If you ran into the scene too late, you might have missed him there, bloodied and beaten.
The demeanors of the officers seem serene and their work non-urgent as they wander around this quiet corner exchanging battle stories, a punch and a pat on the back. Police ranks have swelled, but everyone seems to agree that there’s nothing to see here. They lace up their boots and fuss over their glasses and moan about the pain in their knees, so you might have lost it there among the phalanx towering above, the ones who wear a smile and burst into laughter and make it home safely.
Look beyond the men who have punched, kicked, shocked, splashed, dragged and now stand in seeming indifference. Let your eyes slide down and the crumpled body appears. Hands behind his back, one shoe off, he writhes helplessly on the sidewalk. His screams seem to have stopped, his cries for his mother have ceased, and his voice has weakened so much that his words are hard to distinguish.
“You can’t go anywhere,” the officer bent over him replies. “You can’t go anywhere.”
In tonight’s harrowing video from Memphis, all eyes are drawn to the chaotic moments of brutality that preceded it and would have left another black man dead at the hands of the police. But alongside the attacks themselves, the footage captures another heartbreaking reality: minute by minute the playful nonchalance of the officers as Tire Nichols lies gravely wounded, their demeanor seeming to affirm how normal this sort of thing is.
“The cops who murdered Tire Nichols are no aberration. I’m not an outlier” cultural critic Touré wrote on Twitter. “That’s normal police procedure, only they usually get away with it.”
The 67 minutes of body camera and surveillance footage released in the case is a fuzzy and messy picture of the night that would lead to Nichols’ death and the murder charges set against five officers, all of whom are black. The views are sometimes obscured and the story incomplete, but the video also offers tremendous clarity about what happened.
Starts around 8:24pm on Saturday night, January 7th. What caused the officers to stop Nichols is not seen, but for the normal traffic stop they claimed it was, the escalation appears to be immediate and staggering.
At least three officers surround Nichols’ car as he is snatched from his blue sedan. At least one of them approaches at gunpoint. Nichols can be heard for the first time, saying “I didn’t do anything”, and is pushed to the ground. He expresses obedience, repeating “all right” over and over as the officers yell and curse.
“Take it! Tase him! barks an officer.
He was thrown to the ground, but the officers keep yelling at him to lie down, an order that seems to confuse Nichols, who is already lying on his right side. However, he replies calmly, his voice cracking just a hint as he tries to placate them.
“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Nichols says. “I’m just trying to get home.”
Nichols finally looks shaken as the officers keep yelling for him to lie down.
“I’m down!” she yells back, before suddenly she gets up and breaks free.
From the moment the officers opened the door of his car, only a minute passed.
Someone fires a stun gun as Nichols escapes. At least two officers chase him, but give up after about 15 seconds. An officer gasps as he radios for backup and walks back to the street where Nichols’ car was left.
About eight minutes later, news arrives that the suspect has been arrested.
“I hope they step on his ass,” one officer says to another. “I hope they kick his ass.”
It’s 8:33pm and the officers have regrouped at the corner of Castlegate and Bear Creek, less than half a mile from where it all began. Nichols’ capture becomes brutal with such speed that it’s hard to fathom.
From a security camera perched above, Nichols is seen lying on the street. Two officers pin him while a third appears to kick his head once, then again.
“Mum mum!” he cries.
He is allowed to sit down, only to have an officer use his truncheon to tap him on the back. He staggers again, then absorbs a series of punches to the face and head. He is doused in pepper spray.
Nichols seems almost unable to stand now. He is held up by the officers as more shots come. Then, after about five minutes of attacks, he is dragged a short distance, his lifeless body leaning against a car.
It is 8.38pm, just 14 minutes after the first traffic stop. You can’t see Nichols’ face, but hospital photos released later will show his nose cocked at an unnatural angle and his face bleeding and bruised, almost unrecognizable.
Nichols’ moans were silenced and the night’s action largely stopped. In his wake is the ever-increasing number of officers who wander, chat and, above all, stand by with such nonchalance that you’d think nothing ever happened. Paramedics arrive minutes later and, again, Nichols appears unattended.
It was only a minute or two from the house she shared with her mother, RowVaughn Wells. The officers’ voices catch them calling him a “bitch”, “bastard” and worse.
His mother knows the truth. He was 29 and imbued with California sweetness, a FedEx employee, amateur photographer, skateboarder, and “damn near-perfect” mama’s boyfriend. He didn’t use drugs, Wells said, and he didn’t have any guns. He went out to photograph the sky and never came home.
The footage runs over 20 minutes longer until an ambulance blocks the shot. Wells can’t bear to look at it anyway.
Matt Sedensky can be reached at [email protected] and https://twitter.com/sedensky