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As the death of Tyre Nichols brings up old wounds, Memphis residents call for change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For a second day, protesters took to the streets of Memphis on Saturday as residents grappled with seeing disturbing video of the violent police attack on Black motorist Tyre Nichols. Five former officers who are also Black are charged with second-degree murder and other crimes. Some say the brutal beating is part of a longtime pattern stemming from a rotten culture within the Memphis police force. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think it's a good day to seek some justice. What y'all think?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Yes.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Dozens of protesters showed up Saturday outside police headquarters to call out what they say is an out-of-control police culture that uses excessive force in Black and brown communities. City council Vice Chairman J.B. Smiley Jr. told the group that the council is ready to take up several ordinances to make sure this never happens again.

J B SMILEY JR: Memphis has an opportunity to set the standard on how to respond to actions like this. We don't stand for police brutality in the city of Memphis. We don't stand for excessive use of force in the city of Memphis. And we damn sure don't stand for beating someone down and murdering them in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee.

ELLIOTT: While five former policemen are charged, the video shows other officials at the scene. Two sheriff's deputies and two members of the fire department have been removed from duty and are under investigation. Smiley says they should all be held to account.

SMILEY: We demand that each and every officer, every sheriff's department officer, every EMT involved be immediately terminated.

ELLIOTT: The union that represents officers, the Memphis Police Association, issued a statement Friday night offering condolences to the Nichols family and saying it, quote, "never condones the mistreatment of any citizen nor any abuse of power." Nichols' death at the hands of law enforcement has people here reflecting on other racial justice touchpoints in America, like George Floyd's murder. But it also brings up painful moments in the history of Memphis. Shalonda Williams joined peaceful protests carrying a handmade sign that said justice for Tyre Nichols with the slogan I am a man written on two hands pasted to the poster board. That was the slogan for the striking sanitation workers that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support when he was assassinated here in 1968. Williams has her own family history with police violence.

SHALONDA WILLIAMS: Forty years ago, my father was murdered by police in Shannon Street in Memphis, Tenn. So I'm here 40 years later standing with Tyre.

ELLIOTT: Her father, David Lee Jordan, was one of eight people killed in a controversial police standoff during a hostage situation in 1983. The FBI cleared officers of any wrongdoing at the time. Williams says seeing Nichols' brutal killing has been hard.

WILLIAMS: It's almost like a trigger. It's almost like history kind of repeating itself, you know. But still here, still being positive, still praying for positive results, and that people that do this - regardless of who they are, they're held accountable for it.

ELLIOTT: There's an emotional toll to pay witnessing the video, says Ekpe Abioto.

EKPE ABIOTO: That's something you cannot unsee.

ELLIOTT: Abioto is a musician who teaches African history and culture and has been playing traditional African instruments at memorial services for Tyre Nichols. He's worried especially about protecting children from being traumatized by seeing the brutal beating, and then also the collective trauma for older members of the community who have been through this before.

ABIOTO: In 1971, there was a young Black teenager by the name of Elton Hayes, who was killed at a traffic stop by nine white police officers. All that comes back to me because I remember that. I was alive at that time. I was 10 years old when Dr. King was killed. And this whole vibration feels the same way.

ELLIOTT: It's a culture that needs to change, he says.

ABIOTO: But will it change? It's hard to say.

ELLIOTT: Activists are pressing for new policies they say could prompt a cultural shift in the police force - ending pretextual traffic stops, for instance, and doing away with special task forces, like the SCORPION unit involved here, that send teams of officers into high-crime neighborhoods. Saturday, the Memphis Police Department permanently disbanded the SCORPION unit. Other task forces are under review.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Memphis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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