Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black father, was murdered by officers of the Memphis Police Department, sparking international outrage and protests across the US
On Friday 27 January, the City of Memphis released video footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.
The footage showed five members of the Memphis force encircling Nichols, a 29-year-old father and keen photographer, and repeatedly punching, kicking and hitting him with batons. The four separate videos, which included bodycam and nearby CCTV footage, have sparked international outrage, leading to protests in Memphis, New York and other cities across the US.
Nichols’ death has reignited conversations around police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement. Here’s everything we know about what happened so far.
THE EVENTS LEADING TO NICHOLS’ DEATH
On January 7, cops pulled Nichols over for “reckless driving” (Nichols’ family have since stated that he was on his way home after photographing the sunset). At the start of the arrest, officers violently drag Nichols from his car while threatening to “blow him the fuck up” and to “tase his ass”. After attempting to tase Nichols while he is still pinned to the ground, the motorist manages to escape, but is chased down and repeatedly beaten by the officers.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy later told CNN that what shocked him about the attack was “how many different incidents of unwarranted force occurred sporadically by different individuals over a long period of time”. As he’s being beaten on the ground, Nichols’ can be heard screaming out for his mother.
An ambulance was finally called, but took 22 minutes to arrive at the scene. During this time the cops can be heard laughing and joking about the incident. One even gets close to Nichols’ face as he’s slumped against a patrol car, repeating “you can’t go nowhere”. Nichols died three days later on January 10 as a result of injuries sustained from the beating.
THE OFFICERS INVOLVED
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith are the five Memphis officers who violently attacked Nichols. A sixth officer named Preston Hemphill and an unnamed seventh officer are also known to have been at the scene. Additional cops and members of the fire department showed up after the attack, but the majority of media attention has focused on the first five officers mentioned.
These five officers primarily involved in the attack are Black. In an interview about Nichols’ death with Sky News, the lawyer and activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu argued, “I very much doubt that anything will change until we eradicate the source of this problem, which is white supremacy”, but was interrupted by the programme’s host Kay Burley, who said, “the officers were Black that killed him”. Mos-Shogbamimu responded by saying, “I’m about to educate some people right now [...] There is a systemic reality of white supremacy that produces racist white cops and racial gatekeeping black and brown cops. This is the reality, and this does not absolve the individual responsibility of the police officers [who killed Nichols].”
Elsewhere, the sociology professor and @retrosoul__ admin Daana Townsend posted the below quote in response to Nichols’ death, from James Baldwin’s book-length 1985 essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen: “A Black policeman could completely demolish you... and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you.”
The Baldwin quote, along with Mos-Shogbamimu’s explanation, are both helpful ‘ways in’ when trying to understand the complex racial dynamics at play. Yes, the officers that attacked Nichols, a defenceless Black man, were also Black men – but when coupled with the intersecting identity of a police officer, and the accompanying system of white supremacy that props up said identity, we can begin to understand why the attack might have happened, without absolving the violent actions of the officers involved.
I won’t watch that video. I’m very concerned that I live in a society where the video had a drop time like it was a prime time show. Something is deeply wrong. My love and prayers to Tyre Nichols’ family.— Jewel Burks Solomon (@jewelmelanie) January 28, 2023
THE SOCIAL MEDIA STORM
What was different about this incident was the way it was handled before the video footage was even released. The Memphis Chief of Police Cerelyn Davis recorded a statement posted to the department’s Youtube channel on January 26 where she says that the attack was “heinous, reckless, and inhumane, and in the vane of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves”.
Many interpreted this forewarning as an indication of how bad the video would be. The intention was to quell public outrage and ensure people did not reach the level of anger following George Floyd’s murder, but it inadvertently caused a social media storm, with language used by the mainstream media heightening anticipation for the video’s release on January 27.
CNN is airing the Tyre Nichols body-cam footage likes it’s a music video premiere. Unreal.— kevikev (@KevCoke6) January 28, 2023
HAVE THE OFFICERS BEEN CHARGED?
On January 20, the five officers were fired after an internal investigation found they used excessive force, failed to intervene during the attack and failed to give appropriate aid to Nichols. Six days later, on January 26, all five officers were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
Since then, ABC News has reported that two additional officers have been fired but not charged. Preston Hemphill, who is white, was the officer who initially tried to tase Nichols when he was dragged from his car, but was allegedly not involved in the subsequent attack. The second officer is still unnamed.
The Memphis Fire Department has also fired a lieutenant and two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who responded to the scene but did not give Nichols adequate aid on arrival.
So, as of January 31, ten people have been linked to Nichols’ death: three members of the fire department, two police officers who have been fired, and five officers who have been charged with murder. All seven officers involved were members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit.
“This is what black people have to deal with”@SholaMos1 gives us her take on alleged “white supremacy” within the U.S. and U.K. criminal justice systems in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death#KayBurley MT pic.twitter.com/iRQPBHdD1b— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) January 30, 2023
WHAT IS THE SCORPION UNIT?
The SCORPION Unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighbourhoods, was founded in 2021 to address violent crime in Memphis. The 40 officers in the unit reportedly use routine traffic stops as a way to find harder criminals, weapons or drugs.
An anonymous ex-SCORPION member who was not involved in the incident told CBS News that they were “not well-trained and not properly managed" and that the formal training was “three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.”
Ben Crump, the Nichols’ family lawyer, also told The Washington Post that others have “reached out to us and the family about [the unit’s use of excessive force] happening to them”, and that, “Tyre is dead because this pattern and practice went unchecked.”
In a statement on January 28, the Memphis Police Department announced their plan to “permanently deactivate” the unit.
January 28, 2023