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  • Caroline McCord

The Life and Death of Tyre Nichols

One week into 2023, on a chilly Memphis evening, Tyre Nichols was pulled over by members of the Memphis Police Department for "reckless driving." Three days later, he died in a hospital room, hooked up to countless machines and covered in bruises and sores.

Tyre Nichols was born on June 5, 1993, in Sacramento, California. He had three older siblings. He was a passionate skateboarder, constantly careening down stairs, flipping mere inches above the ground, and gliding serenely through empty parking lots. Tyre and his friends would practice for hours, cheering each other on, until the sky slowly faded into darkness — at which point they'd grab snacks at McDonald's.

He loved to take photographs, especially of sunsets. His mother, RowVaughn Wells, said he would watch the sunset every night, traveling to nearby parks for a better view.

Tyre had a four-year-old son. He had his mother's name tattooed on his arm. Everyone who knew him — family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances — described him as a free spirit, a beautiful soul, a family man. He loved Starbucks. He worked at FedEx, and on his breaks, he'd go to his mom's house to eat her homemade chicken.

Tyre's death was brutal, bloody, and unthinkably unjust. But for twenty-nine years, he was a devoted son and friend. He was a fantastic father. He loved fiercely and laughed often, and he was profoundly happy — content with chasing sunsets and playing with his boy.

And yet the end of his life is why he became yet another hashtag, another name sloppily painted onto cardboard signs and waved in the air while crowds chanted and screamed.

It began on January 7, when Tyre was pulled over for "reckless driving" by multiple police officers just two minutes away from his home. Officers initially claimed he tried to run away as they pulled him over, forcing them to push him onto the ground and tase him to keep him contained.

But in reality, released body cam footage shows Tyre telling the cops he "was just trying to get home," and later, as the cops continued antagonizing him, calmly saying, "you guys are doing a lot right now." The officers continued yelling obscenities at him, threatening him, pulling him out of the car, holding him on the ground, and then preparing to stun him. To escape the stun gun, Tyre wriggled out from under the cops and tried to run away.

He didn't make it far.

The footage then shows Tyre on the ground again as an officer yells that he is going to "baton the f*** out of you [Tyre]," which he then does. Other cops hold Tyre up to be hit in the face with the batons and then kick him as he writhes on the ground. Tyre is punched, kicked over and over again, slapped, and pepper-sprayed by the police. One officer stands to the side and watches.

At least three times during the assault, Tyre cries out for his mom.

Finally, the officers cease attacking Nichols and drag him into the street, leaning his battered body against a car. They leave him there for twenty minutes before offering him aid.

When EMTs finally arrived, they also neglected to take prompt and proper care of Tyre, and he finally arrived at the hospital more than forty minutes after he was assaulted.

Tyre died three days later, on January 10. He suffered extensive bleeding, cardiac arrest, and kidney failure from the beating, all of which contributed to his death.

Tyre's death released yet another wave of fury and despair through America, prompting protests, marches, and vigils across the country. Vice President Harris spoke at Tyre's funeral, and politicians unequivocally denounced the attack.

But this act of police brutality, while similar in the end result, was different from most in difficult, complicated ways.

For one thing, all five police officers charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tyre were also Black men. This created a wrinkle in the usually cut-and-dry narrative surrounding police brutality, in which white police officers brutally attack and murder unarmed, terrified Black men. While it is suggested by experts that structural bigotry within policing and internalized racism of the individual officers facilitated Tyre's death, it still made the motives of the incident rather muddy for the average American. For many, Tyre's death became less a glimpse into how American policing is built upon violence, control, and complicity — regardless of race — and more a question of whether Black men could be racist towards Black men.

Additionally, within weeks of Tyre's death, the officers were fired and charged, their unit was disbanded, and lawmakers began crafting new police reform bills. While attorneys for Tyre's family initially warned of riots and backlash akin to what unfolded after the Rodney King beating in 1992, the protests waned after a couple of weeks. Within the upper levels of the Memphis Police Department, officials did follow protocol. Officers were thrown in prison, and entire units were slashed.

The death of Tyre, a kind, a glowing young man with his whole life ahead of him, became just a blip. His last words — calls for his mom, screaming "what did I do" — were essentially lost, swirled up, and mixed into the shootings and toxic spills flashing across American news channels.

The way forward is not clear. Activists in Memphis hope to increase transparency within policing, especially by legally requiring them to share body cam footage. There are also calls to end indiscriminate traffic stops, especially those for minor infractions like loud music.

In terms of comprehensive, fundamental reforms, there is little momentum. Ideas like abolition and defunding police made their way into the mainstream after George Floyd's murder in 2020. Still, most major cities have upped their policing and carceral budgets since then.

After Tyre died, the Memphis Police Department stated that he had not been driving recklessly. Why he was pulled over that night, beaten by police officers, then left to lie dying just 80 yards from his mom's house might never truly be known.

But Tyre's mother refuses to believe her son died for no reason. Instead, Wells told CNN that her son's death would have an impact and mean something.

"He [Tyre] was sent back home, and God is not gonna let any of his children's names go in vain," Wells said. "So, when this is all over, it's gonna be some good and some positive because my son was a good and positive person."

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