Attorney Ben Crump (left) stands with RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells, parents of Tyre Nichols, at the pulpit of Mt. Olive Cathedral Church on Monday afternoon with an attorney from Crump’s office and supporters as they talk about the video showing the beating of their son. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

I’ll admit, it pained me to see that the Memphis Police Department officers involved in the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after a traffic stop and violent encounter with police, were Black. 

Often, police brutality is framed in terms of race: white police, Black victims. So the mind questions how in the world could these Black men not see the humanity of someone who could be their brother, their cousin. 

But this case makes something clear: race can play a role in police brutality, but the corruption of power is a stronger factor. 

I don’t know much about these officers, who were fired Friday, beyond their names and faces. I don’t know how they think or what they believe, how they grew up and who their people are. I don’t know the details of the “confrontations” they described in police reports. 

What I do know is that Nichols, 29, was pulled over by police Jan. 7 and died Jan. 10. I know that police are given extraordinary power over citizens by law. And I know police policy trains them to assert that power, that authority.

Power, we know, corrupts. Anyone. Any race. It so corrupts that you can look into a face that looks just like yours and see only a threat to what you think belongs to you. 

Of course, at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, we aim to dissect and challenge power and the systems often ingrained with it. 

Skaters stand for a portrait outside of Memphis City Hall during a moment of skater solidarity for Tyre Nichols.

And so, even as I had that reflex wish Black folk often have when waiting for suspects in a crime to be revealed (“Please, Lord, don’t let them be Black!”), on another level, I knew it didn’t matter. When you work in a system, resistance to its mores can be futile. And if that system is broken, you likely will demonstrate that brokenness. 

Today, the Nichols family had to watch what should be unseen, the equivalent of a snuff film starring the father and avid skateboarder they loved. Their loved one was beaten, they said in a press conference, for three minutes by the five men. No charges have been filed against the police officers, and attorney Benjamin Crump said he expects the video will be released to the public in the next week or so. 

“It is not the race of the officer that determines the amount of excessive force,” said Crump at a press conference this afternoon. “It is the race of the citizen.

“It is so regrettable that they didn’t see Tyre as their brother.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often mentioned police brutality; he saw it firsthand. He talked about it in his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

More importantly, he talked about power:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” 

So I remain sad that these young Black men seemed to have caused the death of another young Black man. I’m sad, too, that they now may face severe consequences for their actions administered in the unfair system they were a part of. 

But I also hope that all of us observing this will learn something more about power and about love. And I hope they will too. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com


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