Tyre Nichols: A martyr for Memphis, but a son of Sacramento
Through it all, Tire Nichols’ family showed their brave faces Wednesday at this church in Memphis, Tennessee.
They reiterated calls for justice for their 29-year-old son, father and brother, who died after being brutally beaten by police last month. They consoled themselves with the swiftness of justice, knowing that the officers involved have already been fired and charged with murder. And they nodded in exasperation that black people too often go unnoticed for our humanity.
“I see the world showing him love and fighting for his justice,” said Nichols’ tearful sister, Keyana Dixon. “But all I want is my little brother back.”
Indeed, this was a funeral for a distressed family, but it was also a funeral for a distressed Memphis.
Just as George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis, is inextricably linked to this city and Rodney King, who was beaten by police in Los Angeles, is inextricably linked to our city, so Nichols and his legacy are now linked to Memphis . He is now an unknowing martyr on an increasingly desperate and seemingly never-ending mission to finally bring an end to police brutality.
And just focusing on that is really missing out on a lot of Nichols. That would allow the masses to define – or even redefine – him by his death without the proper context for his life.
What it meant, for example, that he loved to skateboard. Why he was drawn to landscape photography. Why, as a 6ft tall dark-skinned black man, he chose to live as someone who “doesn’t see color” despite being well aware that racism exists and that the police tend to use it against him.
And most importantly, why he was the last black person his friends or family would have expected to be racially profiled or end up dead after a traffic stop gone awry.
To learn and try to understand all these dimensions, I didn’t go to Memphis, I went to Sacramento. It was in the California capital that Nichols spent his formative years, building lifelong friendships and a family before deciding to move about 2,000 miles away to be closer to his mother during the pandemic.
“We’re going to let them know that Tire is from Sacramento and we’re going to explain who he was,” said Stevante Clark, an activist who lost his own brother Stephon to police violence in 2018. “The family, the friends, the people who know him best will make him human. Sacramento, where he was before he moved to Memphis, [is] where we know him, love him, appreciate him, honor him.”
Nowhere is that more true than at the Regency Community Skate Park in suburban North Natomas.
The sun was long gone when Ryan Wilson, bundled up and red-faced, stepped into view from behind Nichols’ older brother, Jamal Dupree.
“I see a lot of familiar and unfamiliar faces,” Wilson began hesitantly. “As many of you know, I was probably one of Tire’s closest friends growing up. I met him here when I was about 12 years old.”
Dozens of people – friends, relatives, old classmates, politicians, activists, strangers – had turned out for a candlelight vigil at the Regency Community Skate Park on Monday night. Black men in puffer coats, black mothers with tears in their eyes, white women in yoga pants, middle-aged men in suits, and unkempt-haired teens of various races all sought a spot between the mini-halfpipe and the well-trodden ramps.
Wilson recalled how he and Nichols would spend hours in the park after school and on weekends, mastering tricks on their skateboards and recording the best of them.
“We’ve done so many videos together,” he said, “and I have little shoeboxes full of ribbons that I’m going to really enjoy one day. I mean, he was part of my family.”
That Nichols was a skater at all says something about his character. After all, this wasn’t Los Angeles or San Francisco, this was Sacramento in the late 2000s. In a city where basketball fans still boldly ring cowbells at NBA games, There just weren’t that many black kids on skateboards back then.
“I would think he would be kind of avoided as a black kid. Why are you doing what these white kids are doing?” said Chris Dean, a longtime white skateboarder and owner of Sac Ramp Skate Shop. “Like skateboarding? What are you doing?”
But while it shocked people and confused some members of his own family, Nichols was proud.
So proud, in fact, that he even mentored others, according to more than a few aspiring skateboarders during the vigil, including a young black man in a Bulls hat.
“He was part of a group of people who were very inclusive,” said Angelina Paxton, one of his closest friends. “Skateboarders are very similar to the rebels in our community. That’s how it used to be seen. It’s more accepted now, but back then it was like the outcasts and he suited everyone.”
That Nichols was a skater also says something about where he grew up and how he interacted with the world.
Known for his bright smile, infectious laugh and penchant for putting everyone else’s needs ahead of his own, he traveled extensively as a child. He eventually left California and returned to high school to care for his dying father.
This move landed Nichols in North Natomas, a middle-class suburb about halfway between downtown Sacramento and the airport and not far from the skate park, surrounded by neat two-story houses.
One thing to know about North Natomas is that, much like Los Angeles, it is extremely diverse. But unlike Los Angeles, it’s not segregated, so Nichols grew up with a mix of black, Hispanic, Asian American, and white kids.
“It’s not perfect,” confirmed Natomas Unified School District Superintendent Chris Evans. “But more than most places there is an integration of diversity. There’s no neighborhood you can go to – not even gated communities – where you go: ‘This is the white neighborhood.’ It just doesn’t exist, which is great.”
The other thing to know about North Natomas is that it is divided into two school districts. And because Nichols’ house was near the skate park on the dividing line, he ended up attending a high school that was mostly white and far poorer than the high school in his neighborhood.
Classmates who came to the vigil joked that they used to call their school the “redneck ghetto.”
“It was kind of known for being mostly like a white farming town,” Paxton said. “And that’s why there weren’t very many people of different ethnicities there.”
But none of Nichols’ friends remember him complaining. He just made friends, like he did at the skate park and like he’s done his entire life, whether in mixed-race or black-majority neighborhoods.
With his friend Paxton, Nichols developed a true affinity for landscape photography. And that translated into a love of filmmaking, skills he used to shoot videos for two classmates’ fledgling rap group.
“What was cool about him was that he wasn’t trying to dilute his culture or his heritage. He wasn’t trying to be anything,” Paxton told me. “He listened to rap. He listened to reggae. He listened to country. He listened to whatever he wanted. He dressed how he wanted. He was just an existing person. He didn’t have to define himself that way.”
In other words, Nichols’ uncle told me he was just plain neutral.
“He didn’t see any color,” Johnie Honeycutt said during the vigil, earning nods from a few relatives. “He loved everyone.”
I try to imagine the confusion and then horror of Nichols, a black man who first saw people as people, when he was pulled over by five cops who should have been a minor traffic stop, guns drawn and conflicting orders at him when if he were an animal.
As an uncle told me, Nichols “didn’t have a club bone in his body.”
At least in North Natomas, he did not have to regularly encounter overzealous elite police units like the now-defunct Scorpion, which included the five Memphis officers now charged in his death.
These units are typically created to deal with violent crime or a perceived surge in gang activity, and then deployed to “high crime neighborhoods” and given broad discretion to do whatever they need to do to get results .
You might think obeying the law is part of it. But too often, what happens is very similar to what we see in the body camera footage released by Memphis police last week. Aggressive officers, sometimes in plain clothes, act with impunity and terrorize low-income black and Latino people.
After Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Nichols told friends he was even more uncomfortable facing the police than before.
But he clearly still saw cops as people to argue with.
Even when he was punched, kicked and pushed, he was polite. He hesitated to raise his voice. He told them, “You guys are really busy right now.” And in return, these cops — these black men — laughed at Nichols “boy” and smoked cigarettes over his bloodied and broken body.
They also ignored his request: “I’m just trying to go home.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy on Wednesday, said home is not just a place.
“Home is where you have peace,” he preached. “Home is where you don’t have to keep your dukes awake. Home is where you are not vulnerable. Home is where everything is in order.”
Paxton said that’s part of what makes her so sad. The last few times she spoke to Nichols, he was finally starting to figure out what made him happy after so many months of desperately missing his life, his friends, and his son in Sacramento.
“He was just looking for happiness and looking for a home – that’s what he and I always said,” she told me. “It’s just such an uneasy feeling that you just don’t belong anywhere. You’re looking for where you belong, you know?”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-02-02/tyre-nichols-memphis-funeral-sacramento-mourns-native-son Tyre Nichols: A martyr for Memphis, but a son of Sacramento