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What we learned from the Tyre Nichols video
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images Body camera footage shows Memphis police viciously beating Nichols, who died three days later. Video of five Memphis police officers punching and kicking Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after police escalated a traffic stop on January 7 into a brutal beating, was released on Friday by the city of Memphis. Multiple video clips show police kicking Nichols in the head, beating him with a baton, and punching him while restraining him — ultimately resulting in his death at St. Francis Hospital on January 10. The city released the video — more than an hour of total footage between four clips — at 7 pm Eastern time on Friday. Three of the clips are taken from body cameras and include sound, while one silent clip comes from a light pole camera. Though one of the videos shows the moments preceding the beatings, the videos do not show Nichols driving erratically, the reason police gave for pulling him over in the first place. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis later told NBC that her department couldn’t substantiate that claim. The five police officers, all of whom are Black and all of whom have been fired, were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression on Thursday; if found guilty, they each face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charge alone. Officers say that they did not film the initial encounter with Nichols, and the footage begins after an officer has already pulled Nichols out of his car and backup is arriving at the scene. The officers appear to Taser Nichols, at which point he frees himself and runs from the officers. After a brief chase, officers pepper spray Nichols before beating him. All five officers belonged to the Memphis Police Department’s Scorpion unit, which was created in 2021 and designed to saturate high-crime areas with police officers; the unit’s name is short for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The program has been suspended in the wake of Nichols’ death, the Washington Post reports. The disturbing video footage at times shows officers restraining Nichols as an officer kicks him in the upper body and head; beating him with a police baton; and punching him. At points, Nichols staggers or attempts to stand and screams for his mother. In one video, an officer says he’s going to “baton the fuck out” of Nichols; video footage also shows officers speculating that Nichols was high during the encounter. No drugs were found in Nichols’s car, according to an officer on the scene, and police claims that Nichols reached for one of the officers’ guns as he attempted to run away are also not supported by the video evidence. An initial police statement from January 8 describes the beating only as a “confrontation” and does not mention the violence Nichols suffered at the hands of police, but does include the details that the officers involved were relieved of duty and that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was handling the case. One video also shows Nichols waiting more than 20 minutes to be transported to a nearby hospital, slumped over and propped up beside a police car. According to an autopsy report, Nichols “suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” Protests — mostly peaceful, as Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells and stepfather Rodney Wells requested — sprang up in cities across the country after the videos were released. “I don’t want us burning up cities, tearing up our streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” Nichols’ mother said Thursday in anticipation of the footage being made public, according to NPR. In Memphis, protesters shut down the I-55 bridge, which connects Memphis and West Memphis and crosses the Mississippi River. In addition to his mother and stepfather, Nichols leaves behind a 4-year-old son, as well as a community of skateboarders and friends in his native Sacramento. Nichols was an avid photographer, the Associated Press reports; on the evening he was stopped and beaten by police, Nichols was driving home from photographing the sky at a local park. Nichols came to Memphis on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic and ended up staying with his mother and stepfather; he was less than 100 yards from home when he was fatally beaten by police. Nichols can be heard in the video attempting to de-escalate the situation and return to his family’s house, telling officers, “I’m just trying to go home.”
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The Rollout of the Memphis Police Videos Was Highly Choreographed
As multiple video recordings of the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis were released to the public on Friday night, the nation prepared for the reaction. Peaceful protests can easily turn into violent ones, especially in a country that is rightly outraged about the ongoing police brutality against Black men. It has become a familiar call and response: Police misconduct leads to more harm in or for the communities that were targeted by the misconduct in the first place.But as Friday night unfolded, the protests remained peaceful; news reports showed Americans in various cities righteously and nonviolently demanding justice. We have witnessed many peaceful protests in response to police violence before, but there was one noticeable difference this time around: Rollout of the video footage seemed highly choreographed.By the time protesters were chanting in the streets, the five officers who had beaten Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, had already been charged with second-degree murder. By the time the video footage of the attack was released, the anger and dismay had already been predicted; law-enforcement and political leaders had issued statements preparing the public for some of the worst police violence this nation has seen. The Memphis police chief likened Nichols’s beating to that of Rodney King in 1991. These officials were right: The footage was brutal, at times unbearable, with Nichols appearing not to resist the officers as they repeatedly struck him. All of this reveals the sad fact that, because of the sheer number of times Americans have now confronted videos of police officers killing Black citizens, public officials have gotten better at managing the shock.[David A. Graham: Inhumanity in Memphis]This observation is not meant to minimize the police violence on display in the Memphis videos and so many before, but to acknowledge how important it is to mitigate the harm that such violence can cause even beyond the misconduct itself. As we have seen too many times, when videos reveal police violence or verdicts fail to bring officers to justice, the result is often more violence, including clashes between civilians and police. The Rodney King verdict in 1992, in which four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted for a beating that aired on television, led to the L.A. riots. During those days of unrest, 63 people died from violence related to what had started out as peaceful protests. The deaths of Michael Brown, George Floyd, and others also sparked violence in the streets—each side with its own narrative of who had initiated it—in addition to large peaceful demonstrations. Our nation has been through this so many times before.The release of the Nichols footage suggests that a combination of factors can help prevent police-civilian clashes, though it might be too soon to say. First, there was the quick firing of the five police officers involved, even before criminal charges were filed, and before the videos were made public. This rarely happens, but it is the correct response when the facts are impossible to defend. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland also made a commitment to examine Memphis’s SCORPION squad, its supposedly elite street-crime unit to which the police officers involved in Nichols’s beating were assigned. On Friday, just before the release of the footage, Strickland went further and said the unit would be “inactive” for the foreseeable future.Then there were the very direct and ominous warnings of what the public could expect to see in the videos, which were only available in the first place because of the increased use of body and street-pole cameras in response to previous incidents of police brutality. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis cautioned that the footage showed something “heinous” and “inhumane.” We were told to prepare for scenes at least as terrible as King’s beating. Americans have already been trained to expect horror on such videos, but officials made explicit that the footage would provoke outrage. Though the footage itself was still far worse than any description, people were braced for the worst. [David A. Graham: The murders in Memphis aren’t stopping]As for the timing of the release—on a Friday night—it was, at first, surprising. Were officials hoping people wouldn’t be watching the news and would miss the footage, or was it a careless choice, given that a weekend night is a time when people are less likely to be distracted by the obligations of daily life, and therefore is more ripe for a strong backlash? It turned out that, because Memphis officials waited until Friday night, every police department in America had sufficient warning to prepare for protest; they were effectively put on notice to focus their tactics on deescalation in anticipation of reaction to the video. By waiting a week between when the police officers were fired and when the footage was released, officials also created time for religious and other leaders to support and counsel their communities. So far, we have not seen a major show of force in U.S. cities, from either civilians or police.Anticipating unrest after police misconduct, and trying to minimize its likelihood, is no solution for the misconduct itself. Nor should the lack of violence in the streets be conflated with a lack of urgency for reform. But we have seen, possibly, how public officials and community leaders can at least prepare for the righteous anger and frustration that is sure to follow, and then anticipate how to support communities as they express that reaction in nonviolent ways. Like mass shootings, police brutality is tragically common enough in the United States that we are getting better at addressing the consequences of it. The challenge is to not become numb to it.
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