Has Anything Really Changed At All?

Lisa Wilson, Contributor

How the loss of Tyree Nichols is yet another indication of our nation’s immobility on police reform 


As a child in the 90’s I remember seeing smoky footage on the nightly news. An unarmed Black man had recently been beaten by the police in Los Angeles. A bystander captured the event on a video camera. When the story made the news, people were angry.  

When the officers that beat Rodney King were acquitted, protests and riots broke out. The most violent in Los Angeles since the Watts riots in 1965. Fires, looting, and violence put an exclamation point on the pent-up frustration of the people. There is only so much racism, and police brutality anyone can take. 

Decades of oppression and police brutality were brought to the forefront of the national news media. This was the beginning of a cycle that continues today. An unarmed Black man is shot, beaten, or killed, and people get angry and protest. Back then things mostly came to a halt at this point because there was no internet or social media. Today, it is different.

Unarmed Black men are three times as likely to be killed by police than white men in the US, according to the British Medical Journal. In response to these issues, governmental committees hold hearings and promise change. As a result, sometimes minor reforms are put into action, but the attention of the country always eventually shifts and the conversation around these issues simply fades away.

Fast forward to 2020 – the murder of George Floyd. This police killing was recorded and blasted all around the internet and countries far and wide were aware of this event. Police officers were actually charged with a crime, trials occurred, and officers were sentenced. What followed was the largest uprising since the civil rights movement occurred. People from all corners of the Earth spoke out finally that “Black Lives Matter.”  Even then, as time marched on, people went back to “normal life” and forgot.

Just over two years later in Memphis, Tenn. on Jan. 7, 2023, Tyree Nichols – a Black man and Sacramento, California native – was killed by five Black police officers. An unjustified traffic stop, and immediate beating. Not just a beating but an attack. After a confused Nichols tried to run, the cops grabbed him and took turns striking and kicking him like it was a game.  Even after he was handcuffed the abuse continued.  

When they finally propped a critically injured Nichols against the police car, the officers celebrated like they had won a football game – jesting, bragging, and laughing. All while a disinterested Fire Department Emergency Medical Services crew stood by and did nothing for several minutes. Days later, Tyree died in the hospital.

Five Memphis Police officers have been charged with various crimes including murder and kidnapping. Another officer has been fired. Three Memphis Emergency Medical Technicians who work for the Fire Department have also been fired for various offenses, including failing to provide care to Nichols for an extended period of time. Any one of these people could have chosen to intervene or speak up but not a single person did. 

The death of Nichols serves as a reminder of just how crucial the ongoing debate about police violence and reform really is. It’s not about the threat of increased lawsuits against the police, but about how our society allows these injustices to occur over and over again. It’s easy to ignore what does not directly affect you until it does. As college students, you have the education, energy, and ability to make a change. 

It’s not enough to simply say “Honor Tyree” by making a change. He should be alive today. Qualified immunity – the thing that gives police immunity to punishment for their actions has to go. Officers that act immorally, and unjustly deserve no special protection.  Tyree got no special protection. No one was watching out for him.

While ending qualified immunity will not solve all the problems in policing, it is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, more substantial change is needed. The origins of policing in America stem back to slave patrols in the 1700s. Simply changing the broken system with roots of oppression that run so deep, does not bring back these innocent people killed by police. The first step in overhauling a broken system is to start, to care, and to take imperfect action that leads to lasting change. 

I had hoped that another Black man did not need to be killed by police for Americans to wake up and pay attention – yet, here we are again. It is crucial that we take action to make this change. It’s not enough to protest or post on social media to make ourselves feel like we did something.  Actions speak. Write, protest, run for office, or even make a video educating people about their rights when interacting with the police. Do anything except nothing. Do not accept what has always been, do not be placated by empty promises from elected officials, and do not be lulled back to sleep until this happens again. 

Tyree Nichols was killed because our culture hides behind a racist history in our country that many are unwilling or afraid to confront. Whitewashing the past and suppressing the teachings of our country’s true history does nothing but condone these actions. We can all do better. Tyree deserved better. 

“Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. Neither do brave men or women stand by and see such things done without compunction of conscience, nor read of them without protest,” wrote Ida B. Wells. 

Looking back on the history from the 90s to now, it seems only right to ask yourself, has anything really changed at all?

Black Lives Matter.

Justice for Tyree Nichols.