UM students and faculty reflect on the assault of Tyre Nichols

A photo of Tyre Nichols alongside a skateboard and poster reading "Justice For Tyre Nichols" are displayed at the vigil held for Tyre Nichols on Lakeside Patio on Feb. 6. Photo credit: Luna Plaza

Body cam footage released last Jan. 27 depicts Memphis’ Police arrest and assault of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, nature photographer, skateboarder and father. An officer in an unmarked car pulled him over on the evening of Jan. 7 for alleged reckless driving. The reason for this stop was not communicated to Nichols.

Nichols said he “didn’t do anything” when he was held down to the ground, visibly showing no initial resistance at the traffic stop by more officers who arrived. When he was pepper sprayed and tased, Nichols fled the scene in fear which began a foot chase before he was pinned down again and kicked in the head.

The officers repeatedly pulled him off the ground to beat him with a baton before Nichols collapsed. The five officers are altogether known as the SCORPION unit: commissioned to combat violence in Memphis. There was no supervisor on the scene.

After communicating his shortness of breath, Nichols was hospitalized for the severe injuries he sustained in the confrontation near his home. Nichols had appearance-altering bruises and remained in critical condition until his death three days later.

The two E.M.T.s did not administer help for Nichols for 19 minutes as he laid in pain. They have been fired and their licenses have been temporarily suspended.

The emotional escalation among the officers has incited national outcry. Demonstrators in major cities across the U.S. took to the streets to protest against the display of police brutality.

The five officers involved, all having been Black men, have already been relieved of their duties by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis who described the situation as “horrific” and “inhumane.” They face numerous charges for second-degree murder, official misconduct and aggravated assault.

The officers were indicted within three weeks of the incident, relatively fast in comparison to similar cases. The arrests were presumably made in anticipation of the video’s release.

A sixth, white officer who tasered Nichols in the altercation was fired on Feb. 4, about a week after the other officers had gotten charged.

“I wonder if these officers thought they were going to be as protected as their white counterparts, but they really weren’t,” sophomore health science major Nora Eje said. She is also a member of the African Students Union on campus.

When asked if Eje watched the footage, she said no and likened it to the normalization of violence.

“I refuse to desensitize myself to brutality against black and brown people. I don’t see the need for me to purposely see someone die and see someone get beat up,” Eje said.

First-year student activist and fellow skateboarder Luna Plaza shared the same sentiment.

“We like to pretend that ‘oh, that doesn’t happen in our communities, we don’t see this.’ Some people don’t see those issues happening in front of them. So they don’t think that it is an actual problem, but it is and it happens in every community,” Plaza said.

Plaza attended a protest for Antwon Rose, another black man that fell to the hands of police brutality in 2018. The unarmed Pittsburgh 17-year-old was shot three times by a police officer after fleeing a traffic stop. She has since organized protests around the Stop Asian Hate movement and organized a vigil for Nichols which was held on Feb. 4 in Miami.

Many people of color within the UM community are shaken by this case, particularly after the release of the video. Plaza believes vigils can promote healing for everyone.

“In times like these, where we’re all very overwhelmed, we’re all going through different stages of grief. And grief is hard and this journey is hard,” Plaza said. “Healing is part of our path to our collective liberation.”

Photo credit: Luna Plaza

The Black Student Leadership Caucus held a vigil on Feb. 6 to honor Nichols’ life and later opened a forum to discuss police brutality.

In further efforts of healing, Vice President Kamala Harris attended Nichols’ funeral on Feb. 1 in support of the grieving Memphis community. She spoke to those gathered.

“We mourn with you,” Harris said.

Police reform needs to be on the forefront of societal agendas in America according to UM criminal justice professor Luis Gamez who has more than two decades of experience in the field.

“A lot of police agencies are in denial,” Gamez said. “They have a police working personality, which unfortunately tends to encourage this kind of behavior.”

Some police colleagues believe that none of this would happen if Nichols did what he was told.

“My counter is, ‘how do we know that he didn’t?’ They were five abusive officers that abused their power,” Gamez said. “And other people are just like ‘We’ve got too much on our plate.”

“We need to increase and enhance and elevate the standards to enter not just policing, but virtually any and every other job within the American criminal justice system,” Gamez continued.

Many states only require a GED or high school diploma, a clean record, and six to eight months of training to earn a badge.

Gamez suggests better screening and an associates degree or bachelor’s as the requirement before putting people into the workforce.

Because of how slow the criminal justice system tends to move, these requirements could be retroactively required. Gamez provided a timeline for those already in the workforce to get their degree.

“If you can get a badge but can’t get an Associate’s in five years, I’m sorry, you don’t have you don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to be a police officer,” he said.

When prompted about how students can initiate change, Plaza shared her thoughts.

“We need to support mutual aid, start organizing in whatever capacity. There’s so many ways to get involved. Hopefully the University starts sharing more culturally competent mental health resources, alternatives to calling the police because should it be the only thing that we should be relying on?” Plaza said.

Plaza remains committed to change.

“But we’re still fighting, we’re not going to stop. I believe in people’s justice because the law and everything, that’s not justice at all. And real justice would be not having to talk about more and more people dying in our community,” Plaza said.

Nichols is survived by his four year old son.