In Memphis, tributes to Tyre Nichols – and a vow to fight for justice | Tyre Nichols

Tyre Nichols’ body lay in a dark brown casket on a frigid Wednesday afternoon at the Boulevard Christian Church, just 19 miles north-west of his memorial site, where a large white cross stood surrounded by stuffed animals, balloons and, notably, a skateboard.

The church’s celebration choir sang as hundreds of people, from family, residents, civil rights activists and vice-president Kamala Harris filled the auburn pews on both levels of the church sanctuary in Memphis, a predominantly-Black city overseen by a white mayor and a Black police chief. Nichols had lived here as a skateboard-loving Fedex worker before he died after a beating by Memphis police in January.

During the eulogy, the Rev Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, acknowledged the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, and others who attended the service, and recognized the vice-president.

Harris hugged Nichols’ mother, took the podium, and called for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which she co-authored as a senator. She decried the police officers’ “violent act” as “not in the interest of keeping the public safe”.

“Was [Tyre] not entitled to the right to be safe?” she asked. “Tyre Nichols should have been safe.” She added that Biden would sign the bill if passed through Congress. “We should not delay, and we will not be denied,” Harris said. “It is non-negotiable.”

A storm had swept through the southern United States on Tuesday, delaying the funeral and forcing cancellations for travelers. But hundreds still found their way to the church.

The Rev Dr J Lawrence Turner, the church’s senior pastor overseeing the service, told attendees that Nichols was “denied the right to see sunset another day, embrace his mother, hang out with his friends, and the right to grow old”, adding: “This family has endured the unsolicited and unjustifiable massive burden of grieving their loved one at the same time as fighting for justice.”

In light of charges against five Black police officers over Nichols’ death and the release of video footage, Memphis residents and activists have marched the city streets since Friday night, occupying a bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas just as they had nearly seven years ago following the police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.

After the death of Floyd and Taylor in 2020 had inspired the largest mass protests throughout the United States, Memphis, like other cities, had responded by banning the use of no-knock warrants and added requirements of officers to deescalate situations and to intervene when they saw officers using excessive force.

But activists and civil rights leaders say that those reforms have not done enough to combat the spate of harassment and police killings that disproportionately upends the lives of Black Memphis residents. And at the federal level, negotiations over the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bipartisan police reform bill passed twice by the US House, fell apart in 2021. A politically-divided Congress will make satisfying current demands even more difficult.

The night before, from a different podium at Mason Temple where Martin Luther King gave his final speech to striking sanitation workers 55 years ago, Sharpton revived a call on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

The bipartisan legislation would have, among other measures, established a national database of disciplinary actions over officer misconduct and restricted the practice of qualified immunity that shields officers from accountability when they are accused of violating people’s constitutional rights. Those talks, which began in April 2021 and passed through the US House, fell apart in the Senate.

The Rev Al Sharpton and Kamala Harris at the church in Memphis on Wednesday.Pin
The Rev Al Sharpton and Kamala Harris at the church in Memphis on Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images

That night, Nichols’ stepfather Rodney Wells had stood in Mason Temple beside Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, and urged residents to “keep fighting for justice for our son and family”. They stood next to Sharpton, pastors, and other community leaders and activists.

Below them, blown up images featured Nichols on his hospital bed next to signs noting “reform past due”, and chalkboard depictions of the names of more than two dozen Memphis residents killed by Memphis police since 2016. “I wasn’t here,” Jamal Dupree, who had just arrived from California, said of his brother, Tyre. “I’m gonna fight my whole life, and the one fight I need to be at, I wasn’t here.”

Sharpton condemned the actions of police officers, noting: “I believe that if that man had been white, you wouldn’t have beat him that night.” He added that it took nearly a decade between the Montgomery bus boycott and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

“They didn’t know how long it would be,” Sharpton told attendees. “It’s not about a time table. We cannot continue to live under these double standards and under these conditions.”

Van Turner, chair of the NAACP Memphis chapter and a mayoral candidate, demanded Tennessee legislature pass impending police reform legislation known as the Tyre Nichols Criminal Justice Reform Act. Amber Sherman, an activist with the Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, also called for the city to name, fire, and charge any officers involved in Nichols’ killing and to release their personnel files.

Nichols’ attorney, Ben Crump, spoke at the funeral, noting that Tyre Nichols and Breonna Taylor were born the same year – both later fated to be killed by police.

Crump noted that Representative Sheila Jackson Lee plans to re-introduce the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act after the state of the union address – but it will now include legislation named after Tyre Nichols that would require police officers to intervene when excessive force is used.

Tiffany Rachal, the mother of Jalen Randle, who was killed by Houston police last April, offered her condolences to Nichols’ family at the funeral. “I pray that God bless you and heal your broken heart,” she said toward Nichols’ mother, before she sang.

“We’re fighting together, and all of the mothers all over the world need to come together and stop all of this.”

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