Tire Nichols: a martyr for Memphis, but a son of Sacramento

Through it all, Tire Nichols’ family put on their brave faces Wednesday at this church in Memphis, Tennessee.

They echoed calls for justice for their 29-year-old son, father and brother, who died after being brutally beaten by police last month. They took comfort in the speed of justice, knowing that the officers involved had already been fired and charged with murder. And they nodded angrily that, too often, black people aren’t seen for our humanity.

“I see the world showing her love and fighting for her justice,” Nichols’ sister Keyana Dixon said in tears. “But all I want is for my little brother to come back.”

Indeed, it was a funeral for a distraught family, but it was also a funeral for a distraught Memphis.

In the same way that George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police, is inextricably linked to this city, and Rodney King, beaten by Los Angeles police, is inextricably linked to our city, Nichols and his legacy are now linked to Memphis. . He is now an unwitting martyr on an increasingly desperate and seemingly endless mission to finally put an end to police brutality.

And yet, to focus solely on that is to miss much of who Nichols really was. It would leave the masses to define him – or even redefine him – by his death without a proper context for his life.

What did it mean that he liked skateboarding, for example. Why he was drawn to landscape photography. Why, as a 6ft tall dark skinned black man, he chose to live as someone who ‘didn’t see color’ even though he was very aware that racism existed and the police was inclined to use it against him.

And most importantly, why he was the last black person that any of his friends or family expected to be racially profiled or to end up dead after a traffic stop gone wrong.

To learn and try to understand all these dimensions, I did not go to Memphis, but to Sacramento. The California capital is where Nichols spent his formative years, forming lifelong friendships and a family, before deciding to move about 2,000 miles away to be closer to his mother during the pandemic.

“We’re going to let them know Tire was from Sacramento and we’re going to tell them who he was,” said Stevante Clark, an activist who lost his own brother, Stephon, to police brutality in 2018. friends, the people who know him best will humanize him Sacramento, where he was before moving to Memphis, [is] where we know him, love him, cherish him, honor him.

Nowhere is this truer than at Regency Community Skate Park in suburban North Natomas.

Tire Nichols’ casket is escorted out of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church following Wednesday’s funeral in Memphis, Tennessee.

(Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)


The sun had long since set when Ryan Wilson, bundled up and red-faced, appeared behind Nichols’ older brother, Jamal Dupree.

“I can see a lot of familiar and unfamiliar faces,” Wilson began hesitantly. “As many of you know, I was probably one of Tyr’s closest friends growing up. I met him here when I was about 12.

Dozens of people – friends, relatives, former classmates, politicians, activists, strangers – had come to the Regency Community Skate Park on Monday night for a candlelight vigil. Black men in puffer jackets, watery-eyed black mothers, white women in yoga pants, middle-aged men in suits and scruffy-haired teenagers of multiple races, all tipped for a spot between the mini-demi- moon and the well-worn ramps.

Wilson recalled when he and Nichols spent hours at the park after school and on weekends, mastering tricks on their skateboards and recording the best of them.

“We made so many videos together,” he said, “and I have little shoeboxes full of tapes that I’m really going to enjoy watching one of these days. I mean, he was part of my family.

That Nichols was a skater says a lot about his character. After all, it wasn’t Los Angeles or San Francisco, it was Sacramento in the late 2000s. In a city where basketball fans still brazenly ring cowbells at NBA games, there just weren’t many black kids on skateboards back then.

“I think he would kind of be avoided being a black kid. Like, why are you doing what these white kids are doing? said Chris Dean, a longtime skateboarder, who is white and owner of Sac Ramp Skate Shop. “Do you like skateboarding? What are you doing that?”

But, even though it shocked people and confused some members of his own family, Nichols was proud.

So proud, in fact, that he even mentored others, as several ambitious skateboarders recounted during the vigil, including a young black man wearing a Bulls hat.

“He was part of a very inclusive group of people,” said Angelina Paxton, one of his closest friends. “Skateboarders are a lot like the rebels in our community. That’s how we used to see it. Now it’s more accepted, but back then it was like the outcast kids and he fit in with everyone.

The fact that Nichols was a skateboarder also says a lot about where he grew up and his relationship to the world.

Known for his bright smile, infectious laugh and tendency to put the needs of others before his own, he moved around a lot as a child. At some point he left California, returning to high school to help care for his father, who was dying.

That move landed Nichols in North Natomas, a middle-class suburb about halfway between downtown Sacramento and the airport and, not far from the skate park, surrounded by well-maintained two-story homes.

The thing to know about North Natomas is that, just like Los Angeles, it is extremely diverse. But unlike Los Angeles, there is no segregation, so Nichols grew up around a mix of black, Latino, Asian American and white children.

“It’s not perfect,” acknowledged Natomas Unified School District superintendent Chris Evans. “But more than most places, there is an integration of diversity. There’s not a neighborhood you can go to – even gated communities – where you’re like, “This is the white neighborhood. It just doesn’t exist, which is great.

The other thing to know about North Natomas is that it is split into two school districts. And because Nichols’ house near the skate park was on the line, he ended up attending a predominantly white high school that was far poorer than his neighborhood high school.

Classmates who came to the wake joked that they used to call their school the “hick ghetto.”

“It was kind of known for being mostly like a white farming town,” Paxton said. “And so, you know, there weren’t a lot of people of different ethnicities there.”

But none of Nichols’ friends remember him complaining. He just made friends, as he did at the skate park and as he had throughout his life, whether in mixed or predominantly black neighborhoods.

It was with his friend Paxton that Nichols developed a real affinity for landscape photography. And that turned into a love of filmmaking, skills he used to make videos for two classmates’ fledgling rap group.

“What was cool about him was that he didn’t try to dilute his culture or where he came from. He didn’t try to be anything,” Paxton told me. “He was listening to rap. He was listening to reggae. He listened to country. He listened to anything and everything he wanted. He dressed as he wanted. He was just an existing person. He didn’t have to define himself like that.

In other words, Nichols’ uncle told me he was just neutral.

“He didn’t see the color,” Johnie Honeycutt said during the vigil, earning nods from a few relatives. “He loved everyone.”

Candlelight illuminates a photo of Tire Nichols on the hoodie worn by a mourner at a vigil in North Natomas.

Candlelight illuminates a photo of Tire Nichols on a hoodie worn by a mourner during a vigil at the North Natomas skate park. Nichols is remembered for making friends, whether in mixed or majority black neighborhoods. “He loved everyone,” his uncle said.

(Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Sacramento Bee)


I try to imagine the puzzlement and then the terror of Nichols, a black man who first saw people as human beings, when he was pulled over by five cops for what should have been a minor traffic stop, their weapons drawn and yelling conflicting orders at him as if he were an animal.

As one uncle told me, Nichols didn’t have “thug bones in his body.”

At least in North Natomas, he didn’t have to regularly encounter overzealous elite police units, like the now disbanded Scorpion, to which all five Memphis officers now charged with his death belonged.

These units are usually created to deal with violent crime or a supposed increase in gang activity, then deployed to “high crime neighborhoods” and given wide latitude to do whatever they need to do to get results.

One would think that respect for the law would be part of it. But all too often, what happens looks a lot like what we see in body camera footage released by Memphis police last week. Aggressive officers, sometimes in civilian clothes, acting with impunity and terrorizing low-income black and Latino communities.

After Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Nichols told friends he was even more uncomfortable meeting with police than he had been before.

But he still clearly saw the cops as people who could be reasoned with.

Even when he received punches, kicks and shoves, he was polite. He hesitated to raise his voice. He told them, “You’re really doing a lot right now.” And in return, those cops — those black men — called Nichols “boy,” laughed and smoked cigarettes over his bloody, broken body.

They also ignored his plea, “I’m just trying to get home.”

Reverend Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy on Wednesday, said home is not just a place.

“Home is where you are at peace,” he preached. “Home is where you don’t have to keep your dukes up. Home is where you’re not vulnerable. Home is where everything is fine.

Paxton said that was part of what made her so sad. The last few times she spoke with Nichols, he was finally beginning to understand what made him happy, after so many months of desperately missing his life, his friends and his son in Sacramento.

“He was just looking for happiness and looking for a home – that’s what he and me used to say,” she told me. “It’s just that kind of restless feeling that you don’t belong somewhere. You’re looking for where you belong, you know?”

Los Angeles Times

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