The Memphis police killing of Tyre Nichols: The video America didn’t want to have to watch

Memphis police released camera footage Friday that showed officers beating Nichols to death following a traffic stop.

A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on Jan. 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn.
A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on Jan. 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the anxious hours before the Memphis Police Department released body camera footage showing the role five officers played in the beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, a palpable sense of dread over what the footage would reveal gripped many Americans.

Nichols's mother, RowVaughn Wells, told the Washington Post that she was able to endure watching only less than a minute of the fatal encounter with police.

“I have to stay strong, but it’s very difficult,” she told the Washington Post. "And then when I walked in that room and I sat there and I heard my son’s voice — because that’s going to be the last time that I hear my son’s voice — that just did something to me. And I just had to get out.”

Her son was beaten to death approximately 100 yards from her home, and at a Friday news conference, she pleaded with other parents not to allow their children to watch it.

“But what I’ve heard is very horrific, very horrific, and any of you who have children please don’t let them see it,” Wells said, adding, “No mother, no mother, no mother should go through what I am going through right now to lose their child to the violent way that I lost my child.”

So close was the bond between mother and son that Nichols, a FedEx driver, avid skateboarder and the father of a 4-year-old son, had tattooed his mother's name on his arm, Wells later told President Biden during a phone call on Friday.

“I do know that,” responded Biden, who, at the time he talked with Wells, had also not seen the footage of the beating. “That’s what you call something special.”

RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, is comforted during a press conference on Jan. 27, 2023. in Memphis, Tenn.
RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, is comforted during a press conference on Jan. 27, 2023. in Memphis, Tenn. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For those who had seen video of Nichols being killed by police, the warnings were just as stern. FBI Director Christopher Wray didn't sugarcoat the images. “I have seen the video myself. And I will tell you, I was appalled,” Wray told reporters Friday. “I’m struggling to find a stronger word, but I will just tell you, I was appalled.”

For the law enforcement officials who have seen the body camera footage, like Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch, there was no other way to describe it. “In a word, it’s absolutely appalling,” Rausch said Thursday.

Offering his own grim preview of what could be expected, Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney who’s representing the family, revealed at a Friday news conference that the world would hear Nichols’s final words.

“He calls out three times for his mother. His last words on this Earth are 'Mom, Mom, Mom.’ He's screaming for her,” Crump said. “He said, 'I just wanna go home.'”

For those who followed the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., the historical echo to Nichols's last words was unmistakable, with both men calling out for their mothers.

The historical parallels don't end there, as Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis attested to in an interview with CNN.

“I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident and it’s very much aligned with that type of behavior … sort of groupthink. I would say it’s about the same if not worse,” Davis said in a Friday morning interview in reference to the videotaped 1991 beating King received at the hands of Simi Valley, Calif., police following a traffic stop that, when bystander footage was made public, resulted in days of rioting.

While King survived his run-in with police and their nightsticks, Nichols did not. The question that seemed to build all week was whether the latest example of police brutality leveled against a Black American — even though the five officers who inflicted it are also Black and were swiftly indicted on murder charges — would spark its own violent response.

Flanked by Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump speaks during a press conference in Memphis, Tenn.
Flanked by Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump speaks during a press conference in Memphis, Tenn. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“We’re very satisfied with the charges,” Rodney Wells, Nichols's stepfather, said Friday. “We want peace. We do not want any type of uproar. We do not want any type of disturbance. We want peaceful protest. The family is very satisfied with the process, with the police chief, with the D.A.”

Such was the buildup to a video that no American actually wanted to have to watch, and many remained unsure they would right up until the last moment.

But as others flocked to the Memphis Police Department's YouTube channel to await its posting, an officer recruitment clip greeted them on AutoPlay.

“Are you ready to start a career that's bigger than you?” the video's narrator asks over footage of the humble skyline of Memphis. “If you want to be part of building a better future for yourself, your family and the Memphis community, then you should consider becoming a Memphis police officer."

What the video shows

At approximately 7 p.m. ET, police released a four-part video of their encounter with Nichols on the Vimeo channel for the city of Memphis. It shows officers pulling over Nichols and ordering him to “get the f*** out the f***ing car,” then violently yanking him out.

“I didn't do anything,” Nichols is heard saying as a scuffle ensues and he is forced to the ground.

The officers bark at Nichols to remain on the ground, to which he replies, “I’m on the ground.”

“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Nichols tells the officers after they threaten to use a taser on him and order him to lie face down on the pavement. “I’m just trying to go home.”

Tyre Nichols
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was pulled over while driving and died three days later, sits against a car after being beaten by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7. (Memphis Police Department/Handout via Reuters)

Officers are seen hitting and trying to subdue Nichols, before he manages to break free and get up. Police fire a taser at him, but he begins running away.

Much of the video consists of a period of time when at least two of the officers involved in the initial scuffle stay at the scene of the traffic stop, with one pouring water in his eyes to wash away pepper spray.

“I hope they stomp his ass,” the officer whose body-camera footage was released says of Nichols.

In the second video, which is without sound and was filmed via surveillance camera, Nichols is seen lying face down on the pavement, subdued by three officers. At one point a fourth officer arrives and begins hitting Nichols with a night stick. Nichols is then lifted to his feet and punched and kicked repeatedly before being pushed back down to the pavement.

The third video posted by police shows an officer’s body camera and contains sound of the beating the officers administer on Nichols, as well as his cries for his mother as officers continue to pummel him and use pepper spray on his face. “Mom!” he yells at one point.

As Nichols continues to struggle, and as the officers feel the effects of the pepper spray on their own eyes, their anger at the suspect seems to swell and they pick up the pace of their assault on him.

In the fourth video, which consists of more bodycam footage, Nichols repeatedly calls out for his mother. At least eight officers can be seen as Nichols, handcuffed and leaned up against a patrol car, falls over on his side.

“Hey, sit up bro,” one of the officers tells Nichols. “Sit up man” he adds as he pulls Nichols upright by his arm.

An officer can be heard telling the others that he hit Nichols with “straight haymakers.”

As with the video taken of the Rodney King beating, the police assault on Nichols will undoubtedly serve as the central piece of evidence in the trial against the indicted officers. It will also be difficult to avoid — potentially very disturbing — for Americans who have had no shortage of such footage to digest in recent years.

That may be especially true for Black Americans.