- Larry Hammchair of the People’s Organization for Progress.
- DeRay Mckessonco-founder and executive director of Campaign Zero.
Memphis police released disturbing footage on Friday showing the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five former police officers who now face murder charges over the 29-year-old Black father’s death. The videos show officers kicked, punched, electrocuted and struck Nichols with batons for several minutes while he offered almost no resistance. It took more than 22 minutes for medics to appear on site and treat Nichols, who died three days later from his injuries. Memphis has since disbanded the SCORPION police unit that the five ex-officers belonged to and which was known for its aggressive practices, but activists are calling for deeper changes, including the end of qualified immunity that shields police officers from being sued by victims and their families. Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, and DeRay Mckesson, executive director of Campaign Zero, join us for a discussion about Tyre Nichols, police violence and more.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A warning: This segment contains disturbing descriptions and video of police violence.
The Memphis Police Department said Saturday it’s disbanding its SCORPION unit in the wake of the brutal police killing of Tyre Nichols. SCORPION is an acronym for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” The announcement came a day after the police department released the widely anticipated video Friday night of Tyre’s murder, showing five officers relentlessly beating the 29-year-old African American man just 80 feet from his home, after they stopped him for an alleged traffic violation on January 7th. The officers, who now face murder charges, pepper-sprayed, tased, kicked and beat Nichols while shouting threats and curses in a series of commands. Nichols died three days later of kidney failure and cardiac arrest. Police edited the videos before releasing them. The footage comes from the officers’ body cameras and from a surveillance camera on a nearby pole. In the first video, officers pull Tyre from his car and push him to the ground.
POLICE OFFICER: Get on the ground!
POLICE OFFICER: Lay down!
TYRE NICHOLS: Stop.
POLICE OFFICER: One!
POLICE OFFICER: Watch out.
POLICE OFFICER: Now!
TYRE NICHOLS: OK! Stop!
POLICE OFFICER: I’m tasing him!
TYRE NICHOLS: All right! OK! All right! All right!
POLICE OFFICER: Turn [inaudible] or else I’ll break your [bleep]!
TYRE NICHOLS: OK, dude! Dang!
POLICE OFFICER: Turn the [bleep] around!
TYRE NICHOLS: I didn’t do anything!
POLICE OFFICER: Put your [bleep] hands behind your back! [bleep], put your hands behind your back, before I break —
TYRE NICHOLS: OK! Stop! All right!
POLICE OFFICER: — and knock your [bleep] the [bleep] out!
TYRE NICHOLS: OK! You guys are really doing a lot right now. Stop!
POLICE OFFICER: Bro, lay down!
TYRE NICHOLS: I’m just trying to go home!
POLICE OFFICER: Lay down!
POLICE OFFICER: Man, if you don’t lay down!
TYRE NICHOLS: I am on the ground!
POLICE OFFICER: On your stomach!
TYRE NICHOLS: I am! Please!
AMY GOODMAN: We had to beep that a lot, and none of those curses were Tyre. He was saying “You are doing a lot right now,” of course, to him. The officer who wore the body camera then tased Tyre Nichols, who tried to get away, then tackled by at least five officers who then beat him severely with their fists, batons, and kicked him repeatedly. Footage then shows Tyre in clear medical distress as the officers stand around out of breath and complain about their own injuries. One says Nichols appears to be, quote, “on something” as Nichols lays bloodied on the ground. When an officer tries to prop up Nichols against the car, the camera shows him and his bloodied face. It’s not clear if he’s conscious.
POLICE OFFICER: So did I. [bleep] my leg, bro. I know I finna feel this [bleep]
POLICE OFFICER: My [bleep] might hurt nowaday, but when I seen that boy running, bro, that [bleep], I ain’t sorry no more.
POLICE OFFICER: Yes, bro. Camera’s on. [bleep]
POLICE OFFICER: Come on, [bleep]. Over here.
POLICE OFFICER: That [bleep] high.
POLICE OFFICER: He high.
POLICE OFFICER: Get him up.
POLICE OFFICER: He high as a mother [bleep].
POLICE OFFICER: Hey, sit up, bro. Sit up, man.
AMY GOODMAN: The newly released footage shows medics failing to administer assistance to Tyre for at least 15 minutes after they arrive on the scene. Two EMTs have been suspended pending investigation. Tyre’s stepfather has called for the paramedics to face criminal charges, calling them just as guilty.
Protesters took to the streets of Memphis and other cities around the country following the video’s release. On Friday, Democracy Now! spoke to the lawyer Ben Crump and the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols shortly after the stepdad saw the footage. The mom said she can’t watch it. This is Rodney Wells, Tyre’s stepfather, and Ben Crump describing what they saw.
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: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Tyre’s stepfather, Rodney Wells, and his lawyer, the family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, speaking Friday on Democracy Now!. You can see the whole interview there. And, as well, we spoke to Tyre’s mother, RowVaughn Wells.
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: Tyre’s parents spoke to President Biden over the weekend and said they plan to join new calls for Congress to pass police reform legislation, Crump also calling for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which remains stalled in the Senate after the House approved it in 2021. The Congressional Black Caucus is pressing to meet with President Biden this week, who also voiced support for enacting the legislation. Many activists continue to call for a greater institutional overhaul, arguing that the inherently racist police system in the U.S. is beyond reform.
We’re joined by two guests. DeRay Mckesson is a civil rights activist, co-founder and executive director of Campaign Zero. Also with us is Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, which is based in New Jersey.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Larry, when you first saw the video and heard the story of what happened to Tyre, your response? I mean, your organization and you have worked on the issue of police brutality not for weeks or months or years, for decades. You ran for Senate, essentially, on that platform against police brutality.
LARRY HAMM: Well, Amy, it’s good to be with you today.
After seeing the video, I was very hurt emotionally. I was crushed. What those officers did was abominable. It was heinous. It was hateful. And they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Essentially, what they did was an act of domestic terrorism under color of law. And it just reaffirmed for myself and members of the People’s Organization for Progress, and, I think, for activists around the issue of police brutality across the country, that policing in this country must be totally, totally restructured, reorganized, because right now, since George Floyd, the police haven’t learned any lessons. The number of deaths from police shootings has actually risen — 1,176 deaths last year, the highest number of any year since they started counting.
What we need, we need civilian oversight of the police. We need community control of the police. And we need laws in place that make it clear to the police that they will suffer consequences when they commit these heinous acts of police brutality. They can lose their license, their badge, their gun, their job, and possibly lose their freedom. We have to eliminate qualified immunity, and we have to put in place laws that will make it clear to the police that they will suffer the consequences. That’s why these things continue to happen. The police act with impunity, because they know there’s only a 1% chance that they may actually get in trouble, suffer some serious consequences for doing these kinds of things.
AMY GOODMAN: And, DeRay Mckesson, if you can explain qualified immunity? And then talk about what’s happened now in Memphis, the disbanding of the street crimes unit — in New York, I remember, of course, after Amadou Diallo, they disbanded the street crimes unit. There, it’s called SCORPION. But you have pointed out that the things they’ve said they’ve done — your 8 Can’t Wait campaign — they have, in fact, not.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah. So, I’ll start with QI. Remember, there are three ways that we can hold officers accountable. There is criminal, so charging them with a crime. That’s a conviction. There is administrative, so that is terminate them from the force. That’s firing somebody. And then there’s civil, which is going to mostly be monetary damages. Qualified immunity is civil only.
So, we’re always confused when people talk about holding individual police officers accountable, because in most places across the country, when you sue an employee for their actions that are done at the job, you actually are suing the employer. So, if an employee at McDonald’s throws a coffee on you and you sue the employee, you’re actually suing McDonald’s, because they assume liability for all the actions of their employees at work.
But what’s interesting about Memphis is that for the last 30 years, they actually have not assumed liability for the officers in the Memphis Police Department. It’s actually one of the only big cities in America where they don’t have any — it’s called indemnification, but where they don’t assume liability. So, there are tons of people who have been harmed by the police in Memphis who really can’t sue the police department for damages. They’d have to sue the individual officer as a citizen. And as you know, what happens is, those citizens, police officers, they will just file for bankruptcy, and you’ll never be able to file a civil claim. In Memphis, you actually have to sue the city itself directly, and that is a much harder legal journey to take. So, we anticipate that the city will settle with Tyre’s family before a lawsuit is even filed, just because of the enormity of the press around it. But there are a host of other people victimized by this police department, and they refuse to assume liability for the wrongdoing of the officers.
And to the other question about structural things, you know, Memphis, the police use-of-force policy is just a really bad one. So, in terms of requiring deescalation, they don’t. What they would say is that they require training on deescalation. Not the same thing. There was a law that passed in 2021, that we helped write, that did make a duty to intervene the law in Tennessee, but that’s really the only thing that they’ve done structurally. So, I’m hoping that the Tennessee Legislature uses this moment to really restrict the power of the police. I’m hoping the Memphis City Council, the Memphis Police Department immediately make the use-of-force policy better.
And the other thing is that in Memphis, in the police union contract, it says that you have a one-year window from the moment that a police officer commits a harm to hold that officer accountable. So, if an officer, like, beats somebody and a year passes, even if you prove that they beat somebody, it is impossible, because of the contract, to discipline that officer after a year. That’s a random, arbitrary deadline. It’s one of the things that we track in cities across the country. And the Memphis City Council tomorrow can make that obsolete.