A day after prosecutors charged five former Memphis police officers with murder over the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, we speak with his parents, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, about their drive to seek justice for their son. “He had a beautiful soul, and he touched everyone,” RowVaughn Wells says of her son. Nichols was a 29-year-old Black father, amateur photographer and longtime skateboarder who died January 10 from kidney failure and cardiac arrest, three days after he was brutally beaten by the five officers during a traffic stop. The officers were fired earlier this month and indicted on Thursday with second-degree murder, kidnapping and other charges for their role in Nichols’s death. We also speak with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue today’s show in Memphis, Tennessee.
Again, on Thursday, five fired police officers have been arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old African American man who weighed barely 150 pounds. He died on January 10th of kidney failure and cardiac arrest, three days after his violent arrest following a traffic stop just blocks from his home. His family shared a shocking photo of Tyre from his hospital bed shortly before he died. He was violently bruised and on a breathing tube. The family wanted everyone to see that photograph. Earlier today, the Memphis police chief, C.J. Davis, told CNN that she actually did not see evidence police even had a legitimate reason to stop Nichols’ car. He was a father of a young son, an amateur photographer, longtime skateboarder, worked at FedEx for the past nine months.
We’re joined right now by Tyre’s mom, by Tyre’s mother RowVaughn Wells, and his stepfather, Rodney Wells, as well as the family’s attorney, Ben Crump.
Our deepest, deepest condolences to you. RowVaughn, we have seen you trying to be a part of these news conferences as you break down. Have you seen — and I can’t even imagine what this is like, to watch the video of your son, his last words crying out for you.
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: Well, actually, I haven’t seen the video. I saw what the police officers did to my son when I seen him in the hospital. I don’t need to see how — I don’t need to seem them do it. I saw the end results.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Mr. Wells saw the video. Ms. Wells could not. After the first moments, she left the room. She couldn’t take it, because that was her baby.
AMY GOODMAN: If, Rodney Wells, you could tell us what you saw? This is what the world will see today at 6:00 your time, Memphis time, this video. I am so sorry you had to witness this, of course, not as sorry as for what actually it shows, the death of your son.
RODNEY WELLS: What I saw was the police brutalizing my son. They didn’t have to do that. He didn’t deserve that. He was a very, very good kid, and I didn’t understand why they had to beat him the way that they did. It was just very, very horrific. I’m glad my wife didn’t see it, because she didn’t deserve to see that, either. It was just troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: Tyre was just a few blocks from his home?
RODNEY WELLS: No, he was a few houses from the home.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: He was about 80 feet from his house. And it makes sense why his last words on this Earth is he’s yelling out for his mother, gut-wrenching cries for his mother.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you learn what happened, RowVaughn Wells? Because he was so close to his home.
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: The police officers came to the door and asked if I knew my son. I said, “Yes.” They said, “Well, do you know Tyre Nichols?” And I said, “Yes.” They proceeded to tell me that he had been arrested for a DUI. That was quite confusing, because my son don’t drink like that. They then proceeded to tell me that he was being attended to by the paramedics, because they had to tase and pepper-spray him. I asked where my son was. They told me he was nearby. So, at the time, I didn’t know where this had all transpired, until further reports came out. Once we left the house, my husband and I went to go see if we can find our son, and we found his car a couple blocks away with the undercover police officers there. We got a call from the physician telling me to come to the hospital.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: About 4:00 in the morning.
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: Yes, around 4:00 in the morning, I got a call from the physician telling me to get to the hospital quickly. My son had went into cardiac arrest, and his kidneys were failing. I didn’t understand that, because they only told me he was pepper-sprayed and tased. But when I — when we got to the hospital, the picture that everybody sees, that’s what we saw.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Tyre, RowVaughn Wells. And, Rodney Wells, please join in. The two of you telling us, first, I mean, just a physical description. How much did he weigh?
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: Tyre was 6’3”. He weighed about a buck fifty. Tyre has Crohn’s disease, so he manages it with his diet, so he doesn’t eat as much as normal people. So he was fairly light. That’s why this is so troubling to me, because you had five officers’ combined weight of over a thousand pounds beating up on a young man that’s only a buck fifty. Where — how did they fear for their lives in order for this to happen? I’m not — I’m still trying to understand that.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: And let me make it clear, Amy. What we have seen that transpired with these charges being levied so quickly should now be the blueprint of what happens when you see police officers commit crimes on video against citizens. And we saw the Memphis Police Department, the district attorney terminate these five Black officers and charge them within less than 20 days. And so, when we think about all these other cases, whether it’s Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, I mean, so many of them, Botham Jean, they can’t have this excuse now and say, “we need six months, we need a year,” when you have evidence on video of the crime, because it should be equal justice, that we have swift justice, not just when it’s five Black officers, when it’s any police officer that engage in excessive use of force against citizens, unarmed citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the police officers can get out on bail, right? On bond. I think three have been — will have to raise $250,000, two of them $350,000. At least three are expected to get out. RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, your response to them being free?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Everybody is entitled to bail. They’re innocent until proven guilty.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you understand, Ben Crump? You’ve described he was beaten. What else is seen? Did you yourself see the video?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: I did, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens at the end?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Tragically, the video is going to remind many people of Rodney King. But unlike Rodney King, RowVaughn and Rodney’s son Tyre does not survive. I mean, at the end of that video, after he called out for his mother, his last words on this Earth, you see him sitting — they set him up handcuffed against the police car. And then you see his body fall to the right side. After a minute or so, they sit him back upright, and then you see his body fall to the left side. And then they pick him back up upright, and he falls on the ground, and he’s moaning. It’s obvious he’s in distress.
And what you want is them to display an ounce of humanity and try to render some aid to this human being that is in distress. But you don’t see that. And on top of all of the escalation that we saw earlier in the video, where they are using such profane language against him, and they are punching him and kicking him, you are saying, “When is somebody going to display humanity?” And that’s what’s troubling, because you don’t see it on that video even as he’s going in and out of consciousness, handcuffed, on the ground, against the police car.
AMY GOODMAN: Now —
BENJAMIN CRUMP: The fire —
AMY GOODMAN: Now, five — two fire department employees have also been relieved of duty. The five cops have been fired and jailed now. But do you know what role they played?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Well, based on what Mr. Wells and I and all the other people who watched the video, we saw that these fire department officials came on the scene, and for several minutes they are just standing around, too, talking, while Tyre is in obvious distress. When you watch this video, you’re going to be able to see that he needs medical attention, and nobody is trying to render aid. And I believe that is why these fire department officials are also being investigated in this matter. They did not do what they were supposed to do, in the sense that they were supposed to be first responders that responds first to a person’s health and welfare.
AMY GOODMAN: RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, you were with your son in the hospital as he hovered between life and death for three days, died on January 10th. This is two weeks later. RowVaughn Wells, you have said the police tried to cover this up. Can you explain how you feel they did this?
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: I’m just going to say this: From the initial time that they came to my door and the things that they were saying, and then the information that I am receiving, I feel like they tried to start covering it up when they came to my door. And that’s just from the information that I am receiving right now and the initial contact with the police when they came to my door.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And Tyre has a 4-year-old son. Tell us more about who he was, about his skateboarding prowess, working at FedEx, coming home for lunch each day to you. Just talk about how you want us to remember him.
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: I want you to remember Tyre. Tyre was — he was different. Tyre didn’t follow everyone. He was his own leader. He had a beautiful soul, and he touched everyone. The boy smiled all the time. He loved his mother’s cooking. He loved his son. That’s why he came to Memphis in the first place, to be with his mom, build a better life for him and his son. But Memphis took my son away from me. So, I have nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: Tyre had a tattoo of you on his arm?
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: He had my name on — a tattoo of my name on his arm.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, when this video is released, it will be shown. And I’m asking you for direction now, the two of you, Rodney and RowVaughn Wells. Do you want us to show it, the video of your son’s — of the beating of your son?
RODNEY WELLS: Yes, we do want you to show the video. But at that same respect, we want protesters to do it peacefully. We don’t need riots or looting. That’s not going to bring our son back. That’s not what he stood for. He was a peaceful person, and we’re a peaceful family. So, if you want to riot, just — I mean, if you want to protest, just protest peacefully.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yes.
RODNEY WELLS: We do not need no uproar. We don’t need no looting and burning. And, you know, don’t destroy your own city. That’s not what we’re about or our son was about.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you be part of the vigils and the protests, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells?
RODNEY WELLS: Yes.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: They are standing with the community, because the community stands with them.
RODNEY WELLS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your message to the local officials? I mean, many of them, including the police chief, C.J. Davis, an African American woman, has said that what took place was heinous. She also set up the SCORPION unit, of which of these five officers were a part, she said, to deal with violence in people’s — the community. Your message to them right now, and to President Biden, as well, who also spoke about the killing of Tyre Nichols?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Well, we say thank you to the police chief, Davis. When she first encountered the family, she told Ms. Wells and Mr. Wells she was not engaging them just as a chief, but she was engaging them as a mother, a mother of Black children, and that her heart breaks for them. And she wasn’t proud of anything she saw in that video by these officers. So, we’re thankful to them. We thank President Biden for his comments that this family deserves justice, just as all Americans do. And we are very grateful to everybody who has demonstrated the respect and dignity for Tyre Nichols’ life that those police officers did not do on January 7. And so, we thank you, Amy, for covering this important matter. And we’re going to let the family continue to prepare for the day. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, again, our deepest condolences. And, Ben, if you have one minute, I wanted to ask you about another case, it’s hard to believe, at this moment that you’re dealing with, and that is Patrisse Cullors’ cousin, Keenan Anderson, also stopped at a traffic stop in Los Angeles.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah, it seems to be, no matter what, when it’s a person of color, that they do the most. I mean, he’s handcuffed, and they still tase him six or seven times within 42 seconds, we believe, causing his heart to be electrocuted. And he was a 31-year-old teacher. I mean, it’s just so heartbreaking, all of these tragedies.
And you have some minority officers involved in that tragedy in Los Angeles, which underscores, Amy, what I’ve said recently, dealing with these officers who killed Tyre Nichols, who are all African American. What I have learned in my almost 25 years of doing civil rights law all across America, that it is not the race of the police officers that are the determining factor whether they’re going to engage in excessive use of force, but it is the race of the citizen. And oftentimes it is Black citizens and Brown citizens who get the brunt of police brutality. We don’t see videos of our white brothers and sisters who are unarmed being levied with this type of excessive force that you’re going to see from RowVaughn and Rodney’s son. You don’t have this type of brutality against white citizens which you see on Keenan Anderson, Keenan Anderson in Los Angeles, for a traffic interaction, where they end up dead. You just don’t see that in America.
And so, this is a blueprint, Amy Goodman, that now what we saw them do in Memphis with the termination of these five Black officers and charging them in less than 20 days based on the crimes they witnessed on that video, it should happen everywhere for all these cases that we’ve talked so much about, whether it’s Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas, whether it’s Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whether it’s Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whether it’s Pamela Turner in Houston, Texas. All of them deserve swift justice. And it should not matter if the officers are white or Black. But he saw how swiftly justice can happen because how they charged these five Black officers.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m just wondering if RowVaughn wants to see — RowVaughn Wells, if you want to see Memphis officialdom marching with you — the police chief, the mayor, the FBI, the Justice Department, if you want to see President Biden marching with you?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Want everybody standing up for justice.
ROWVAUGHN WELLS: Yes.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: We want everybody standing up for justice, Amy. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. And, Ben, one last question, because you may be about to bring a lawsuit in Florida around a Black studies AP course being banned by Governor DeSantis. One of the issues he raises is that issues like police brutality cast aspersions on police, that he doesn’t want to see Black Lives Matter subjects raised in high schools. You held a news conference in your hometown of Tallahassee. Can you talk about that and how that links into this larger story?
BENJAMIN CRUMP: Well, obviously, it has a profound effect on police interaction with citizens from the Black community. And we have to talk about the history of America, all the history. We can’t have them do a watered-down version of history. Our children, Black children, white children, Hispanic children, everybody needs to learn all history and learn that there’s value in all our history and culture, and especially African American history.
And so, that’s why we gave notice of intent to sue Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida if he tries to prohibit African American Advanced Placement courses being taught in the state of Florida, because our children have to understand, from the beginning, that Black history is American history. The great Negro educator Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black history, said that if a race has no history, if a race has no traditions that are respected and taught to the youth, then that race becomes a negligible thought in the world that can be eliminated from the world. And we won’t let Governor Ron DeSantis or anybody eliminate our Black history and culture from being taught in the schools in Florida or in the schools anywhere in America, because our Black history matters.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Crump, we want to thank you so much for being with us. And again, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, our deepest, deepest condolences.
That does it for our show. Please spread the word that democracynow.org is here on the ground. I’m Amy Goodman.