A photo of Tyre Nichols provided to the media by his family. Nichols was fatally beaten by police during a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, on Jan. 7.
I was watching TV last Thursday afternoon when the news cut to Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis explaining how the need for truth, honesty and transparency influenced the investigation into the MPD officers who mercilessly beat Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7.
Once I realized what was going on, I turned the sound up and put my remote down to focus.
“...absolute accountability for those responsible for Tyre’s death” were Davis’ exact words, and despite the horror I felt in the wake of his killing, I was grateful there might be justice. Davis went on to announce that the police body camera video footage of Tyre’s beating, which resulted in his death three days later, would be released to the public. I took a deep breath as disappointment set in, and held it.
“I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels,” Davis said in a calm tone, speaking of the all-too-familiar feelings of outrage about the disregard for human life. I exhaled. But something just didn’t sit right with me about the “breaking news” aspect of that soon-to-be-released video, which was coming just days before Black History Month. It felt too much like a “world premiere” of a music video or the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
I watched a fervor overtake the airwaves after we learned the footage would be made public the following evening. It was all the anchors, reporters and pundits talked about. Even TMZ had a headline about it. I felt uneasy, but I picked up my phone and went to Twitter to see if anyone was tweeting about this.
What immediately caught my eye while scrolling was a video by Austin Dean of Tyre skateboarding. It was remarkable. I was captivated by how diligently he practiced his extreme skateboarding skills, how graceful he appeared with the sun and clouds framing his slim, silhouetted figure as he made jump after jump. He seemed so light and free, his Black skin dewy with perspiration. It was so gratifying to watch. I imagined how he must have felt that day, and I wished he would have gotten the chance for more days like this.
I watched the video four times and then looked at the clock. “If I tweet this right now, more than 24 hours before the footage of him being beaten is released,” I thought, “that will give people a chance to experience what he was like when he was alive and well, at his best, as opposed to...”
Before I even finished the thought, I’d downloaded the video, crafted an impromptu call to action to “amplify THIS video of Tyre LIVING his best life,” including the hashtag #JusticeForTyreNichols, and sent out the tweet.
My phone immediately began to blow up after I sent my message into the Twittersphere. The notifications were nonstop in a way I’d never seen before and never could have anticipated. I’d had a couple of near-viral tweets before (one after the passing of Kobe Bryant that reached 81,000 views, and another of the dance party protest outside the home of New York attorney Aaron Schlossberg, who reportedly berated Spanish-speaking employees with racist rhetoric at a New York City café, that reached almost 97,000 views), but this tweet... this was something different.
Within 10 minutes, more than 63,000 accounts had viewed the skateboarding footage, and well over 1,000 had liked, retweeted or quoted my tweet. I was shocked. I turned off my notifications and texted my mom and my brother. “I’m not sure what’s happening, but my tweet about Tyre Nichols has gone viral,” I told them. By Sunday night the tweet was approaching 8 million views, after activists and reporters and movie stars had reshared it, and it was featured in publications like Rolling Stone, Newsweek and the New York Post, among others. A few days later, the Daily Mail picked it up, and I still have countless unread notifications.
It took a minute for the shock of going viral to settle in, but when it did, something significant dawned on me. When I posted that video of Tyre skateboarding, it was from a place in my heart of wanting to extend to him in death the dignity he deserved in life. I knew that once the MPD bodycam footage was released, the chances of wiping those brutal images from the public’s psyche would be slim to none. So, I thought, why not share this video of Tyre practicing his craft while there was still time to shape his narrative? Isn’t it better to celebrate the beauty of his life, in stark contrast to magnifying the savagery that was visited upon him ― and upon so many Black people?
The author wearing her Howard University cardigan.
It’s time we become more deliberate about amplifying the positive and beautifully unique aspects of a person who’s been fatally brutalized by U.S. law enforcement. I sent a follow-up tweet using the hashtag #Dignity4BlackBodies because I think dignity (or the lack thereof) for the dead, especially when footage of their killing is widely available, is paramount to this discussion. It’s an important conversation, and I’m pleased to see it happening more and more.
But I also think this video of Tyre skateboarding went viral because a lot of people are just sick and tired of seeing heinous, reckless, inhumane videos of unarmed Black men being killed by authorities. It feels like the modern-day equivalent of the public lynchings that were prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. These events ― nearly 5,000 of them between 1882 and 1968 ― were used to terrorize the Black victims and their families, but also served as notice to Black people that anyone in the community could be next. And as sick and unbelievable as it may be, it wasn’t until last year that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed. Now, “perpetrators can receive up to 30 years in prison when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury.”
But that law is about the historical practice of lynching ― it says nothing about releasing the bodycam footage of law enforcement officers who savagely beat an unarmed Black person, or the trauma of subjecting to those images the people who identify with or care for the victim. Because of this, it becomes a balancing act: weighing the dangers and damages of this footage against the benefits its existence might bring. For instance, these videos can and should be used to arrest and convict the officers involved. What’s more, many in the Black community want the footage made public so the whole world can bear witness to what is still happening to Black people in this country ― just as Emmett Till’s mother did when she held an open-casket funeral after her 14-year-old son was lynched.
While I agree with this, I understand why many people, especially those of us in the Black community, do not want to watch this footage. We know all too well what took place ― what continues to take place, far too often and in too many cities across the United States. We do not need to continually subject ourselves to the psychological terror that comes with viewing excessive, deadly force caught on bodycams. So I simply reposted a video of a young brotha practicing his skateboarding jumps, rather than reposting footage of his barbaric fatal attack. I wanted to honor and celebrate the beautiful man he was. The skateboarder. The photographer. The father. The son. The friend. It is so necessary to highlight who we lost, and how much, when he was robbed of his life and the potential he had.
Yesterday, a friend sent a text about my viral tweet. “I think that it really touched a nerve for folks,” she said. “It was a pretty disgusting display of the regular old sensationalism of death. I think people are really quite tired of it, and you tapped into a necessary shift in the zeitgeist.” I think that’s true. We are tired of death ― and of our deaths becoming something to gawk at and then forget without any measurable change occurring. We’re desperate for accountability. We’re desperate for fairness and truth and equitable change. Unfortunately, due to the structural racism ingrained in law enforcement institutions from top to bottom, the kind of reckoning necessary to truly transform police won’t come easily or soon, but we must keep fighting.
And we must keep living and loving, remembering and honoring those who have been taken from us. That’s why I sent that tweet of Tyre skateboarding last week. I knew what we were about to see, and yet in the face of all that brutality and hate, I wanted us to see some beauty. I wanted us to remember who he was and who we lost.
Mai Perkins is a Brooklyn-based seasoned freelancer and content creator from South L.A. with a knack for editorial storytelling. She currently works in documentary research on the historical genealogy PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” She has contributed to sociocultural digital platforms writing about arts and politics, and is the author of “The Walking Nerve-Ending.” Her poem “Daffodils” is dedicated to the Black victims of police brutality. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in international affairs from the New School, and she reps her beloved alma mater Howard University with great pride and swag.