Tire Nichols’ mother couldn’t hear his screams. Can you?
I have a wild imagination, but I don’t need it to imagine screaming for my mom in my dying breaths, and her not hearing me.
Mine is still there with us, so I can get back to her. That’s why I don’t see myself quite as George Floyd at the end, crying for his mom while the Minneapolis police murdered him. It was May 25, 2020, and “Miss Cissy” died almost exactly two years earlier. She couldn’t hear him.
RowVaughn Wells couldn’t hear his son either. He was much closer and much stronger than Floyd at the end, which somehow makes it worse. When he shouted “Mom!” Mom! Mom!” in successive bursts of tears, Tire Nichols was about 60 yards from his home southeast of Memphis.
Sixty yards could be across from your high school gymnasium. That’s a little less than the length of two basketball courts. We’ve seen NFL quarterbacks throw longer than that. If Wells had been outside, she could have heard him calling her name.
You don’t need to watch the video. Can you still see Tyr? Can you hear it?
There has been more written about mothers surviving after police kill their children than about sons fearing what they might leave behind if they become the next victim. Dying is one of my most terrible fears, but not because I’m afraid of the end. What scares me is thinking of my parents, my sister, and my loved ones mourning my death, especially if the so-called “best” of any American city or town were to kill me.
We tend to be lazy with our language when describing such things. “Indescribable,” “unimaginable,” or “unbelievable” are all words we hear and say, but police brutality in this country is anything but. We keep using those words, but they don’t mean what we think they mean. Murders like Nichols’ are the complete opposite of “inconceivable.”
Through technology, citizen vigilance and calls for accountability, we have witnessed, endlessly, the final moments of countless sons and daughters. We followed the grief of black and Latino mothers and fathers. After watching Floyd die nearly three years ago, the world even decided, for a few months not counting Februaryto act collectively to end the police abusing and killing people with increasing regularity.
Where has this got us? Tire Nichols is dead. Who knows who will be next?
We should still lament that the Los Angeles Police Department needlessly killed three men in January, two black and one Latino. As I watched Nichols flee from the Memphis police, I wondered if he had seen the recent videos showing the LAPD ending the life of Takar Smith, Oscar Leon Sanchez and Keenan Anderson.
If not them, surely Nichols saw someone else die at the hands of a police officer. We all have now. He was just 29, but we as a nation have been engulfed in the spectacle of the black death since he was in high school — and with little, if any, real promise to reform the institution of the police in the country. These releases of body camera footage, surveillance video and cellphone footage are no longer the stuff of snuff films. Nichols had probably seen this kind of film before. He soon realized that he was now playing in one.
He ran away from their Tasers, pepper spray and vitriol. Based on distance alone, it’s possible he wasn’t just trying to escape, but to make it all the way back. The traffic stop happened about half a mile from Wells’ house, and he almost got there.
It seemed like a haunting allegory of black people’s experiences with the police, even black police. He’s instantly recognizable to those of us who figured out that the institution was the problem. It’s always been the uniform, not the skin underneath. Diversity initiatives were never going to save us.
That it was primarily black officers who carried out the assault was anything but irrelevant. It was still a bit like watching a role-playing game about American bigotry. Consider their absurd orders, after going through the blasphemies. Many of them amounted to: Black man, do this even if you’ve done it before.
Get on the ground, even while he was on the ground.
Give us your hands, even if they controlled each of his arms.
Put your hands behind your back, even if you can’t move them.
And even if you know your life is in danger from watching American police officers humiliate, dehumanize, assault and kill black people, God forbid you try to escape. The punishment for this is the death penalty administered on a street corner.
No amount of compliance was enough. Minutes before those same cops beat Nichols to death, they were taking any agency he had on himself.
He freed himself with what was left of his body and his dignity, then he ran towards the source, his mother. Mothers not only gesture to us and give us an introduction to life, but they can continue to give it to us throughout their years. Not every child or parent is so lucky, and it sure seems like Nichols had a great mom and Wells had a great son. “Nobody is perfect, nobody. But he was damn close,” Wells told the press last week. “He was damn near perfect.”
Damn, almost everything is relatable in this story too. Tyr was his youngest. Her baby, born 12 years after her siblings. My own sister is over ten years younger than me, so I kind of understand that. It’s not easy, especially for the younger ones. Like me, he had moved from California to Tennessee during the pandemic. He stayed for his mother, because they are close. Until I get this job, too.
However, too many Americans cannot or refuse to see our experiences as part of their own. In their minds, their child, spouse or co-worker does not have to view an encounter with the police as a life-threatening event. They won’t be shot without warning like Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor or Philando Castile. They think they and their loved ones have no reason to fear being suffocated like George Floyd, or reduced to a pulp like Rodney King or Tire Nichols. They might be right, but do you see the problem here?
Reforming an American Institution descended from supervisors and slave hunters may indeed be impossible. I am a police and prison abolitionist not because I have an idea for a more effective replacement, although Mayor Lower hire more social workers than new cops would be a good start. No, I’m an abolitionist because I find it hard to think of anything worse than what we currently have.
Our tolerance for so-called shootings and murders involving officers is the main reason for this. The police killed nearly 1,200 people in the United States last year alone. Almost 1,000 to date in Los Angeles County since 2000.
When we see or hear Floyd, Nichols or the countless others crying for their mom, who do you hear? Do you hear someone’s son? Do you hear your own child?
I appreciated when, in 2012, Barack Obama said that “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Still reeling from the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of a wannabe cop, it was the first time I felt that a President of the United States not only acknowledged symbiotic outbreaks of violence armed and police violence, but also our lack of empathy. At the time, Amy Davidson Sorkin of The New Yorker wrote of Obama, “This line is specific and universal. Anyone, of any race, with a son should see Trayvon face to face; anyone who doesn’t should imagine what could be, what could have been, and what was lost.
That said, empathy is the foundation. This is the bare minimum that can be expected from our neighbors and our government at this point. While we must all embrace our common vulnerability — if not just to improve our personal relationships, then certainly for the good of our fellow Americans — we will never stop these killings if we have to wait for everyone to become empathetic. Nor are we going to reduce or end them if we depend only on sentiment. We can’t be a world that walks for black lives, buys a few books and donates some money and then goes back to tolerating police abusing and murdering people. We Americans need to adjust our hearing if we don’t hear a call to action in the cries of Tire Nichols.
This is especially true for anyone who doesn’t think what the police do to black people is part of their own American experience. Mothers like mine and Wells, and sons like Nichols and myself, have borne this burden too much. If people refuse to give up their unearned benefits, the least they can do is put them to good use.
well buried his youngest the first day of Black History Month, the first of 28 days that America, all too briefly, gives us enough attention. I hope the next time we hear or watch a black man die at the hands of the police, and there will be a next time, we won’t wonder if their mothers could have heard them crying out for help. Anyway, we can. We hear Tire Nichols and George Floyd, again. But are we really listening?
Los Angeles Times