Content warning: This column discusses Tyre Nichols; he does not, however, give the details of his death.
This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I had the pleasure of spending the day with two curious little bulldogs, one in kindergarten, the other in first grade. We attended a community march and listened to Bomani Moenda as he held up a mirror to our community, showing us the various ways in which we support many structures of white supremacy. Like good students, my young friends asked many questions about King’s life, the purpose of the march, how our world differs from King’s, and how things haven’t changed that much.
One of the topics Bomani asked the crowd to consider was how institutions like schools or the police protect their own, especially if they are white. He asked about a teacher in the Yellow Springs schools who was able to leave her position rather than face consequences for racial slurs in front of students. But this column is not about schools. The lack of accountability is pervasive in all our institutions across the country, and this recent example should outrage all of us who say we care about justice.
By now I’m sure most of us know the name Tyre Nichols and have heard the story of his murder at the hands of five black police officers. The most egregious thing is that more than five officers were involved in Nichols’ death. According to NPR and AP, seven officers were involved. The Memphis Police Department released the name of a sixth, white officer, Preston Hemphill, who was the officer who pulled Nichols over, punched him and was recorded as saying he hoped members of the Scorpion unit would seriously harm Nichols. All this was caught on Hemphill’s video camera. It was also later revealed that three paramedics were also fired for failing to provide adequate care when called to the scene.
I was first alerted to the other officers involved this weekend, not from news outlets flaunting photos of black officers arrested and charged, but from activists on Twitter who investigated while advocating for often-guarded public records requests. by one or more whose mission is to protect the institution. It is because of relentless questioning and collective action that we even know about Preston Hemphill who instigated the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols.
I am neither the first nor the last to conclude that the Memphis Police Department intentionally named the five black officers before they named the white officers involved. Despite the fact that the Memphis Police Department is headed by a black woman, a diverse force, body cameras, training, a man was killed and his white killer was protected and his black killers were put on display. I am neither the first nor the last to remember James Baldwin’s warning about black cops: “A black cop can totally destroy you. He knew a lot more about you than a white cop could, and you were defenseless against this black brother in uniform, whose every breath seemed to be his hope to prove that although he was black, he wasn’t black like you.
As all of these realities swirl around in my head, I’m reminded of Bomani’s words again, a reminder that our country, states, cities, and towns are steadily increasing police budgets as police continue to kill more black people than ever before. This is the reality of black people – we pay taxes to help the cops kill us. Let’s not forget that the first policemen were tasked with protecting property, which for a time included slaves. After that, sheriff’s departments assigned men to help catch slaves. This is a police story; it’s the legacy we fund.
But it would be unfair to leave out of consideration some other institutions complicit with the police. The press conference video was released on purpose; it was on purpose to do it on a friday afternoon. While activists spread the word on Twitter, urging people to protect themselves and prepare for the traumatic video, major media corporations remained silent. We know that police reports can be requested at any time. What happened? Of course, there is a sense of journalistic integrity that must be maintained, and as someone who writes the news, I often err on the side of caution when publishing inflammatory information. But if a family wants to tell their story and wants to talk, our job is to get that information out as quickly and accurately as possible. In that sense, I believe these news organizations have failed.
It’s the fierce urgency of the present that King talked about and Bomani talked about during the MLK Day march. How quickly can we redefine what accountability is? How many more hashtags do we need before the real showdown happens?
It seems wrong to close this column without celebrating the life of Tyro Nichols. He was 29 years old, the father of a four-year-old son, a photographer, a skateboarder, a man who lived, loved and cherished. He had ambitions, goals, a future that didn’t have to end with this tragedy. Even as I write this, it seems too little, but I can’t go on without making room for Tyr, who was the same age as my younger sister, and whose son is not much older than my daughter. His parents, his loved ones, his skateboarding friends are calling for justice, a justice that looks different than the status quo.
Shall we listen?