The first day of Black History Month brought a soul-crushing ritual that has been repeated over and over in our nation’s history: a funeral for a Black son, father and brother killed by police. Vice President Kamala Harris was among the White House officials and members of Congress who attended the service for 29-year-old Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. His family and friends were also joined by the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Botham Jean and other victims of police violence.
Tyre Nichols was stopped, dragged from his car and assaulted by Memphis police officers on his way home after taking sunset photos at one of his favorite parks, and some of those pictures were shown in a montage during the service, along with pictures of him performing on his skateboard, a picture of him beaming as he held his infant son, and pictures of him as a young child and with his beloved mother. Nichols was just yards away from his mother’s home when he was fatally beaten, and on the traumatic video captured at the scene, he can be heard calling out for her as he repeated that he was just trying to go home. But she could not hear his cries, and the officials who were enjoined to protect and help him did neither.
When Vice President Harris spoke she began by praising Nichols’ mother, Mrs. RowVaughn Wells, for her extraordinary strength, courage and grace. She then said: “Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold that child, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of his life. Yet we have a mother and a father who mourn the life of a young man who should be here today. They have a grandson who now does not have a father. His brothers and sister will lose the love of growing old with their baby brother. And when we look at this situation, this is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe. And when I think about the courage and the strength of this family, I think it demands that we speak truth. And with this, I will say: This violent act was not in pursuit of public safety. … When we talk about public safety, let us understand what it means in its truest form. Tyre Nichols should have been safe.”
Tyre Nichols should have been safe. The call and cry for police reform has been heard again from every corner of our country since his death, including renewed demands for Congress to pass the reforms in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Vice President Harris co-authored while still a Senator and called for again at the funeral. When Mrs. Wells rose to speak through tears she also mentioned that legislation: “We need it passed, need to take some action, because there should be no other child that suffers the way my son (did), and the way all the other parents have lost their children. We need to get that bill passed, because if we don’t — the next child that dies, that blood is going to be on their hands.” She has said she hopes reform will be her son’s legacy and the reason he was “sent here on assignment from God”—”so when this is all over, it’s going to be some good and some positive, because my son was a good and positive person.”
Will this be the moment it happens? In 2015, several months after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago created a two-minute video titled “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival If Stopped by the Police” that they encouraged Black parents and all adults to share with children. It reiterated the urgent message, “Remember that your goal is to get home safely. Your goal is to get home safely.” Yet we have been reminded once again that no amount of “compliance” can guarantee survival and the ability to get home safely after an encounter with police, especially for Black boys and Black men. Tyre Nichols’ death also reinforced the stark reality that diversifying a police force does not guarantee safety for Black citizens either. Studies of disparities in overpolicing and police violence show it is the victim’s race that continues to matter most, and African Americans remain at greatest risk. Systemic and transformative change is desperately needed.
As Vice President Harris concluded her remarks at Tyre Nichols’ funeral, she said, “One of my favorite verses in Scripture is Luke Chapter 1, Verse 79, which tells us God will help us to shine a light ‘upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace…’ Let our memory of Tyre shine a light on the path toward peace and justice.”
We urgently need to forge a path toward peace, justice, accountability and safety.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.