Essay: Tyre Nichols' mother couldn't hear his cries. Can you?
I have a vivid imagination, but I don’t need one to visualize screaming for my mother in my last breaths, and her not hearing me.
Mine is still here with us, so I can come back to her. It’s why I don’t see myself quite like George Floyd at the end, crying for his mama while Minneapolis police were murdering him. That was May 25, 2020, and “Miss Cissy” died almost exactly two years earlier. She couldn’t hear him.
RowVaughn Wells couldn’t hear her son, either. He was much nearer and a lot louder than Floyd at the end, which in a way, makes it worse. When he yelled “Mom! Mom! Mom!” in successive, tearful bursts, Tyre Nichols was about 60 yards from her southeast Memphis home.
Sixty yards might be the other side of your high school gym. It’s slightly less than the length of two basketball courts. We’ve seen NFL quarterbacks throw longer than that. Had Wells been outside, she might have heard him calling for her.
You don’t need to watch the video. Can you still see Tyre? Can you hear him?
There has been more written about the mothers who survive after police kill their children than the sons who fear what they may leave behind should they become the next victim. Dying is among my most terrible fears, but not because I am afraid of the end. What makes me tremble is thinking of my parents, sister and loved ones mourning my death, especially if the supposed “finest” in any American city or town were to end me.
We tend to be lazy with our language when we describe such things. “Indescribable,” “unimaginable,” or “incredible” are all words we hear and say, but police violence in this country is anything but. We keep using these words, but they don’t mean what we think they mean. Killings like Nichols’ are the very opposite of “inconceivable.”
Thanks to technology, citizen vigilance and calls for accountability, we’ve witnessed, without end, the final moments of countless sons and daughters. We’ve followed the grief of Black and Latino mothers and fathers. After seeing Floyd die nearly three years ago, the world even decided, for a few months not counting February, to collectively take action to end police abusing and killing people with increasing regularity.
Where has it gotten us? Tyre Nichols is dead. Who knows who will be next?
We should still be lamenting the Los Angeles Police Department unnecessarily killing three men in January, two Black and one Latino. As I watched Nichols run away from the Memphis police, I wondered if he had seen the recent videos showing the LAPD end the lives of Takar Smith, Oscar Leon Sanchez and Keenan Anderson.
If not them, surely Nichols saw someone else die at the hands of a police officer. We all have by now. He was only 29, but we as a nation have been engorging ourselves on the spectacle of Black death since he was in high school — and without much, if any, real promise of reforming the institution of policing in the country. These releases of bodycam footage, surveillance video and cellphone images are no longer the stuff of snuff films. Nichols had probably seen this sort of movie before. He quickly realized he was now starring in one.
He took off running from their Tasers, pepper spray and vitriol. Based upon the distance alone, it’s possible he wasn’t merely trying to escape, but to make it all the way home. The traffic stop occurred about half a mile from Wells’ house, and he almost got there.
It seemed a haunting allegory for Black experiences with police, even Black police. It is instantly recognizable to those of us who have understood the institution to be the problem. It has always been the uniform, not the skin beneath it. Diversity initiatives were never going to save us.
That it was mostly Black officers committing the assault was all but irrelevant. It still felt somewhat like watching a role play of American bigotry. Consider their absurd commands, after you wade through the profanity. Many of them equated to: Black man, do this even when you’ve already done it.
Get on the ground, even while he was on the ground.
Give us your hands, even though they controlled each of his arms.
Put your hands behind your back, even though you can’t move them.
And even if you know your life is in danger from having watched American police officers humiliate, dehumanize, assault and kill Black folks, heaven forbid you try to escape. The punishment for that is the death penalty administered on a street corner.
No amount of compliance was sufficient. Minutes before those same police officers would beat Nichols to death, they were taking whatever agency he had over himself.
He broke free with what was left of his body and his dignity, then he ran back to the source, his mother. Mothers not only gestate us and grant us introduction to life, but they can keep giving it to us throughout their years. Not every child or parent gets this lucky, and it sure appears that Nichols had a great mom, and Wells a great son. “Nobody's perfect, nobody. But he was damn near," Wells told the press last week. "He was damn near perfect."
Damn near everything is relatable about this story as well. Tyre was her youngest. Her baby, born 12 years after his siblings. My own sister is more than a decade younger than me, so I have some understanding of that. It isn’t easy, especially for those who are younger. Like me, he’d moved from California to Tennessee during the pandemic. He stayed for his mom, because they’re close. Until I got this job, so did I.
However, too many Americans can’t or refuse to see our experiences as part of theirs. In their minds, their kid, their spouse or their colleague doesn’t have to consider a police encounter to be a life-threatening event. They won’t be shot without warning like Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor or Philando Castile. They think they and their loved ones have no reason to fear being asphyxiated like George Floyd, or beaten to a pulp like Rodney King or Tyre Nichols. Perhaps they’re right, but do you see the problem here?
Reforming an American institution descended from overseers and slave catchers may indeed be impossible. I am a police and prison abolitionist not because I have an idea for a more effective replacement, though Mayor Bass hiring more social workers than new cops would be a good start. No, I am an abolitionist because I struggle to think of anything worse than what we currently have.
Our tolerance of so-called officer-involved shootings and killings is the main reason why. Police killed nearly 1,200 people in the United States last year alone. Nearly 1,000 to date in Los Angeles County since 2000.
When we see or hear Floyd, Nichols or the countless others cry out for their mama, whom do you hear? Do you hear someone’s son? Do you hear your own child?
I appreciated it when, in 2012, Barack Obama said that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Still reeling from the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting death at the hands of a wannabe cop, it was the first time I felt a United States president recognize not just the symbiotic epidemics of gun violence and police violence, but also our empathy deficit. At the time, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote of Obama, “That line is specific, and universal. Anyone, of any race, with a son should see Trayvon in his face; anyone who doesn’t should imagine what might be, what might have been, and what’s been lost.”
This all said, empathy is the floor. It is the bare minimum anyone should expect from our neighbors and our government at this point. While we all need to embrace our common vulnerability — if not merely to better our personal relationships, then certainly for the sake of our fellow Americans — we’ll never stop these killings if we need to wait for everyone to become empathetic. Nor will we curtail or end them if all we depend upon is sentiment. We can’t be a world that marches for Black lives, buys a few books and donates some cash before going back to tolerating the police abusing and murdering people. We Americans need to adjust our hearing if we don’t hear a call to action in Tyre Nichols’ screams.
This is especially true for anyone who doesn't feel what police do to Black folks is part of their own American experience. Mothers like mine and Wells, as well as sons like Nichols and myself, have borne too much of this burden. If people refuse to relinquish their unearned advantages, the very least they can do is put them to good use.
Wells buried her youngest on the first day of Black History Month, the first of 28 days when America, all too briefly, pays enough attention to us. My hope is that the next time we hear or watch a Black person dying at the hands of the police, and there will be a next time, we will consider not whether their mothers could have heard them calling for help. Either way, we can. We hear Tyre Nichols and George Floyd, still. But are we really listening?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.