Sandwiched between a morning call to disband the police SCORPION unit and protesters who shut down the “old bridge” on I-55 in the evening, the release of video footage showing the inhumane police beating of Tyre D. Nichols was as hard to stomach as forewarned.
For many, the repeated warnings – from multiple quarters – that the footage was horrific proved to be an understatement.
The 29-year-old Nichols, who suffered from the weight-loss causing Crohn’s disease and described at a press conference as weighing less than 150 pounds “soaking wet,” was shown beaten mercilessly by five brutish and now former, fired, and charged Memphis Police Department officers.
Nichols, the endeared focal point of a movement to secure “Justice for Tyre,” was charged by officers, who acted like madmen from the jump, dragging him out of his car within two minutes of his home, reporting that it was a traffic stop. His initial calm relative to the officers’ hyped aggression from the beginning was a jarring juxtaposition.
Nichols ran freeing himself from the initial encounter, trying to make it home, say his family and their attorneys. He didn’t make it. Caught by the foul-mouthed members of the SCORPION unit, they beat him like a gang of wrestlers, except it wasn’t fake.
MPD released the video footage to the general public as advertised shortly after 6 p.m. With people watching in cities throughout the country, it was aired on networks in segments in its entirety. Police bodycam footage amounted to a buildup. Video captured on a pole bearing a SkyCop camera brought the horror down-to-earth.
From the pulpit Friday morning during a press conference at Mt. Olive Cathedral C.M.E. Church, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said she just hadn’t been able to watch what happened to her son and asked those with children not to let their children see it.
The officers all face the same charges: second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping causing bodily injury, aggravated kidnapping while possessing a weapon, official misconduct through unauthorized exercise of official power, official misconduct through failure to perform a duty imposed by law, and official oppression.
There is no statute specifically for violating humanity. There is stalled federal legislation – the George Floyd Act – that essentially warrants humane policing. Memphis Branch NAACP Branch Executive Director Vickie Terry on Thursday promised Wells – one mother to another – that she would put all she had into getting some sort of Tyre Nichols legislation to assure that no other mother would have to go through what Wells is enduring.
Nichols, who worked at the FedEx hub with his stepfather, Rodney Wells, was enjoying a day off before the quintet of officers went ballistic on him.
“He was coming from Shelby Farms about the time of the incident because he liked to go and watch the sunset and take pictures,” his mother said. “That was his thing. My son loved the sunset. That was his passion. He loved photography. He loved skateboarding. He was just his own person.’”
There is audio of Nichols calling out for his mother as he was being brutalized.
“For a mother to know that their child was calling them in their need, and I wasn’t there for him. Do you, do you know how I feel right now?”
At what she later learned was the time her son was being ganged up, Wells said she had “this really bad pain in my stomach … that was my son’s pain that I was feeling. And I didn’t even know. But for me to find out that my son was calling my name … you have no clue how I feel right now.”
The press conference, where Wells spoke, was called to address the charges filed by Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy and returned by a grand jury. Benjamin Crump, the family’s lead attorney, applauded the charges, their swiftness (less than 20 days), and added context.
“This is not the first time that we saw police officers committing a crime and engaging in excessive, brutal force against Black people in America who were unarmed. But yet we have never seen swift justice like this,” he said.
“When we look at how these five Black officers, who were caught on camera committing a crime, and when we look at how fast the police chief and the police department terminated them, and we look at how swiftly the district attorney bought charges against them in less than 20 days, then we wanna proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward (in America) for any officers. …
“We won’t accept less going forward in the future. We won’t have Black officers treated differently than white officers. We want equal justice under the law.”
Crump said he and fellow attorney Antonio Romanucci had been made aware that the special unit Nichols encountered had engaged in excessive force against Black citizens before. He said several people had contacted his office, including a man who reported that a gun was put to his head. That man, said Crump, called police internal affairs twice and did not get an answer.
If they would’ve responded to him, we might not be here today.”
Romanucci called for the SCORPION unit to be disbanded immediately. He said it was a saturation unit, likening it to other such units in the U.S.
“What they really turn out to be are oppression units. And what they do is they wind up oppressing the people that we care about the most: our children, our young sons and daughters, who are Black and brown, because they are the most vulnerable.
“Make no mistake, Tyre Nichols at all times was an innocent victim on that night. He did nothing wrong. He was caught up in a sting.”
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis later told The New Tri-State Defender that disbanding the SCORPION unit would be “like throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
On the record with MPD Chief Davis
The beating was just part of the nightmare that befell Nichols. The officers unceremoniously orbited around him, alternately spewing accounts of how hard they hit him in the face and a yarn about Nichols having gotten a hand on one officer’s gun.
They rendered no aid. They drug him over to a vehicle and propped him up against a vehicle. When he would plop over, they reset him like a bag of potatoes.
It was 22 minutes before Memphis Fire Department personnel rendered any aid, and that came after the medics, who made the scene, did nothing, inexplicably, for a period that was excruciating to count down. Two have been suspended pending an investigation.
On Friday, the office of Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. suspended two deputies seen in video footage.
Other MPD police officers are seen on video. None rendered aid to Nichols. The city’s internal investigation is said to be ongoing. So is one out of DA Mulroy’s office.
A federal criminal civil rights inquiry also is underway.
All will be aided by the video footage, particularly from the elevated pole camera. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners funded the camera to combat crime. Attorney Van Turner Jr., who is part of the legal team representing the Nichols family and Memphis Branch NAACP president, was on that version of the commission.
“Little did we know we would be combatting this type of criminal behavior as well,” Turner said at the morning press conference. “They (the police officers) come and commit the very same crimes that we’re trying to fight against. Yeah, but glory be to God that a SkyCop camera was there to catch what happened. …
“Tonight will be one of the toughest nights that we’ve ever experienced in this city,” Turner said, “but we will get through it. … Let’s stick together. Let’s fight together; justice for Tyre.”
That evening on the shut-down bridge, activist Theryn C. Bond said, “I don’t like getting phone calls saying that there was somebody in the Real Time Crime Center watching this (the beating of Nichols) in real time and did absolutely nothing to stop it. I don’t like finding out that a white officer, who was in the car (seen on the video) has not been named and allegedly has resigned his badge and we’ve heard nothing about it.”
And, said Bond, “I don’t like hearing that this is about five Black cops and at least 10 to 15 more cops are involved.”
Convinced that Mayor Jim Strickland and MPD Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis have “downplayed this as if it is just an unfortunate incident and that this is not a direct reflection on the rest of the cops in that (SCORPION) unit, on MPD, Bond said, “this is a problem that goes deeper than anything we could have ever imagined. Horrific does not even begin to explain the video, the expletives I heard all of those officers saying. …
“The fact that I saw an officer walk up to another officer as if to tell him to stop and then kicked him in the head. Second-degree murder is not enough. … This is ridiculous. Where is Chief Davis?
Amber Sherman, organizer of The official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter, bookended her day with the morning press conference and protest on the bridge.
“I think that we will be wherever we need to go to enact change and get the demands that the family wants. So, whatever that includes, that’s what we’ve got to do,” she said.
“We’ve never had anything that wasn’t peaceful,” she added. “We’re not going to be fear mongered into not hitting the streets. We’re going to do what we can to make sure that Tyre’s name continues to be uplifted and that we get justice for Tyre.”