honor Tyre Nichols. Nichols was a regular at Tobey Skate Park. Cameron Blakely regularly skates there and said Nichols was “laid back” but a skilled skateboarder who was always trying new moves. He spray-painted “Justice for Tyre Nichols” on his board.
“Tyre ripped. He was actually doing stuff, and that’s why I want to keep it going. Just in case people forget and they don’t talk about him, there it is on my board,” Blakely said.
Last Saturday afternoon in Nashville about 100 demonstrators gathered in the grass behind City Hall. Members of the Black Nashville Assembly passed out petitions containing the same five demands protesters in Memphis want. They held an hour-long vigil including a ceremony honoring past victims of police violence and well-known civil rights leaders who have died.
Longtime activist Theeda Murphy started to name them and as she called out “Ashay” — a Yoruba term for amen — someone spilled a bit of water on the ground for each one. Then the crowd started in, adding people like Fred Hampton, Eric Garner, Briana Taylor, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, Nat Turner, Bell Hooks, Andrew Young, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holliday, Mohamed Ali, W.E.B Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglas. That went on for several minutes.
‘We need the police. We don’t need the killing.’
Local pastor-activist Howard Jones talked about civilian Community Oversight Boards (COB), noting Memphis and Nashville have them. Nashville has had special flex units deployed in high crime neighborhoods in the past that led to two killings during traffic stops. One unit has since been disbanded but there is another one, the Titans unit that worries him. He has a meeting scheduled with the police chief and the Nashville COB February 23 to talk about police reform.
“We have to do better in Nashville, in Memphis, all over the country because too many people are being killed during a traffic stop,” Jones said.
He said reform is long overdue and until police understand that they work for the community there will be no progress.
“We want the police. We need the police and police are needed in Memphis. But we don’t need the killing. We don’t need the police to be the judge, jury, and executioner. We have to stop that,” Jones said.
When members of the Memphis special violent crime squad stopped and dragged him from his car, Tyre Nichols was on his way back from taking photos of the sunset at a local park. They beat and pepper-sprayed him while he was on the ground, and at one point Nichols broke free and ran for his life.
He was almost home when a member of the Scorpion Squad tackled him. Other officers arrived and then they kicked and pummeled Nichols on the street corner, just 100 yards from the apartment where he lived with his mom and stepdad. He called out for his mother three times before he lost consciousness.
Two EMTs on the scene called for an ambulance but offered Nichols no help for 19 minutes except to prop him back up against a police car. They have been fired. Several police stood around Nichols’ collapsed body. One cop can be heard on video bragging about the “haymakers” he landed on Nichols, who was finally transported to St. Francis Hospital 32 minutes after the beating stopped. He died three days later.
Nichols family attorney Ben Crump likened his death to the Rodney King beating in Los Angles in 1991. At Nichols funeral February 1, Vice-president Kamala Harris called for the swift passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Rev. Al Sharpton called out the five black police officers charged in Nichols’ death and invoked Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed in Memphis in 1968.
“In the city that Dr. King lost his life … you beat a brother to death,” Sharpton said.
“You don’t stand up to thugs in the street becoming thugs yourself. You don’t fight gangs by becoming five armed men against an unarmed man. That ain’t the police, that’s punks,” he said.