Families question why two Black men died at the hands of police in Memphis, LABy Charlene Muhammad, National Correspondent
- January 24, 2023
Two Black men died after police traffic stops, prompting the firing and arrest of five Black officers and a federal civil rights investigation in Memphis, Tennessee, and a $50 million damages claim against the City of Los Angeles.
The painful start of this New Year for the family of Tyre Nichols, 29, began after Memphis police officers severely beat him following a traffic stop. Mr. Nichols, a father of a four-year-old son, suffered cardiac arrest according to his parents and died three days later in a hospital. He also had brain swelling and kidney failure, Rowvaughn and Rodney Wells, his mother and stepfather, told The Final Call during a phone interview with Kareem Ali, lead investigator for Ben Crump Law, which represents the family.
The family and attorneys held a press conference on Jan. 23, after viewing, in their words, a “disturbing, heinous, violent” video of the traffic stop, which happened on Jan. 7. According to Atty. Crump, the family has granted the Memphis Police Department one to two weeks to release all videotape footage to the public. It is unknown if the footage is from police body-worn cameras or dash cam, said attorneys.
On Jan. 21, in the conclusion of its administrative investigation, the Memphis Police Department fired Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith, the police officers involved in Mr. Nichols’ death.
They “violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid,” announced the Memphis Police Department in a statement on Jan. 20.
Former officers Bean and Haley were hired in August 2020, Martin, III and Smith in March 2018, and Mills, Jr. in March 2017.
For Keenan Anderson, 31, tragedy struck when he flagged down a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer for help after a traffic collision on Jan. 3. The father and teacher was shocked with a Taser stun gun six times during a struggle with LAPD officers in Venice and died at a hospital. He was visiting from Washington, D.C., according to his family, which includes his cousin Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’ve got to do something here to make it where they quit killing us. And that’s what Kareem and I, and our legal team continue to fight every day,” said Atty. Crump, to The Final Call. He is also representing Mr. Anderson’s family, along with Atty. Carl Douglas of Douglas Hicks Law in Los Angeles.
“We’ve obviously made some progress, but not enough to prevent the hashtags,” added Atty. Crump.
‘He loved to help people’
“I know everybody’s mother says they had a good son, their son is good, but my son, he actually was a good boy! My son, he liked to skateboard,” said Ms. Wells during the press conference.
In a previous phone interview, she told The Final Call that her son was a good, infectious child, a good soul, who touched a lot of people and would do anything for anyone.
He looked forward to her meals at lunchtime—that fateful day, she’d cooked sesame chicken. During the week, he took pictures of sunsets; on the weekends, cleaned his room and washed his clothes for the work days ahead. In between, he skated and photographed sunsets, she said, during the press conference.
“Does that sound like somebody that the police is trying to say did all these bad things? No,” she stated.
A crowd that included local organizations gathered at the Mt. Olive Cathedral CME church to get an update and ask questions on the case. In addition to Atty. Crump, Atty. Antonio Romanucci and representatives from the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP and the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope were present.
The officers stopped Mr. Nichols for allegedly driving under intoxication, stated family lawyers. Police claimed he was driving erratically.
“Nobody’s perfect, okay. Nobody! But he was damn near!” declared Ms. Wells, invoking rousing applause.
Mr. Nichols, the youngest of four siblings, got stuck in Memphis when the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Ms. Wells. The family is from Sacramento, she told The Final Call.
“My son loved me to death … He had my name tattooed on his arm and that made me proud, because most kids don’t put their mom’s name, but he did,” she said, with a hint of laughter.
It is hard to fathom the whole, unreal ordeal, said Ms. Wells, rendered numb by her son’s death. She cried, “All I know is my son Tyre is not here with me anymore. He will never walk through that door again. He will never come in and say, ‘Hello, parents!”
All he was trying to do was get home and was two minutes from the house when police stopped him. “He was less than 80 yards away when they murdered him! Yes. I said murdered because when I walked into that hospital room, my son was already dead,” said Ms. Wells.
Mr. Nichols worked with his father at FedEx for nine months and co-workers’ and the corporation’s show of support has been overwhelming, said Mr. Wells. “No mother, father, should have to witness what I saw today,” he stated.
“We have to fight for justice and I have to stay strong for my family … We can’t fold and be weak,” said Mr. Wells.
“It has to stop,” said Atty. Crump repeatedly, during the press conference. He said it is kind of surreal because looking at the video, one thinks that somebody is going to de-escalate the situation but it doesn’t happen.
Mr. Nichols, 6’3” and only 145 lbs., was defenseless the entire time in that video, said Atty Romanucci, co-counsel for the family.
“He was a human piñata for those police officers,” said Atty. Romanucci. Ms. Wells’ body jerked and turned and she wept loudly as she struggled to maintain composure during the press conference.
“It was an unadulterated, unabashed, non-stop beating of this young boy for three minutes,” said Atty. Romanucci. Not only was it violent, but it was savage he declared. But why, given the lack of proportionality required for those officers to use such force, he questioned. Somehow the officers anticipated the violence when they made the stop, because some of them are from the Memphis Police Department’s organized crime unit, according to Atty. Romanucci. Some were in unmarked cars, he said. “Why are they conducting traffic stops?” he added.
Pointing repeatedly to his Bible on the pulpit, he vowed: “We are here to say to you, so help me God, when is this going to stop?”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said they “understand and agree that transparency around the events surrounding the death of Mr. Tyre Nichols is critically important, especially the release of the video footage.”
“We haven’t been told anything,” Mr. Wells said. “Except a lie,” added his soft-spoken but firm wife, prior to them seeing the video.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is handling the investigation, and the United States Attorney’s Office, FBI and Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, have opened a civil rights investigation.
First, police banged on their door, and her husband answered, alleged Mrs. Wells: “They said, ‘Does a Tyree Nichols live here?’ We said yes! What’s going on? Then they started saying, ‘Well, is he on drugs? And does he do this,’ and I’m saying, what?!”
A police officer then said her son was being tended to by the paramedics, “because we had to Tase and pepper spray him,” further alleged Ms. Wells. “Tase and pepper spray him for what,” she asked, then continued, “They started saying he was being erratic and all this this type of stuff like he was on some type of drug or something. And my husband and I are looking at each other like, he’s not talking about the Tyre we know!”
“They lied to us saying that the only thing wrong was that he had been pepper sprayed and tasered, when all along, they were beating him to death. That was the lie,” Ms. Wells told The Final Call.
“We want these officers to be charged with murder one and nothing less than that. Until that happens, as they say, it’s no justice, no peace, that’s the way we feel,” Mr. Wells said.
“We say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and we have to make sure that we mean that and that’s just not a word,” stated Mutthakkir Muhammad, Nation of Islam Student Minister of Mosque No. 55 in Memphis. He thanked Chief Davis for her transparency in the matter.
Student Min. Muhammad encouraged her to continue on the journey of being transparent, saying if these officers are wrong, then hold them accountable.
In addition to a protest outside a Memphis police station on Jan. 14, family, friends and supporters released balloons in honor of Mr. Nichols’ life. On Feb. 4, they also plan to hold a memorial and celebration of life service for Mr. Nichols in Sacramento, Calif., where the family lived, according to Mr. Ali.
Tragedy in Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, civil rights attorney Carl Douglas protested the officer-involved death of Keenan Anderson during a news conference Jan. 20: “Say his name!” he called out. “Keenan Anderson!” the small delegation behind him replied with force. He proceeded to announce the same-day filing of a $50 million damages claim, which he said put the City of Los Angeles on notice that it intends to file a state-based civil rights lawsuit against it and each of the officers responsible for the young man’s death.
The city has 45 days to accept or reject that claim, and in his 42 years of litigating such cases, unfortunately, the city always rejects, he said.
Atty. Douglas was flanked by his partner, Atty. Jamon Hicks, Atty. Crump, and Mr. Anderson’s family, including his five-year-old son, Syncere and his mother, Gabrielle Hansell, Ms. Cullors and Dr. Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. Atty. Douglas vowed that their trial team will marshal the resources, and energy and fight for justice on behalf of Mr. Anderson’s young child.
“Having to hear Keenan cry out for help the way he did and to watch him be hurt by the very people who are supposed to protect him is something I will never get over,” said Ms. Hansell. “My son is going to see that one day, and I don’t know how I will answer any of his questions, now or in the future,” she said, reading a statement from her cellphone.
“All I do know is that we are here to get justice for Keenan and in the process, we hope to evoke change so that moving forward, my son doesn’t have to live his life in fear that one day, what happened to his dad may one day happen to him,” she added.
One of the goals for the mother and child present is to change the narrative, Atty. Douglas said.
He expressed that is regrettable that in 42 years of practicing in such kinds of cases, inevitably, initially, there is a whitewash effort to sully the name of the person that died. “I’m sick and tired of police officers, Chief Moore among them, that try to sully the name of the person that died, rather than focusing on the conduct of the people that killed him, so that is my response to any suggestion that anything in his system is responsible for his death,” argued Atty. Douglas.
An LAPD spokesperson said in an email to The Final Call that Chief Michel Moore was unavailable for an interview at press time. Chief Moore has expressed concern over recent officer-involved deaths, including Mr. Anderson’s.
Mr. Anderson was unarmed, a college graduate, and a high school English teacher of Black and Brown youth, who miss their teacher now, Atty. Douglass stated. “Let there be no mistake: Keenan Anderson died because he was tased six times on the back of his heart!”
Attorney Douglas said further that they have hired an independent pathologist to determine exactly why he died. Results are expected in six weeks, he stated. “What you don’t understand or realize, because there was an edited version of the video, is that the first officer had seven minutes of conversation with a compliant Keenan Anderson,” who was in a position on the ground, Atty. Douglas told reporters. “Sir! Help me, sir,” the unarmed and compliant man repeatedly pled, continued Atty. Douglas.
Despite Mr. Anderson being compliant, and on the ground in a submissive position, the “hammer,”—three trained killers—explained Atty. Douglas referring to the LAPD officers, were unable to handcuff the unarmed man, without having to shock him with a Taser six separate times on the back side of his heart.
The cases of Mr. Nichols and Mr. Anderson have provoked anger and questions about the continued problem of Blacks disproportionately abused and dying while in police custody. The Final Call will continue to monitor and follow up on both of these stories.
—Zakiyyah Muhammad contributed to this report from Memphis