‘He was robbed of his life’: in Memphis, tributes to Tyre Nichols – and a call to action

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

On a frigid Wednesday afternoon, RowVaughn Wells looked into the crowd of hundreds inside the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and gave her own call to action in the funeral service for her son Tyre Nichols, who was beaten to death by Memphis police earlier this month. Her voice cracked as she joined a fellowship of other Black mothers who lost their children to police violence over the years.

Wells remembered her son as a “beautiful person”, adding that “for this to happen to him is unimaginable”.

A voice from the crowd shouted that her son had “changed the world”. She nodded.

“We need to take some action. This should be no other child,” Wells said. “If we don’t, the next child that dies, the blood will be on their hands.”

Her son’s body lay before her in a dark brown casket at the 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.

Related: ‘Gone too soon’: thousands attend Tyre Nichols’s funeral in Memphis

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 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 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’s 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 Joe 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”.

He said: “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’s 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 deaths 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 adding requirements of officers to de-escalate 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 divided Congress will make satisfying current demands even more difficult.

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

On Tuesday night, Nichols’s stepfather Rodney Wells had stood in Mason Temple beside Nichols’s mother and urged residents to “keep fighting for justice for our son and family”.

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, saying: “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 timetable. We cannot continue to live under these double standards and under these conditions.”

Van Turner, the 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’s killing, and to release their personnel files.

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

Crump said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee plans to re-introduce the George Floyd 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’s family at the funeral. “I pray that God bless you and heal your broken heart,” she said toward Nichols’s 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.”

Nichols’s family members recalled how polite, peaceful and respectful Nichols was, growing from a cartoon-loving kid to a man “robbed of his life”. LaToya Yizar, one of Nichols’s siblings, described the moment she learned of Nichols’s death on 7 January as a “pain I never felt when those monsters murdered my baby brother”.

“It left me completely heartbroken,” she told attendees. “I see the world showing him love and fighting for his justice, but all I want is my baby brother back.”

Rodney Wells, Nichols’s stepfather, acknowledged the journey the family had been on since Nichols’s death, noting that it was initially “surrounded by lies” and adding: “What’s done in the dark will always come to light.”

“This is a continuous fight that we have to fight for. We have to fight for justice,” added Wells. “We can’t continue to let these people brutalize our kids.”