Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. They have all been dismissed from the police force and now face second degree murder charges, among others. On Friday night, just as the videos of Tyre’s murder were being released, I joined with about 400 people in a protest.
We met at Martyrs Park, which commemorates those who died in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. It overlooks the Mississippi River. In the distance sits the old Holiday Inn where Dr. King once stayed in 1968 during the Sanitation Workers Strike. For his last visit, when he was assassinated, he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, about 2 miles from the park. One block from the Lorraine, now the National Civil Rights Museum is a historical marker for the “Memphis Massacre”—a police riot in 1866 in which 46 African Americans were killed, with homes, schools, and churches burned to the ground.
As we left Martyrs Park we were walking within that history, as we marched toward the old site of Fort Pickering where African American Union soldiers were billeted after the Civil War, and who were the among the first killed in the riot.
I felt the weight of this history as I walked into the night. Tyre, an African American man, aged 29, had been stopped by Memphis police for a supposed traffic violation. All of the officers directly involved with the beat down were also African American. The police chief is African American. But the plantation mentality which hangs in the air in Memphis is strong; strong enough that some African Americans share the white attitudes of disdain for the ones still in certain neighborhoods. All five officers belonged to the Scorpion Unit, formed just a few years before. Its formation was urged by the white Mayor of Memphis, Jim Strickland who had campaigned on a promise to crack down on crime. Scorpion was intended to create a powerful police presence in areas deemed high crime, to intimidate and dominate, much like an occupying military force.
We made our way onto Interstate 55 and shut it down. We eventually stopped on the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, the “old bridge,” built in 1949, with the new “Hernando Desoto” bridge, finished in 1973, a few miles to the north where Interstate 40 crosses the river; a bridge shut down by protestors in 2016 after white police officers gunned down Alton Sterling, a Black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, a Black man in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota.
With traffic backing up for miles both east and west, and the next steps of the protest uncertain, I decided to make my way back toward the place where we had initially stopped traffic. There a man had just tried to drive through the barricades and found himself stuck with protestors yelling at him to back up and turn around. He eventually did. I ended up in a conversation with Edie Love, a Memphis Theological Seminary graduate. She is a Unitarian Minister. With her clerical shirt on she serves as a movement chaplain. She had been part of the group urging the man to turn around.
I stood for a while, there in the dark, on the highway, with vehicle lights in the distance visible for at least a mile. I thought about Tyre who was killed about 80 yards from his mother’s home, and who called out in his last words for his Mom. I thought about his mother, and his family. I wondered about the family backgrounds of the police officers.
I tried to discern something of God in all of this. Tyre still lived with his Mom. He was a skateboarder, a way for him to find a path (I had read earlier in the week) between gang life and athletics. As he skateboarded, he would also stop and take photographs, beautiful shots from around the city of Memphis. He seemed like a Christ figure, an innocent in a world of sin. Struck down, crucified, the Christ of the lynching tree (in James Cone’s words). He was “‘buked and scorned” and made his final journey alone.
I needed to pray. I walked alone along the side of the highway, retracing my steps, passing the cars stopped by the shutting down of the bridge. I went down the embankment we had climbed to get onto the highway, and then up Riverside Drive, before turning left to go back to the street where I had parked.
I drove to the Lorraine Motel. I was alone there. The night was quiet. I looked up to the second-floor balcony, room 306, marked by the large white wreath of flowers. Tyre. Dr. King. And the long, long list of men and women killed by the police. “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
As I left, I did not feel much hope. I turned away from the museum and onto Front Street. There, off to the right, on the sidewalk, I saw a young African American man. He held a skateboard as he walked.