The US city of Memphis on Friday released graphic video footage depicting the fatal police assault of a 29-year-old Black man, sparking small protests against police brutality in a number of US cities but none that flared into the violence that officials had feared.
Five Memphis officers, all also Black, were charged with second-degree murder in the beating of Tyre Nichols, who died in hospital on January 10 three days after being stopped on suspicion of reckless driving.
The lengthy video footage from police body cameras shows a group of officers detaining Nichols, attempting to take him down with the use of a Taser, then giving chase as he evades them.
Subsequent segments – the footage runs about an hour in total, and is audio-only in parts – show Nichols crying out for his mother, and moaning as officers repeatedly kick and punch him.
Addressing an emotional press conference earlier Friday, the victim’s mother RowVaughn Wells called out the officers who she said beat her son “to a pulp,” telling them: “You disgraced your own families when you did this.”
President Joe Biden, who has joined local officials in calling for protests to remain peaceful, spoke with Wells Friday to offer his condolences and commend “the family’s courage and strength.”
The slain man’s mother was “obviously in enormous pain,” Biden said, adding that she had “made a very strong plea” for peaceful protests.
The father of a four-year-old son, Nichols worked for FedEx, loved skateboarding and taking photos, and had a tattoo of his mother’s name on his arm.
“My heart just breaks,” Wells told the news conference. “For a mother to know that their child was calling them in their need, and I wasn’t there for him.”
“My son was a beautiful soul,” Wells said. “He was a good boy. No one’s perfect. But he was damn near it.”
Protests in Memphis, Washington, New York City, Philadelphia, Atlanta and a handful of other cities on Friday evening were small and largely peaceful.
In downtown Memphis, around 50 protesters gathered at the central Martyrs Park to mark the video’s release, later blocking a main road as they marched and chanted “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say His Name: Tyre Nichols.”
The White House said that senior staff had briefed the mayors of more than a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, on federal assistance in case of protests.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis compared the video to footage of the 1991 Rodney King beating, which sparked days of riots in Los Angeles that left dozens dead.
“I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident, it’s very much aligned with that same type of behavior,” Davis said. “I would say it’s about the same, if not worse.”
Nichols’s mother has accused police of initially trying to cover up her son’s beating, coming to her door to say he had been arrested for drunk driving and pepper-sprayed and tasered after being difficult to handcuff.
The young man’s death drew immediate comparisons with the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, another Black man whose suffocation by a white police officer in Minneapolis was caught on film.
Video of Floyd’s death spread rapidly, sparking a massive wave of at times violent protests nationwide and beyond, and reviving scrutiny of race relations and a culture of police brutality in the United States.
Police officer Derek Chauvin was consequently convicted of murder, in what was seen as a landmark case after he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes.
At a Memphis skate park where Nichols was a local, flowers and candles were laid out beside signs demanding “Justice for Tyre.”
Robert Walters, a 67-year-old blues musician visiting the city from Virginia, said he and his wife would return home early to avoid any violence.
“I’m a Black man living in America. And that fear is always something that me and my son, we grew up with and we live with,” he told AFP, in reference to police brutality.
The five officers involved in Nichols’s fatal beating were taken into custody following a rapid internal investigation that found them to have used excessive force and to have failed to render aid.
In addition to second-degree murder charges, the officers are facing indictments for aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping.
Four of the five were released from jail after posting bail, US media reported Friday, citing jail records.
The fact the officers were themselves Black “hurts,” Walters said.
“These guys, you’d think, of anybody, should know (better), but it just goes to show you that anybody can fall into that trap,” he said.
“I just want people to just be calm and not do anything stupid, not destroy or hurt.”