Dr. Jessica Johnson: Heartfelt lessons from beating

I finally brought myself to watch a shortened clip of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, the five former Memphis police officers who have now been charged with second-degree murder.

It was absolutely sickening to view the repugnant vulgarity, ruthless violence and decadent rage on display that tragic Jan. 7th night by these men who were supposed to be public servants sworn to protect the communities entrusted to their supervision. Many people who have seen parts of the Nichols’ footage are still in utter disbelief that they saw a 29-year-old Black man being beaten to death a few blocks away from his mother’s home.

The terrifying anguish in Nichols’ voice as he screamed for his mother while being physically tormented is akin to the agonizing distress we felt when watching George Floyd cry out “Mama!” during the final, excruciating moments of his life. The narrative surrounding the Nichols’ tragedy is noticeably different from Floyd’s, since the officers who murdered Nichols are also Black.

When it comes to high-profile cases of Black men who have lost their lives due to police encounters turning deadly, some that are deeply ingrained in our memories in addition to Floyd include the killings of Philando Castile, Walter Scott and Alton Sterling. For people in my generation who were young adults in the 1990s, the beating of Rodney King shown on national news after a local Los Angeles TV station aired the video footage was one of the first examples of recorded police violence against a Black man going viral.

The World Wide Web would become publicly available on Aug. 6, 1991, five months after King was beaten. It was a shocking eye-opener for me to see such brutality as I was coming of age, and I remember much of the national conversation back then regarding police reform centered on diversifying police forces, as well as addressing racial profiling of young Black males steeped in stereotypes categorizing them as dangerous and lawless.

Now the conversation has critically extended to examine how the systemic culture in many police departments that has been a trigger for lethal force against Black men and other people of color is also embraced by Black cops who are corrupt. The five former Memphis officers who savagely beat Nichols for roughly three minutes while hurling expletives and suppressing him on the ground are a gruesome example of this.

As Nichols was laid to rest this week, I kept thinking about something my pastor mentioned in Bible study when we were discussing this heart-rending incident from a spiritual perspective. My pastor talked about what is deep within the soul of people that drives them to commit such heinous acts and how intense such darkness is.

This reminded me of commentary that I have written on young men who have carried out mass shootings with no regard for God or human life. There is a part of the soul that is wounded and scarred. We have learned that four of the five officers charged in Nichols’ death had previous violations and infractions that had been documented. Haley, Martin, Mills and Smith had been reprimanded for failure to report excessive use of force, although nothing in the documentation indicates if physical force was warranted.

With Nichols’ murder receiving national coverage, more stories of Memphis police brutality are beginning to surface, such as the murder of Steven Askew in 2013 that was recently featured in The Guardian. As the patterns of violence displayed by officers on the Memphis force come to light, calls continue to grow louder for police reform, but I believe many people are skeptical that any meaningful change will take place soon as Nichols’ name is unfortunately added to a long timeline of deaths.

Something obviously snapped in the officers who attacked Nichols, and I have been reading measures advocating for more mental health services for police in addition to more violence de-escalation training for the communities they serve. The latter is especially important for African American communities, as there is a huge lack of trust in law enforcement.

Moving forward, I believe mental health is a crucial component concerning Nichols’ case because it is clear that the officers who beat him are mentally unstable, and this is an area of the systemic culture that definitely needs to be addressed.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.