On January 7, 2023, a video was obtained by the Memphis, Tennessee Police Department of five African American police officers, now fired, for the horrendous violent arrest and murder of Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop. Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old African American father, skateboard enthusiast, FedEx employee, and a “nearly perfect son,” as his mother, RowVaugn Wells described him in an interview on ABC’s talk show, “The View,” on Monday, January 30, 2023, was heading home from a park after taking photos of a sunset. Mr. Nichols died three days later after the violent beating. His stepfather, Rodney Wells, explained in an interview on Memphis, Tennessee’s CBS affiliate, WREG-TV, that Tyre suffered cardiac arrest, kidney failure, and was placed on a dialysis machine before he died. The family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, ordered an independent autopsy which revealed that Mr. Nichols had “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” To me, it was a beat-down, thug-style!
The disturbing video was released to the public on Friday evening, January 27, 2023. The scene of violence embedded in my memory now, left me in tears as I watched it. It is so clear that these five African American men (Tadarius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills, and Justin Smith), now former police officers, are totally disconnected from their community, heritage, and culture. According to Mr. Crump, more arrests may be in order for several other people shown in the video who failed to render medical care to Mr. Nichols or assist him in any way. The former officers are so disconnected that they did not understand that on any given day in America, one of them not in uniform could very well have received the same kind of treatment they gave to Mr. Nichols! They did not explain why they yanked him out of his car while at the same time using this incendiary language: “Get out the fuckin car,” and “Bitch, put your hands on the ground before I break them,” when Mr. Nichols asked them what he had done wrong. He died never knowing!
Mr. Nichols was unarmed, had no weapon, and was no threat to these former officers! No evidence has been shown indicating that Mr. Nichols did anything wrong, even though the former officers on the scene reported to their African American police chief, Cerelyn J. Davis that Mr. Nichols was stopped for “driving recklessly.” Mr. Nichols was stopped on an early Saturday evening. The video from the webcams the police officers were wearing shows he was pulled from his vehicle, punched, kicked, tased, pepper-sprayed, cursed at, given over 70 conflicting police commands, and beaten with a police baton, all within 13 minutes! The former officers then nonchalantly stood around discussing their reasons for their beat-down, but no evidence supports their observations.
In the video, one of the former officers can be heard complaining that he hurt his knee after kicking Mr. Nichols in the face! This despicable scene reminded me of several gangland-style beatings I had seen in many movies. This horror will now place another dark cloud over the police officers who impeccably do their job, and it seems there are not too many of them! The issue that these former officers could be so reckless with another man who could have been related to them struck me as insane, but the bottom line is that the brotherhood, that blue wall, is an institutionalized nightmare of continued racism left over from the days of chattel slavery. It is a system that still views African Americans as inhumane and dangerous, and being of the same heritage or cultural background does not matter.
The former police officers showed no empathy or compassion for another human being. This video left grown men who watched it around the world, crying! However, many of my friends over the weekend refused to watch that video to avoid triggered trauma and to protect their mental health. One friend couldn’t even find his words to discuss it with me! I had to talk about it to him to get my feelings out!
I have learned over the years that journaling and writing down what my body, mind, spirit, and soul are feeling after experiencing a traumatic event, even at any given moment, is cathartic and releases the trauma. Holding on to feelings, trauma, and painful or upsetting moments, rather than expressing them in a safe environment allows me to mentally and spiritually move more safely through life. Yes, I want to avoid triggers, but sometimes it is difficult to do so. Seeing my people constantly harassed, abused, and ultimately murdered by police officers often awakens a deep-seated agony within me that is sometimes only expressed in a desperate sound that gurgles from my stomach to escape from my mouth. It is a scream no words can explain.
I watched the video and couldn’t stop crying for nearly ten minutes! Writing has helped me get through life! Like the images of Rodney King, George Floyd, and hundreds of others in my lifetime, the images in the Tyree Nichols video will never leave my mind.
There is a poem I published in 2020, but wrote in 2016, about police brutality that I still have trouble getting through without crying when I read it aloud. So many of our brothers and sisters have been murdered by people who don’t value African American lives, from before Emmett Till to now with Tyree Nichols, that hearing or seeing the news about it has become exhausting, anxiety-driven, and even numbing, and at times causing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD)! It’s a feeling similar to the way a child who has been bullied often in school but gets up to go to school in spite of it, never knowing what to expect, or how hard the punches or insults will be.
Words are just as powerful as feelings. We must not hold trauma in if we witness it. And these days, it’s becoming more difficult to avoid it. Writing can release the pain. The African American community must find more creative ways to work through the trauma that we deal with on a daily basis through “Karens” and “Kens,” institutionalized racism, police brutality, and the ingrained racist and white supremacist policies such as: redlining in housing, voter suppression, the banning of books, the banning of The 1619 Project being taught in educational institutions, the latest Roe V. Wade decision, poverty, food deserts, and homelessness.
Writing helps, individually or in a group. Actually, in February, I plan to attend a summit on Literary Activism, sponsored by PEN America. From the flawless journalism of Watergate to the #metoomovement, writers have created policies of change with the pen! That change can start deep within us. We have sung songs of protest, been hosed down while marching, and brutalized for the right to breathe while Black! We must do something else!
I thought, like so many others, that after the death of George Floyd, change in the way policing in America occurs would be quick and swift. In the case of Mr. Nichols, it was. The former officers were arrested within 20 days and charged with second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of official oppression, and one count of aggravated assault. But what about the others. There will be others, although, I hope not. We are here. In this moment. How do we move on without uttering new words of change and hope?
Will another case like this happen again? I cringe to think so!