Readers Respond

The beating death of Tyre Nichols and the grievous history of the United States | READER COMMENTARY

RowVaughn Wells cries as she and her husband Rodney Wells attend the funeral service for her son Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Nichols died following a brutal beating by Memphis police after a traffic stop. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

I write this letter after reading your editorial “Every officer in the country should be required to watch the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols” (Jan. 30). I started watching the police body camera video once, and then I turned off my TV and left the room to compose myself. I was shaken by man’s inhumanity to man. Not that I’ve not been shaken before by the same, but this time, I was at a critical point, and the dam burst. I was reminded of my own encounters with cops, as a brown woman, that may have gone awry, ending with my death if I had been a Black man.

The first time I called a law enforcement officer to my residence was years back, when a white neighbor rode a dirt bike over and over in his woods, the disturbing noise reverberating in the neighborhood. A sheriff’s deputy, a young white man in uniform, came to my door, and I told him that the noise was unbearable and continuous at all times of day and night. I asked him if he could help in any way, by talking to the neighbor, and if the neighbor was breaking noise ordinances. The cop looked me up and down and asked me, even as he himself heard the noise, if I am a citizen of the United States. At that time I was a green card holder, what was known as a permanent resident, and I asked him what my immigration status had to do with him lending me a helping hand with the problem. He ordered me not to be cheeky and left without taking down my complaint or going to the neighbor’s house. I was too stunned even to pursue the matter further.


The second encounter was when I sat in my car, windows up, the engine turned off, in a residential neighborhood by my town library, listening to my favorite music. I was lost in the music and I heard a tap, tap at my car window. I lowered the window and I saw a cop there who asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood. I told him nothing more than listening to music and he ordered me to get a move on as if he owned the neighborhood. I remember telling him that I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. He barked, “You heard me. Get a move on!”

The third time, and all these times were before the advent of cellphones, I was turning left on a road where the speed limit was low, and a man came at top speed on his Harley and dashed against my car. We both called the cops and a young man stopped by who had witnessed the accident. When the cops arrived I gave my account of the accident and so did the witness, who told the two cops on the scene to take down that the man on the Harley was driving at top speed, which was the cause of the accident. The man on the Harley even admitted that he was riding fast because he was late for work. No one was hurt, and the cops refused to take down my account and the account of the witness who was white. The man on the Harley and I exchanged insurance information in front of the officers.


As it happened, the Harley’s owner was white, and the two cops, who were white, walked over to his bike admiring it while inspecting the injuries to it. They totally ignored me and the witness. They took down the bike owner’s account, while the witness shook his head, apologized to me because he couldn’t help me and left. The cops showed no interest whatsoever in the injuries to my car even as I made attempts to draw attention to them. Beset by the futility of it all, I asked the cops if I could leave to report the incident to my insurance. Weeks later I found out the man on the Harley collected a hefty sum from my insurance to repair his bike, which he had claimed was brand new. This experience taught me that if I am in an accident with a white man, I would always be at fault no matter what, in the eyes of cops.

In another incident I was pulled over by a cop because one of my headlights was not working. From the outset this cop treated me as if I was a criminal. He asked me if I knew my headlight was not working. When I told him that I didn’t he demanded to see my driver’s license. When I asked him politely if I could reach into the glove compartment to get my wallet he growled an assent and when I got out my license, he grabbed it out of my hand, read it, returned it and then he let me go after warning me the next time I travel with that headlight off and he ran into me, I would get a ticket for sure. I realized cops want to establish, even at the start of each encounter with citizens, they’re in charge mainly because America is a fully armed society and cops are as afraid of citizens as citizens are terrified of them.

Multiply these small, humiliating incidents for me exponentially and you will get a picture as to what happens to Black men when they are pulled over by cops.

Many cops exist in a culture of impunity, supported by their union and the Fraternal Order of Police. What I saw in the Tyre Nichols lynching video was the mob mentality of five bullies. Once the cops started going with the violence, they were intoxicated by it. They couldn’t stop. They were like piranhas snapping at a bleeding human leg. They wanted to show that they, the cops of the elite Scorpion Unit of Memphis, charged with reducing crime in that city, were the bosses and Tyre was a piece of wood they could cut to pieces and dispose of in minutes if they so wanted. The police report stated he was pulled over for driving erratically, though that account does not match the video. Those cops were mass murderers in reverse, and if I’m asked why this is white supremacy though Black cops were the perpetrators, I would say that is because the victim was a Black man. As Eric Garner’s daughter put it, her own father having been lynched in New York several years back, the release of the Tyre Nichols ignominious video was enacted like a “premiere of a movie.”

White cops were empowered to terrorize free Black people in the segregated South, after the Civil War, when emancipation was reduced to a rubble, by white plantation owners and their descendants as well as ordinary white folks, who took it upon themselves to deprive Black people of liberty. Cops of America, in modern times have been militarized and trained for brutalization of people of color, to think Black and brown people are not respectable, but instead are lowly with criminal tendencies and must be preemptively controlled and intimidated as well as kept in line. The legacy of slavery, segregation and public lynchings continues. White people are not spared either, especially when they are mentally ill or disabled, but in most cases, reflexively, they are treated better by cops showing that society holds within it old habits and historical memories that die hard.

In concentration camps Nazis used Jewish people to herd, control and hurt fellow Jews. A technique of fascists and authoritarians is to use members of a certain race to control and hurt members of the same race. Minorities in authority are often out to prove to the power structure they won’t spare the rod and coddle their own. Instead, they try to show they won’t hesitate to beat the hell out of their own, if they are cops, and they hope, they’ll be promoted for this “righteousness.” The whole sadistic psychology is pathetic. Cops are also judged by stats, especially if they’ve been appointed to special units with a special purpose. If they don’t show results, I am sure they think they’ll be disbanded and lose their status. Therefore, they go in search of trouble that may not find them, and woe to the person they pick to add to their luster in the numbers game.

Tyre Nichols, I wish he were alive. His mother, like Emmett Till’s mother, bears the cross of her profound loss with deep grace and forgiveness. As a mother myself, her pain was too unbearable to watch. This incident also brought back for me, the egregious abuses of the Gun Trace Task Force of Baltimore. We have been here in Maryland before, with the cops of an elite police unit, hurting ordinary citizens for years before they were caught and punished. We may not be the South, we may be blue and progressive, but we are not exempt from the grievous history of the United States. How can we justify ourselves as a work in progress toward a more perfect union, if this history repeats itself with regularity in places big and small?

— Usha Nellore, Bel Air