Let Tyre Nichols be the last: Police killings and the public consumption of Black pain

Racial battle fatigue is real — and it's time to put an end to it the madness

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 31, 2023 5:50AM (EST)

A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When I experience anxiety and stress, I chew on pens and grind my teeth.

Several weeks ago, the Memphis Police Department announced that they would release the body camera footage of an encounter that led to their officers savagely beating Tyre Nichols earlier this month. He would succumb to his injuries on Jan. 10, several days after the fatal encounter.

Police tried to prepare the public for what, by their own admission, is "disturbing" footage, a forbidding signal that what the public was to see is truly unconscionable. On Friday, like so many others, I waited with dread for that video to "premiere" – and premiere is indeed the correct word. Something can premiere and still be horrible; such language signals anticipation and bursting out onto the world without consideration of the goodness or horribleness of the thing in question. Ben Crump, the Nichols family attorney, said that the five Memphis officers beat Tyre like a "human piñata." It is true that we have the visual lexicon and vocabulary for such horror from Rodney King and so many other such incidents of police savagery against Black bodies, but what does it look like this time?

My jaw hurts and there are at least four or five pens gnawed down and sitting on top of my desk.

I can only consume these videos indirectly by reading the summaries and descriptions made by people who I respect.

This is not healthy. 

Such stress and anxiety are experienced both individually and collectively by Black people in America (and across the Black Atlantic) as we await the next video of another Black person brutalized by the police and other agents of the law. It is a perpetual feedback loop of trauma. The immediate trauma comes from witnessing the routine violence that is committed by America's police and law enforcement against Black and brown bodies. The (re)traumatization results from how each incident is a reminder that it will happen again because anti-Black violence is systemic in American society. Living in a racist society is trauma. It is what psychologists and other mental health professionals have termed "racial battle fatigue."

Beyond the clinical language, racial battle fatigue causes Black and brown people in America to live shorter lives than white people and to die at higher rates from heart disease, strokes, cancer, high blood pressure, and other maladies. Like other Black people in America and across the world, I know that racial battle fatigue is killing me, both slowly and quickly. I am not alone in this experience.

Racial battle fatigue is why I decided some years ago to not watch any videos where police abuse Black and brown people. I can bear witness to the injustice and fight against it without exposing myself to new-age lynching videos or other such horrible things. On this, I am in agreement with actor LeVar Burton, who explained his decision to not watch the footage on Twitter. "I have not seen the video. Those who love me most have urged me not to. One of the truths playing Kunta Kinte taught me is that the dehumanization of Black people was necessary to the success of our enslavement."

There is a whole media machine that profits off Black people and our suffering and pain — but allows little time for those same voices to discuss topics that are not "race-related."

Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader and hope warrior Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also took to Twitter to encourage people to attend to their mental health and well-being upon the release of yet another taped killing of a Black man:

You don't have to watch the video of #TyreNichols being beaten by police.

You don't have to subject yourself to that trauma.

It should not require another video of a Black human being dehumanized for anyone to understand that police brutality is an urgent, devastating issue.

I understand and respect why other Black people and people of conscience have made a different choice. But I can only consume these videos indirectly by reading the summaries and descriptions made by people who I respect. I tell myself that I am playing peekaboo with a monster. I know what the monster looks like, but we pretend to not see each other and then pretend to be surprised when we do.

On Twitter, journalist Robert Evans annotated the video of Nichols being beaten by Memphis officers this way:

the start of the Tyre Nichols video shows a group of police, for no discernable reason, immediately escalating to violence, threatening and hitting a young man while shouting contradictory orders at him they threaten to tase him if he does not lie down, while he is lying down

he escapes. the police attempt to tase him. then they stand around panting and drinking water. they are all absolutely gassed from beating a skinny young man five to one.

Video two shows footage from a light pole camera. We see a fairly calm suburban street. The camera pivots to show four cops and Tyre on the ground. One cop grabs his upper body and repeatedly shoves him into the ground. A second cop joins. A third kicks Tyre in the head.

From the start of this footage Tyre seems badly injured. He is not resisting so much as thrashing while being beaten. The cops stand him up. One starts to punch him, throwing haymakers at Tyre's face while the others hold him still.

Video three is body camera footage of an officer helping to chase down Tyre. When he arrives Tyre is down, two officers are on him. He is howling, in clear pain. The officer says "Shut the fuck up" and "you want to get sprayed again?" Both cops get off him. He is howling.

After they spray him Tyre sits up. He does not seem fully in control of his body. Nothing he does could be described as resistance. He is reacting to being beaten and maced. When he sits up they throw him back to the ground, slamming his head into the pavement.

He is howling for his mother.

They wrestle him to the ground, mace him again. They mace themselves too. They keep yelling at him to give them his hands. Three officers are on him. He does not seem fully conscious. The maced cop recovers, takes out a baton and says "I'm going to baton the fuck out of you."

Tyre is standing. Three officers are holding him. He staggers, almost blindly. One officer punches him in the head. They take him to the ground again.

They take him down again. More cops arrive on-scene. One officer complains that Tyre made him mace himself.

Video 4 is yet another officer's body cam. I should not for clarity videos 2, 3 and 4 are all of the same event (the takedown in Tyre's neighborhood) from different cameras. It's quiet for the first minute. We see a cop driving, get out of his car and start running.

We see the takedown. A tackle. His head hits the ground. It is kinda unclear what happens beyond the violence. The camera is obscured for much of what happens.

Eventually he gets up, the camera clears. The cops talk and laugh about chasing him down. One complains about hurting his knee in the tackle. We see Tyre lying half against the car, twitching, barely conscious. One cop accuses him of being high.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes said this on Twitter:

A particularly insidious aspect of the sound in the video is the cops constantly shouting as if Nichols is not complying when in fact he is very obviously complying and they are beating him.

Also on Twitter, Michael Harriot, who is a journalist and a poet, highlighted how:

If they say "get on the ground" and you get on the ground, say "I'm on the ground" and you STILL get tased and pepper sprayed.

What else are you supposed to do but run?

So much for that whole "if he only he had complied" narrative.

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NBC News' Antonia Hylton focused on how Nichols was doomed by police who left him no means of escape or compliance:

God. Part of the horror of the Tyre Nichols video - which I'm not sharing - is how what we hear officers say is the opposite of what we see. For ex - the demand to see his hands when they are holding his arms & kicking him. It appears they're manufacturing a pretext for the stop.

Police detective turned whistleblower Francesco Serpico put this exclamation mark on the video of Nichols being brutalized and the system that encourages and protects such behavior, tweeting:

There's a lot of talk in the news today about these "bad cops" "infiltrating the police" As God is my witness, it is exactly as I felt in 60-70s. The reverence I had unwittingly infiltrated a culture of rogues & thieves posing as police. That system still holds me in contempt today.

Robert Evans' first paragraph about Nichols being stopped and then beaten is all one really needs to understand what the Memphis police did to him that night. Everything that happens after that moment are but details on top of a basic fact: Tyre did not have to die, and he would still be alive if he never encountered those cops who were operating like they were members of a paramilitary group that sees certain people like they are targets in a warzone.

As has become ritual, many Black people will be asked (or have been) by well-intentioned white people about how they are feeling in the aftermath of the Nichols video (as was the case after the videotaped deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, et al.)

Are you OK?

Do you want to talk about it

If one chooses to answer such questions — I generally do not —  I would suggest turning the question around and asking their white friends and colleagues, "How do you feel when you see another human being so severely abused that they will later die from their injuries?" Our shared humanity should transcend the color line. In reality, of course, it does not; whiteness and the concept of race itself are predicated on preventing such an outcome.

Black people who think and write publicly about politics and society will inevitably be asked to offer a comment or opinion on the police killing of Nichols or the next Black person who suffers such a fate. This is part of a national ritual where the mainstream news media features "Black voices" who work "the racism beat" when bad things happen to Black and brown people. Although it may hurt them financially, they too should feel free to say, "no comment" or "not this time." There is a whole media machine that profits off of Black people and our suffering and pain but allows little if any time for those same voices to discuss topics that are not "race-related."

Some years ago, a Black artist of some renown was asked in an interview why she didn't emphasize themes of slavery and racism in her work. She said that she preferred that her art and energy be directed towards imagining trees and flowers and other pretty things from nature.

Like other Black people in America and across the world, I feel that racial battle fatigue is killing me.

There is much wisdom there for Black and brown folks who have a public platform. In that vein, philosopher Nathalie Etoke made the following intervention during a conversation with philosopher Lewis Gordon at the Boston Review about existentialism and Black people's humanity:

But I was also grappling with this issue of the human relation with regards to people of African descent, whether they're from the diaspora or the continent. Because I think the ways we engage the question of freedom goes beyond what I call the legality of freedom or the issue of rights. There's something about the legacy of sub-humanity that we constantly have to resurrect, but then, at the same time, we have to decenter the white gaze. We have to decenter aspects of violence and center on ourselves….

I was just trying to problematize the way that, if we look at Black life through the lens of white supremacy or social death, in many ways we are erasing and silencing the ways Blackness has to do with this affirmation of life in the context of oppression for the sake of freedom, and the fact that maybe Black freedom is not something that is given. It is fought for. Yes, from this perspective of human rights, but also from this existential perspective in terms of your humanity. How do you define yourself in your own terms? And how do you practice existence in the context of oppression?

In the end, I do not (yet) have an ex-patriot's heart. I am a proud Black working-class American and have no plans to go anywhere else. But I am finding myself more and more sympathetic and understanding towards those black Americans who do.

In the case of Tyre Nichols, those feelings are amplified by how American society is so deeply sick with white supremacy and racism that a group of police officers who happen to be black were the ones responsible for killing him.

Anti-black animus and hatred afflict people on both sides of the color line. It is that seductive, toxic and virulent. And it is a feature of American society that is not ever going away because that would mean that the borders and boundaries which cohere and support this order of things would collapse. White supremacy and racism are the cement, that in many ways, holds the whole system together.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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