I have not, and will not, watch the video footage of the Memphis police brutally beating Tyre Nichols.
But like everyone else on social media, I knew exactly when the footage would arrive because city officials in my hometown of Memphis announced they were releasing it on the evening of Jan. 27, nearly three weeks after five officers punched, kicked and bludgeoned them. Integrating Nichols’ life—a young father, a taxpayer killed by municipal employees. Since the officers’ arrest, it’s been impossible to escape the grisly story arc—a vivacious, artistic, skateboard-loving young man’s life brutally snuffed out because a traffic stop turned into a death sentence. He could have been my son, nephew or brother. And in a sense, he was.
Until the release of the video, I tried to focus on Nichols’ life and not its gruesome ending. I watched and shared footage of him practicing skateboarding tricks and aspiring photographers taking photos around Memphis, the city I left years ago. Grief would creep up on me with increasing intensity as if my soul was counting the hours until the video was released, even if my mind refused to do so. I once caught myself before my 15 year old hit one of these scowls while walking into my room. I could tell by his face that he saw my pain. He said nothing, and I followed suit. What was there to say at that moment?
I came of age in an era of video, footage and blow-by-blow analysis of police beatings, starting with what happened to Rodney King in 1991. I wasn’t old enough to drive, but I was old enough to feel anger. . More cases followed indefinitely as smartphones, dashcams and bodycams documented brutality beyond comprehension, the omnipresent and merciless eye of the lens capturing it like a postcard lynching of the digital age. As numerous as these incidents were, they were a serious suggestion of the enormity of the problem, which lay beneath the murky waters beyond public view.
I turned all this over in my mind as the nation, if not the world, awaited footage of the terrifying Nichols in hopes that, occasionally, a blockbuster film or sporting event would be evoked. The officers’ bodycams captured much of what happened, documenting what they apparently treated with cold nonchalance. The most elaborate view, I’m told, came from a security camera a few blocks from his home. It was installed by the Memphis Police Department in the interest of public safety and there are many around the city. It’s called SkyCop. Certainly, the video will be key to bringing the officers — five of whom face second-degree murder and kidnapping, among other charges — to justice. Nichols’ family members called for its release, seeking transparency since law enforcement agencies often bury information and evidence. It’s a good thing the city released it relatively quickly instead of dragging out the process.
And yet, whether I—a private citizen, a black woman, and the mother of three black boys—should watch the video is another matter entirely.
There is a well-worn saying: seeing is believing. But I heard recently, if you see, you don’t need to believe; The event is in front of you. When it comes to police killing citizens, I don’t need to look. I just don’t believe it. i am i know And it’s not just because I, like many parts of the country, have seen it happen too many times.
My father, Marrel “Mac” McCullough, was a black officer with the Memphis Police Department whose presence in another horrific image of violence — the famous photograph of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — shaped our lives in ways I’m still discovering. This photo was taken from the Lorraine Motel as the point of the King’s Embassy where the gun was fired. In the film, the father kneels over Raja, administering first aid during a moment of senseless bloodshed that is also a historical hinge. Although the film will be 55 years old in April, it still has the power to shock, shock and anger. The scene is embedded in our national psyche.
In a book interview with Dad, I learned about how he came to that image and what the consequences were for him personally, his experiences as one of the few black officers in the force. He told me that officers need to ask themselves if they can “get along” without a partner if they object to something they think is wrong. He mentions a veteran black officer — one of the department’s first — who bragged about beatings in black neighborhoods (the only area where he was allowed to make arrests).
A lot has changed in the decade since, but not nearly enough. We have enough grainy but painfully clear images to see us through 24 hours. But at what point do citizens become mere spectators or even consumers of violence? At what point does grief and anger become like birds that fly forever without a place to land? In recent days, Nancy Pelosi said she had “no desire to see a fatal attack” on her husband Paul. Prince Harry has shared how in a desperate attempt to learn more about how his mother, Princess Diana, died in a Paris car crash, he examined photos from the inquest but is thankful he refrained from looking at the most salacious ones. To bear witness, to renew our humanity, we don’t need to watch time-stamped crime footage every minute, any minute.
I recognize the irony of writing a book centered on perhaps the most famous crime scene photograph in American history while skipping the Nichols video. But my intention is not to relive the murder, but to draw attention to an overlooked story of my father and the world he uncomfortably inhabited. A fresh look at King’s assassination is not the same as the fetishization of violence that these videos might suggest.
If history has shown us anything, it’s that we can’t get out of a culture that views community members as adversaries and often polices rather than protection. Videos can tell us what happened but not the way forward I need see no more brutality; I need to see evidence of real change.
It’s too much to witness without doing too much.