Last week, I watched the funeral services of Tyre Nichols on a live stream, and as I write that, it feels so odd to write.
A month before, I didn’t know of him. His beating death by Memphis police officers made Nichols national news, and the details of his life available. And now, me and you — strangers — could tune in and view what’s typically an intimate event.
In this post-pandemic terrain, virtual attendance has become routine. And in this unjust world, public memorials and remembrances of Black people killed by the state have become routine. That’s perhaps the most damaging thing of all.
That feeling of routine, which leads to disconnection from the event, from the community, happens because these horrible deaths shift to matters political and, thus, meander into spectacle.
For instance, Andrea Morales, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism’s visuals director, who was making images at Nichols’ service, told me that she encountered a man who had driven from Michigan with a 15-foot cross to be there for some reason.
Want to report your encounter with police?
If you’ve experienced violence from the police or had an encounter with the Memphis Police Department that you think violated your civil rights, the U.S. Department of Justice wants to hear your story.
Tell them about it here: https://civilrights.justice.gov/report/
To some extent, those kinds of details don’t matter; they’re a distraction. Yet as a journalist and the executive editor of MLK50, it’s important to think about how our country celebrates and memorializes people and how we cover those events.
In 2021, I visited a friend in Minneapolis, and I was able to see the memorial space created by the community at the site of the murder of George Floyd. It was an incredible site; born from chaos and emotion, it had grown into a nurturing place with a garden, street art and events. Drivers had figured out how to navigate the somewhat obstructed streets. Although forever changed in some ways, the store where Floyd bought cigarettes was operating normally; it was needed.
I left there intrigued by the differences between remembrances shaped by a community and those shaped more institutionally. I’m reminded of that as we continue to cover the life and legacy of Nichols.
Rev. Vahisha Hasan was going to attend Nichols’ funeral before we asked her to write about her experience there. She’s active in Memphis, doing the work of making it more just. I asked her, via text, why it was important for her to be there:
Felt important to be there for his family. We are there for them in resistance to state violence. Should also be there for their very personal journey of grief.
Felt like an important communal grief ritual. Grieving the loss of his life and grieving the way so many systems work together to take his life. Together.
We are holding so very many complexities and nuanced emotions for the life and death of Tyre. Felt like we needed a shared space to metabolize that together.
Traditional news organizations do an accounting of what happened; the who, what, where, when. Pulling in Hasan was our attempt to capture what I experienced at the Floyd memorial in Minneapolis: What the services communicated to the community and what it means outside of the spectacle.
Over the weekend, supporters of Nichols occupied the intersection of Poplar and Danny Thomas Boulevard for about 10 hours.
Morales was there. She saw perhaps 100 people there. Kicking soccer balls. Tailgating. Drinking coffee and eating pizza. Nichols’ name was chalked all over the intersection. It was, she said, a “block party for Tyre.”
It was and more. It was the community finding its way to grieve, celebrate and memorialize its own. Without spectacle.
That’s what we are trying to capture in this journey to hold those in power accountable and to honor Nichols as one of our own.
I asked Hasan, with time to process, what she walked away from the funeral with.
I walk away renewed for the fight ahead. Fight to not need to attend another funeral like this in Memphis. Walk away with a heavy heart and tears that will continue. Walk away not ever actually walking away. This is a long distance journey and we have and make community to navigate it together.
That feels right.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at email@example.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.