Watching the Unwatchable Cruelty in Memphis

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans had a moment of silence for Tyre Nichols before the game against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Smoothie King Center.

Of all the footage released Friday showing Memphis police officers brutally beating Tyre Nichols, the lamppost video is the most chilling. It shows the violence from on high and at a distance, with a camera angle wide enough to capture the larger context, a quiet dark corner of the suburban everywhere. And it transpires in silence, which gives it the feel if not the substance of objectivity.

Without sound, the video eliminates the emotions of the individual actors: the officers’ breathless rage, alternating with almost bored indifference to the man they are beating. Lacking the frantic, jerky motion of police body-camera footage – the lamppost video was recorded by an automated security camera fixed to a street pole – it conceals the moment-by-moment escalation of a traffic stop into what prosecutors argue was second-degree murder by police.

By avoiding the drama, we seem to get more of the facts. But that’s not true, because the sounds captured on the other videos – the shouting, the contradictory orders, Nichols’s calls for his mother – are essential facts, too.

What the video’s sterile, bird’s-eye view makes starkly clear is that the officers acted collectively. They rushed in to strike and kick a thin young man like a broken puppet. It reveals the cruelty as brazen, gratuitous and unnecessary. And more than anything else seen on these obscene videos of authoritarian officers recklessly abusing their power, it makes the case for radical reform of the nation’s police. As officers swarm around a man who can barely hold himself upright, as they join, leave and rejoin the melee they alone are perpetrating, the message is painfully clear: More cops means more chaos, more violence, more death. There is no law and order here, just cops.

It was demoralizing to make yesterday’s appointment with the ugly news, which appeared on YouTube, television and seemingly everywhere simultaneously. No one should have to watch this, and no one should have to experience it. Here was yet another killing after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, after the failure in Congress of a police reform bill, after years of inaction and indifference.

The Memphis police made the right decision to let the public see what their officers did. Withholding it would have only exacerbated the profound distrust the people of Memphis must now feel for the officers supposedly sworn to protect them. The images will be inconceivably painful for the Nichols family. A once vibrant young man is seen in agony, his independence and autonomy stripped away, his whole being reduced to excruciating calls for his first protector, his mother, RowVaughn Wells, who has been grieving him in public with superhuman dignity.

The videos violate Nichols’s privacy at the most fundamental level, but that violation began with the officers who pulled him over for what they said was reckless driving. The harder question was whether to watch them, and perhaps participate in that violation. Not watching felt like complacency, an extension of the willful blindness to police brutality. If we refuse to see and acknowledge what is happening across this country, then how can we possibly change?

But merely watching accomplishes nothing. At times yesterday, it felt as if the mechanics of our entertainment culture were governing our responses. There was an hour fixed on the day’s calendar for the video’s release, which built anticipation; and there was the promise by those who had already seen the tapes that they were extraordinarily awful. By midafternoon, it felt like the evening would be filled with “must-see” television, and where in that spectacle would we find the humanity of Tyre Nichols?

In this context, the noise and clamoring of the media, the fusillade of poisonous opinion mongering, the silence of the lamppost video felt almost sacral. If we must watch such terrible things, we must watch with purpose, with humility, with sadness that transcends sentiment and anger that transcends futile rage. In the presence of great suffering, we must have the decency to be silent and receptive to truths we might otherwise resist – about ourselves, about America, about humanity.

And yet we have already seen these things, heard these truths, faced these facts, again and again and again. There is no one right way to watch these videos, because there is no one right response to these events. What happened to Tyre Nichols demands we mobilize in myriad ways, not just to reform the police and minimize their encounters with the public, but to dismantle the reflexive deference to authoritarianism, the sufferance of toxic masculinity, the valorizing of rage and anger in public life. To profoundly change our culture.

For that, you must move past the silence of the lamppost video and listen to the voices in the other recordings. They are full of rage, but also a sense of grievance, as if the officers are personally affronted by the life and hope still left in a man under their control. The volume and speed of their shouting drives the violence from which they are supposedly sworn to defend us. If you can make no sense of the orders the officers shout at Nichols, imagine being him in that moment. You can see from the footage that Nichols knows what is happening. He may be in disbelief, but he knows he is trapped in the officers’ chaos.

And then it stops, and a destroyed body lies propped against a police car. Now, there is just a long wait for an ambulance (another sign of this country’s systemic brokenness) and voices talking casually as if nothing had happened to Nichols. Off-screen, three days later, came news of his death.

It might seem as if the violence came out of nowhere, as if some dark spirit was visited upon Nichols and the officers who brutalized him, just one of those things that happens almost every day on a street corner in a suburban neighborhood of Everytown, U.S.A., unknowable and irreconcilable with who we think we are.

It is indeed an all too everyday occurrence. But bad apples and rogue officers in Scorpion units (who thinks this an acceptable acronym?) don’t explain what we have seen and heard. This is systemic, the crisis is urgent, and too many people – Black people, Brown people, poor people and people with broken taillights – are in imminent danger. On Jan. 7, 2023, there was no thin blue line in Memphis, just a small blue mob.