Melissa: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and thanks for starting your week with us.
His name was Tyre Nichols. He's just 29 years old when he took his final breath in a Memphis hospital. The youngest of four children and father to a four-year-old son, Tyre loved to skateboard, and he was just 80 yards away from his mother's house when he was stopped by Memphis police. Indeed, Tyre called out to his mother as he was being viciously beaten, punched, kicked, and chemically sprayed by five Memphis police officers. This weekend, Tyre's mother spoke through her grief to Good Morning America.
RowVaughn Wells: As a mother, you want to always be there when your children need you. When I heard that my son was calling my name and I wasn't there for him, that just hurt my heart.
Melissa: On the evening of January 7th, Memphis police stopped Tyre while he was driving. Initially, the police report indicated that he was stopped for reckless driving. After extensive initial review, the Memphis chief of police indicated there was no proof of probable cause for the traffic stop. On this Friday evening, the city of Memphis released video footage of the traffic stop, and it's hard to watch. The video shows five officers pepper spraying, beating, kicking, punching, shocking, and dragging Tyre.
The five officers were fired two weeks ago, and on Thursday they were indicted on multiple felony charges including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. The chief of police, C.J. Davis posted a video statement.
C.J. Davis: This incident was heinous, reckless, and inhumane. I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels. I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video.
Melissa: Ben Crump, attorney for the family, had this to say on Friday.
Ben Crump: He calls out three times for his mother. His last words on this earth is, "Mom, mom, mom." He's screaming for her and when you think about that kidnapping charge, he said, "I just want to go home.” It's a traffic stop for God's sake. A traffic stop.
Melissa: Homegoing services for Tyre Nichols will be held on Wednesday.
On Monday morning, I spoke with Aaron Morrison, national race and ethnicity writer for the Associated Press. Let me just start by asking, how are you doing in the context of covering this story?
Aaron: Well, it seems a bit like Groundhog Day because I can remember being here in 2020, trying to make sense of what we were seeing unfold after the murder of George Floyd and really trying to capture what this moment could mean. The potential for that moment in 2020 to bring about the change to that, not only Black communities but advocates and allies across really the globe have been calling for, which was really an end to an epidemic of police violence that just seems unrelenting.
Melissa: All across the country this weekend, many did take to the streets in protest of this violence. As you reflect on the nearly three years now since George Floyd was murdered, I'm wondering if it feels as though there is even marginal change in the sense that these officers have been fired. This police chief does not seem to be shielding them. They have been charged with what seems like the appropriate crimes. Does that indicate that there has been at least some movement by this movement?
Aaron: As I was thinking about this last week, actually this past weekend, I wrote for the Associated Press, really a reflection on what has transpired over the last three years. I began with a thought that the sequence of events in Memphis is really often the most that Black citizens can hope for after the death of a community member. There is an investigation, accountability of some sort, and maybe charges. What Black communities cannot count on is the idea that there will be systemic sweeping changes that prevent a traffic stop from turning into yet another reason for them to go out and protest.
Melissa: You can hear it in Ben Crump's voice, “It was a traffic stop.” The point you make is so critical that the movement for Black lives isn't a movement for jailing police officers after lives have been taken. The movement for Black lives is about sending Tyre Nichols home that night.
Aaron: Absolutely. If the measure of progress is more officers are fired and charged in the wake of these types of cases, then that means more Black people have to die in order for us to see more and more of this type of action taken by a city. The conversation really is turning to how to deal with the law enforcement culture, which is much deeper than changing a rule or implementing policies that say, "If you do this officer, we will give you this type of punishment." That could be a driver for change but it is not all of the solution to bringing that systemic cultural change in law enforcement.
Melissa: It seems, of course, among the other things that over the years and I'm going to go back farther than 2020, I'm going to go back to the initiation of the movement for Black lives a full decade ago now. There's two other pieces in this. Every single one of the officers who brutalized Tyre Nichols is a young Black man, nearly the same age as Tyre himself, and they were wearing cameras which were on, and they presumably knew that these cameras were on, and there's an African American woman who is the police chief in this case.
So many of those aspects, diversifying police leadership, diversifying the police themselves, asking for body cameras was part of an initial wave of requests for reform. I'm wondering again, this brutality, does it speak that those reforms are maybe not only inadequate, but irrelevant?
Aaron: I spoke to organizers, including organizers in the movement for Black lives last week about this very thing. Let's just start with some facts. The Memphis Police Department is roughly 59% Black. Its officers are Black, majority of them are Black. That matches what the city looks like. The city is 64% Black, 24% white, and 7% Hispanic. When you look at use of force, reports of use of force by this police force, it shows that Black men and women are overwhelmingly targeted for rougher treatment. That was true in 2019, in 2020, and in 2021 based on their own reports.
This idea that diversifying a police force is somehow going to stem brutal incidences, that's just not proven out by the facts or by the data. Not only that, we can't forget that policing and most advocates believe this has been an inherently anti-Black industry. It's built its legacy is such that it has been brutal to Black communities. There are people on all sides of this.
I don't want to speak with a broad brush about how the Black community feels about law enforcement, but certainly, you cannot argue the facts. You cannot argue against the data that shows that in this practice, Black people bear the brunt of these types of cases that we're seeing with Tyre Nichols.
Melissa: Quick pause. More with Aaron Morrison right after this.
We're talking with Aaron Morrison, national race and ethnicity reporter for the Associated Press. At least one other aspect of this does seem to be the ramp-up of police and what police have available to them and what they think their jobs are. We've been covering here on The Takeaway the effort to build Cop City in Atlanta and many community organizers saying, "Hey, that is not going to keep us safe. That is going to expose us to greater violence." In this case in Memphis, the unit where these officers worked was called SCORPION, the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, SCORPION. We learned over the weekend that it's going to be disbanded, but what do we know about SCORPION and the kind of training and presumptions with which they were operating?
Aaron: Last week a colleague of mine at the AP spoke to the chief and asked questions directly about the SCORPION Unit. One thing she shared and I know she shared it with several other outlets is the idea that sometimes the reforms that are implemented for let's say the rank and file, your neighborhood patrols, your traffic officers, those reforms don't always touch these specialty units, these anti-crime or crime suppression units.
These crime suppression units can function really outside of a reform regime that has been implemented in a city. Let's also be clear, Memphis is actually one of the cities that in wake of the uprising in 2020, they took the steps. They implemented reforms that a lot of folks were calling for in the wake of George Floyd's murder. It does beg the question like, what exactly are we asking for if even in cities where the reforms are implemented, we're still seeing this type of conduct by police?
I go back to the SCORPION Unit. The chief says, "Oh, well, there's not enough supervision of these types of specialty units, and that can be part of the problem why we would see such brutal treatment of someone by a unit like this.” She blamed the lack of supervision and some other factors. Quite honestly, if you're reforming a police department, how come it does not apply to all of your officers?
Melissa: Speaking of supervising, oversight, there are two levels of investigation happening here, state and federal. How do they differ and do you have a sense of what the expected outcomes are likely to be?
Aaron: It seems like the state investigation, though it is ongoing has pretty much concluded to the point of charges for the officers that there was misconduct, gross misconduct in the case of Tyre Nichols. Then in the federal investigation is simply going to determine whether or not the officers involved violated Tyre Nichols’ civil rights. That's where you could have federal civil rights charges come against the officers, but that is still forthcoming.
Melissa: Aaron Morrison is the national race and ethnicity writer for the Associated Press. Thanks for coming back and spending some time with us here on The Takeaway Aaron.
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