What a way to start the observance of African American History Month. With the nation and myriad parts of the world watching, and the Vice President of the United States – the first African American woman to serve from that position – in attendance, another unarmed African American killed by police was eulogized in Memphis.
In this case, the name was Tyre D. Nichols.
The sanctuary at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was graced with the presence of others – notably mothers – whose unarmed sons and daughters died in encounters with law enforcement. Benjamin Crump, whose introduction included the now often stated reference to him as “Black America’s Attorney General,” led a congregation-embraced thanks to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered Nichols’ eulogy.
“We know the big names that became hashtags,” Crump said. “But for every George Floyd, for every Breonna Taylor, for every Ahmaud Arbery there are a hundred other nameless Black people being killed in America that nobody remembered but you answered the bell, Rev. Al Sharpton.”
Even if a fact-check disputed the exactness of Crump’s math, any other single name is one too many. Thus the cry – “This must stop!” – sounded repeatedly since Nichols was savagely beaten on Jan. 7th by since fired and formally charged officers assigned to the Memphis Police Department’s now-disbanded SCORPION Unit.
Saying “they know what is to sit in a funeral like this,” Sharpton had the visiting family members of men and women killed to stand. He noted the family of George Floyd, Eric Garner’s mother and Breonna Taylor’s mother.
Vice President Kamala Harris sat next to Nichols’ parents, RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells. As journalists awaited her plane to land at ice-challenged Wilson Air Center, a man in the lobby whispered to another, “She can come here but she can’t go to the border.”
Years earlier as a U.S. Senator from California, Harris co-authored the original George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was followed by another version now stalled in Congress.
“As vice president of the United States, we demand that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and (President) Joe Biden will sign it,” she said from the podium.
“And we should not delay and we will not be denied. It is non-negotiable.”
Houston-based Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who was in attendance, applauded the vice president’s resolve regarding the police-reform measure. According to Crump, Lee has told Nichols’ parents that “not only is she going to reintroduce the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act right after the State of the Union Address (Feb. 7th), but she is also going to have a Tyre Nichols Duty to Intervene in that legislation.”
In addition to the five officers captured on video mercilessly punching and kicking Nichols, several other officers made the scene, where Nichols went from being a motorist stopped by police to a victim who died three days later. None of the officers rendered aid.
Three members of the Memphis Fire Department have been fired for dereliction of duty that evening. After video footage was released, two Shelby County Sheriff’s Department deputies were suspended pending the completion of an investigation.
The five men who beat Nichols are African Americans.
Sharpton, directing his comments specifically to Nichols’ family, said, “The reason that what happened to Tyre is so personal to me is that five Black men, who wouldn’t have had a job in the police department, who would not ever have been thought of to be in an elite squad, in the city where Dr. King lost his life … you beat a brother a death.
“There is nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us that fight to open doors, that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight to get you through those doors.”
Sharpton themed his eulogy from Genesis, chapter 37, an account of how Joseph was set upon by his brothers.
“Here comes that dreamer they said to each other,” he read. “Come now let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns and say that a ferocious animal had devoured him.”
Joseph, said Sharpton, never lost his faith, never gave up, and never gave out.
“Even as I stand over the casket of this innocent young boy, this young man (29 years old) with a four-year-old son that his mother and father and his siblings have to raise, I believe that God will take Tyre out of that pit and use him as a symbol for justice all over this country.
“I believe that babies unborn will know about Tyre Nichols because we won’t let his memory die. We gonna change this country because we refuse to keep living under the threat of the cops and the robbers.”
Crump, in his call to action, saluted activists, particularly local activists, asking them to stand for recognition. “Without these local activists, we would not have heard about Tyre Nichols.”
Acknowledging the support of his legal associates, he said, “We’re all in this together fighting for justice for you ‘Ma Vaughn, for you Mr. Rodney.”
The call for action is a plea for justice, he said.
“It’s a plea for justice for Tyre Nichols, the son.
“It’s a plea for justice for Tyre Nichols, the brother.
“It’s a plea for justice for Tyre Nichols, the father.
“Most of all, it is a plea for justice for Tyre Nichols, the human being.”
Crump’s multi-pronged plea was delivered on the first day of African American History month, 2023 – 404 years after a ship carrying 20 enslaved Africans arrived off the coast of Virginia.
And, as was asserted in The 1619 Project initiative that Nikole Hannah-Jones brought to life in The New York Times Magazine, no aspect of the country subsequently formed has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.
The inhumane treatment of Tyre D. Nichols is proof of the work that still must be done given the truth of that fact.
(Karanja A. Ajanaku is the associate publisher/executive editor of The New Tri-State Defender.)