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Tyre Nichols: After his fatal beating ignited rage, Memphis streets remained calm despite warnings

A woman protests in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.Demonstrators protest in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.

Shameka Wilson for Insider

Bracing for chaos

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Everybody knew the footage would be horrible.

In the 20 days between five police officers brutalizing 29-year-old Tyre Nichols less than 100 yards from his family’s home and the release of police body video on Friday showing the fatal attack, many in Memphis were bracing for violent protests.

The police chief pleaded for peace. Some businesses owners boarded up their storefronts and closed. After-school programs were cancelled and hotels hired armed security guards. Some residents told Insider they hunkered down all of Saturday expecting the worst.

In the past, protesters in Memphis and around the nation have taken to the streets after police violence, demanding the bare minimum — that they learn the name of the officer or officers responsible. 

But this time was different.

Within a week, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, and the Department of Justice had all launched investigations into the officers’ actions. 

On January 20, all five officers — all of them Black and members of the SCORPION anti-crime unit — were fired. 

On Thursday— 28 hours before the release of the video — they were charged with second-degree murder.

On Saturday, the unit was disbanded.

Protestors in memphis, tyre nicholsAfter the first night of peaceful protest in Memphis, more families brought their children out to demand change.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz/

“We have never seen swift justice like this,” attorney Ben Crump said at a Friday press conference at Memphis’ Mount Olive CME Church. “We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable. No longer can you tell us we got to wait six months to a year.”

Sitting in a booth at Sugar Grits, a cafe a short walk from the church where Nichols’ parents would speak to the community on Friday, Pastor Earle Fisher, a leader in the Memphis social justice sphere, spoke to Insider as the city braced for chaos. The response to Nichols’ death was “the baseline of justice,” he said. 

“Historically the intensity of protests matches the level of dismissal or denial or delay in terms of justice,” Fisher told Insider — noting that he expected demonstrations to stay largely peaceful this time around. 

And they did.

In the end, the preparations for unrest were largely unnecessary. 

Apart from the marches over the weekend, which were nonviolent and organized, downtown streets stayed quiet. Friday’s demonstration in Memphis — which was largely centered around the “Old Bridge” blocking traffic into the city from Arkansas — was powerful, demanding, and nonviolent.

Protests in other cities also remained overwhelmingly peaceful. In New York and Los Angeles — where police stood guard in riot gear — there were some clashes.

In New York, an NYPD cruiser windshield was smashed. The NYPD told Insider that police arrested three people at a protest near Union Square. 

In Los Angeles, protesters tore down a police barricade. A man reportedly tossed a lit firework at a police car.

But the scenes were nothing like those after the murder of George Floyd in police custody, which set off protests that at times escalated into looting and arson. 

The Memphis Police Department said Sunday its cops hadn’t arrested a single demonstrator. 

It’s unclear if police strategy for addressing the protests played a role in the lack of clashes. At the protest in Memphis Friday night, a reporter could not spot a single uniformed officer in the area of the rally.

The next afternoon, as a crowd moved toward the Walter Bailey Jr. Criminal Justice Center, a protester approached a single police cruiser parked with its lights on and held a middle finger up at the officer inside.

The officer quickly retreated, driving away from the area, and the group moved on.

The Memphis Police Department would not comment on its protest strategy. 

Tyre Nichols protests in MemphisA man holds up a sign during a demonstration in Memphis on Jan. 29, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between police and Tyre Nichols

Shameka Wilson for Insider

Pleading for peace

On Friday morning, Nichols’ step-father Rodney Wells stood beside his wife and the nation’s most prominent living civil rights leaders at the pulpit of Mt. Olive CME Church. 

Wells told the community that in the days after his son was killed he wanted nothing less than first-degree murder charges for every officer on the scene. After speaking to prosecutors, though, the family said it accepted second-degree murder as appropriate, and Wells said he was “satisfied.” 

He told the crowd at the church — a few dozen activists nestled between reporters from Memphis and around the globe — that he understood the need for protest, but was shocked to learn that people were getting alerts to their phones urging them to avoid the crowds and stay home for their own safety.

He pleaded — just as Nichols’ mom RowVaughn Wells had done at a city skate park the night before — for peace in the city.

“We shouldn’t have that. We need to do this peacefully,” Rodney Wells said in church. “We want peaceful protest.”

At the “Call to Action” at Martyrs Park on Friday, activist leaders told the crowd they had been in touch with the Nichols family and were acting with their support. 

—Haven Orecchio (@InsiderHaven) January 28, 2023

 

 

People protest in Memphis following the release of the video of Tyre Nichols' deadly encounter with policePeople protest in Memphis following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between police and Tyre Nichols

Shameka Wilson for Insider

Protesters’ demands

For more than two hours Friday night, a group remained on the bridge. Organizers announced they had called Mayor Jim Strickland with a list of demands and would not leave until he called back. 

The demands included the passing a Data Transparency Ordinance at the city and county levels, tracking law enforcement data, ending the use of unmarked cars and plainclothes officers, and dissolving the SCORPION unit and other task forces.

The group was blocks away from the downtown business district that had been bracing for chaos, but the disruption was largely limited to truck drivers being unable to enter the city for several hours.

Some told Insider they understood why people were outraged.

Speaking from the driver’s seat of an 18-wheeler trying to merge onto the the highway, a truck driver named Mark told insider he was running out of fuel.

As a Black man, he said he didn’t fault the protesters and would “possibly” be out with them if he was from here. He then went on his way back to Oklahoma, with 1,400 miles left to go.

“It could have been me,” he told Insider, asking only to be identified by his first name in fear of his job. “It’s not the first and it won’t be the last.”

A woman protests in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.Demonstrators protest in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.

Shameka Wilson for Insider

The body-cam footage

When the videos were released on Friday, the public was met with what they were promised: utter brutality. 

Nichols’ mother said Friday she couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of her son’s beating. She urged those with children not to let them watch it. 

Many protesters, too, were not focused on the graphic videos. 

“We don’t need a video to know it was murder,” Amber Sherman yelled into a bullhorn during the first rally on Friday. 

Moments later, when the video was released by the city at 6 p.m., the group began its march toward Interstate 55 instead of stopping to view the footage being simultaneously released by police.

Dozens of protesters blocked a long line of 18-wheelers on the “Old Bridge,” which has long been a gathering place for protests in the city. They chanted “You take our lives, we’ll take your money” and “no justice, no peace” while holding signs in Nichols’ honor. They shared tales of police violence in the city. 

Holding a sign that read “Tyre Nichols” Sherri, a Memphis native, told Insider her 28-year-old Black son moved to Germany, and she’s glad he made it out of the city.

Meanwhile, much of America was seeing footage of Nichols’ beating for the first time.

People protest in Memphis following the release of the video of Tyre Nichols' deadly encounter with policePeople protest in Memphis following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between police and Tyre Nichols

Shameka Wilson for Insider

A proud city

By 9:30 p.m. on Friday, protesters had made their way back to the park. Boxes of pizza were passed out to the crowd.

Some later made their way to famous Blues district Beale Street, where they ate out. Live music could be heard from the streets as the International Blues Challenge carried on nearby without a hitch. 

—Haven Orecchio (@InsiderHaven) January 28, 2023

 

By Saturday morning, coffee shops and businesses downtown buzzed with conversations about the city’s response Nichols’ death. 

Rocky Goodwin, a downtown resident since 1988, told Insider he woke up Saturday full of pride for how the protesters stood up to demand change — with “poise.”

On Friday night, he and his husband had hunkered down at their apartment building. 

As the crowd made its way by their building, they waved from their window while watching news of clashes in other cities.

Protestors in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.Demonstrators protest in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.

Shameka Wilson for Insider

Goodwin said he is proud that in the very city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, peace prevailed.

“Our city leaders, the police chief, the religious leaders got ahead of it very quickly. The were arrested and charged and that made for a better night last night,” he said, his eyes welling up. 

“I’m very proud of my city. I could cry,” he added. “It was just incredible. We were just so proud. Memphis strong.” 

—Haven Orecchio (@InsiderHaven) January 28, 2023

 

By 3 p.m.  Saturday, though, another protest was gaining steam. After seeing the video and not hearing back from the mayor or police chief about addressing their list of demands, demonstrators were more distraught.

Activist Amber Sherman kicked off the rally with harsh words for the city officials who didn’t return their calls the night before.

She didn’t watch the video, but was angry to learn there were people on scene who have not been charged. 

JB Smiley, a city councilman, also called for any EMTs and sheriff deputies who were on scene the night of the killing to be disciplined.

“We demand that each and every officer, every sheriff’s officer, every EMT (in the video) be immediately fired,” he said outside the fire station. 

A woman protests in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.Demonstrators protest in Memphis on Jan. 28, 2023 following the release of video showing the deadly encounter between Tyre Nichols and police.

Shameka Wilson for Insider

Moments later, news broke that the city had disbanded the SCORPION unit, an organized crime task force that the five charged officers served on, after listening to concerns from the Nichols’ family.

—Haven Orecchio (@InsiderHaven) January 28, 2023

 

The group cheered first, acknowledging the win.

“The unit that murdered Tyre has been permanently disbanded” someone called into a bullhorn “I’m sure his mother is proud of that.”

Still, protesters said the work is not done, and demanding the shutdown of every task force under the police department’s Organized Crime Unit.

“The SCORPION unit, that’s cool. That means we’re doing something right,” another organizer, Casio Montez, said. “We want the whole OCU.”

Read the original article on Business Insider