On Friday, January 27, 2023, the nation waited with bated breath as the hours and minutes passed before the Memphis Police Department would release the video of the inhumane and fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers.
As we have seen far too many times before, the brutal beating that was recorded on Police body cameras and the City’s video cameras became a sickening form of nauseating entertainment, one that is often played repeatedly, and always with that now familiar safety warning: “we’d like to warn you that some of these images may be disturbing.” What’s really disturbing, however, is that, once again, we are provided with proof beyond a reasonable doubt that such police brutality occurs. Despite such evidence, police officers and their departments continue the practice of coverup by filing fraudulent reports that contradict what is shown in the videos.
I still can’t get it out of my mind that as Tyre was finally loaded into an ambulance, he cried out his mother’s name three times. He was only 100 yards from her house, where she was waiting to serve his favorite meal. I did not watch the video. I could not watch it. The truth is, I do not need to watch it. I already know what happens to my people in these situations because it happens so often. Like mass shootings, our society has become desensitized to these traumatic images, which have subconsciously made this violence seem normal.
Many people thought the Black Lives Matter movement and the uproar over George Floyd changed things. Still, the reality is that It didn’t, Nor did it after Breonna Taylor’s murder, or Freddie Gray, or Eric Garner, or Gabriela Nevarez, who, like Tyre Nichols, was just driving her car. My brother was also just driving his car when he, too, was pulled over and harassed for no apparent reason. I found out later that it was a warning to my mother, who was a journalist and had been reporting about police brutality in Oakland, CA. My brother was one of the lucky ones. He could have easily been killed under the pretense that he “resisted arrest.”
Like my brother and so many others, Tyre Nichols was similarly pulled over on January 7, 2023, allegedly for “reckless driving,” but the Memphis Police department has since walked back that claim saying, “we’ve been unable to substantiate it.” In fact, the Memphis Police department hasn’t been able to substantiate any of the claims they made about what occurred that night, and the police report completely contradicts what is shown on the video. Tragically, a Black man was killed by Black police officers in the same way that White police officers have assaulted and killed Black men for decades. The indisputable images from the video show both the Memphis Police officers and Fire department paramedics doing nothing to help him, watching Tyre writhe in pain and agony for a full seven minutes. Some laughed.
Our society continues to perpetuate the stereotype that a Black person is preternaturally inclined to break the law and is invariably, and at any given time, judged a suspect before rather than a human being. A 2021 Washington Post study cites police shot and killed at least 1,055 people nationwide in 2020 — the year George Floyd was killed — the most since the newspaper began tracking fatal shootings by officers in 2015. 27 percent of those fatally shot and killed by police in 2021 were Black. Given that Black people account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, it means that Black people are twice as likely as white people to be shot and killed by police officers.
Let’s go back to that police report. It was filed in the early hours of January 8, just hours after Tyre was hospitalized (he would die three days later.) As has happened many times before, they used the same obfuscating and misleading language in describing an incident involving a Black suspect. The report states that he” refused lawful detention” (read: non-compliant), was “irate” (read: violent), and “sweating profusely” (read: on drugs); that he “resisted” arrest, causing them to use a chemical agent and that, he even “grabbed” a detective’s gun.
We see this same kind of fraudulent language used in so many police reports across the country as if such words automatically populate the reports. Over and over, these police reports describe a fictitious man who is dangerous and resistant to all force used by multiple officers, whether it be pepper spray, Tasers, or batons. This phantom image has been indelibly engraved on our psyches as the “Angry Black Man.” It is a stereotype used to justify the harsh treatment of Black people because they are “violent” and “out of control.” Ultimately, such an image dehumanizes Black people to the degree that even Black police officers treat another Black man as a savage.
To see Black police officers taunt and torture a Black citizen underscores the notion that we as a people are less than human, capable of denigrating ourselves and each other all for the world to see on television. This is trauma, the trauma of our Black people who cannot help but be influenced by what they see happening by police officers of the same color as they are.
This condition and type of police reporting that creates this negative imagery is known as Confirmation Bias, The idea that people search for a way to interpret and recall information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, which in turn, influences how they witness something. It’s the same reason why young black girls and boys are often seen as older and unfairly treated as adults when in fact, they are just children. In Tyre Nichols’ case, the police willed themselves to see him as a threat, just as they willed themselves to submit reports about what happened that were starkly different from what was shown on video or was seen by eyewitnesses.
We need to stop accepting this crude caricature that is being forced upon us. We need to change the narrative that has been fed to us. We must demand that the entertainment industry and the media to stop supporting the trope that Black people are ill-mannered, violent, and less than human. It is imperative that we reckon with the pragmatic and intentional systems that have been put in place to undermine the fair treatment of Black people.
Tyre Nichols was the victim of a group of deluded and indoctrinated police officers and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) who believed the narrative. I challenge you to do something today in whatever way you can to change the unfair treatment and biases against Black people. Be the change you want to see. If you see something, do something.
Only when our entire country works to challenge the status quo will we see substantive change in the perception of our race. It’s a responsibility that faces each and every one of us, regardless of color. I hope you’ll join me.
1 Mapping Police Violence, https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/