The relatives of Black people killed by police in cities across the United States came to Tyre Nichols’ funeral in a Memphis church on Wednesday to offer comfort to the family of the Black 29-year-old, who was fatally beaten by officers last month.
Speaking over a flower-bedecked casket at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, preachers recalled a young man who loved photography and skateboarding, and demanded justice for Nichols.
Civil rights leaders and family members also called for an end to recurring police violence against Black Americans. They addressed a congregation that included relatives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two African Americans whose deaths at the hands of police sparked protests in 2020.
“We cannot continue to let these people brutalize our kids,” said Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather.
Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Memphis and embraced Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, in the pews before addressing the congregation.
“This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe,” Harris said. “Tyre Nichols should have been safe.” The Democrat promised to help pass federal legislation to reduce police misconduct.
Nichols died on Jan. 10 in a hospital from injuries he sustained three days earlier when beaten by Memphis police who pulled him over while he was driving home.
Ben Crump, an attorney for the family, has branded the incident a “police lynching.”
The Memphis Police Department fired five of the officers, who also are Black. Prosecutors charged them last week with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has often spoken at the funerals of victims of police brutality, decried the five officers as “thugs” and traitors to the civil rights movement as he eulogized Nichols in the city where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“You didn’t get on the police department by yourself,” Sharpton said as the congregation clapped and shouted. “People had to march and go to jail and some lost their lives to open the doors for you, and how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?”
Two other officers implicated in the events leading to Nichols’ death have been relieved of duty — effectively suspended — and are under investigation. Two paramedics and their on-scene supervisor were dismissed on Monday from the city fire department, while two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies have been suspended.
Police video of the confrontation released by the city on Friday showed officers dousing Nichols with pepper spray and pummeling him with punches, kicks and baton blows as he cried out for his mother. One officer was seen firing a Taser stun gun at Nichols when he attempted to flee.
The footage ends showing Nichols was left handcuffed, bloodied and slumped against the side of a police vehicle for nearly a quarter-hour before receiving medical attention.
The chief of police, Cerelyn Davis, has called the conduct seen in the video “inhumane” and said investigators have not substantiated that Nichols was driving recklessly when he was pulled over, as arresting officers asserted at the time.
Civil rights advocates and lawyers for Nichols’ family have condemned the beating as the latest case of a Black person brutalized by a racially biased law enforcement system that disproportionately targets people of color, even when officers involved are not white.
Nichols grew up in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He had a 4-year-old son and took a daily supper break from his FedEx job to join his stepfather and co-worker for meals at his home.
Antonio Romanucci, another lawyer for his family, has said Nichols also was a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying it was a cause for which he gave his life, “and essentially what that makes him is a martyr.”