Tyre Nichols and American traditions: How do we give kids "The Talk" about police now?

My father didn't give me the traditional "always comply" talk. And I'm not sure what lessons my daughter needs now

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 3, 2023 8:59AM (EST)

People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Violence against Black people is an American tradition. If we don't fully acknowledge this terrible part of our past and present, then we will continue to pass that same violence and hate down to our children. 

What parents would be OK with passing violence and hate down to their children? The answer is in the millions, apparently, as we keep hearing stories about innocent Black people being killed by cops and yet still refuse to take meaningful action as a society to prevent it.

Tyre Nichols, a young Black man, a photographer and a FedEx employee, was beaten by five Black cops during a traffic stop in Memphis on January 7 and died days later from his injuries. While we are outraged — as we are always outraged by state-sanctioned violence — we must acknowledge that the killing of Mr. Nichols by the police is as American as football or apple pie.

It's a tradition, as I will explain to my child. I will be teaching my daughter to stay as far away from police officers as possible. Don't call them, don't rely on them, don't acknowledge them. The people in our household do not negotiate with terrorists. That's my version of The Talk. 

The Talk is a set of instructions for dealing with the police that Black parents give to their Black children, like "always comply" and "keep your hands in sight." And no matter what, always — always — be respectful. Even if they disrespect you at the highest level, you have to be on your best behavior. Turn the other cheek. Be Dr. King.

I never really got The Talk, thank God. Instead, my dad would make jokes like, "When the cops looking for me I go play hide and seek! Come catch me, bastard!" He believed that it was better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Dad never told me to comply or negotiate with uniformed terrorists. He told me cops were clowns for the most part, with fragile egos. "No one is more dangerous than a man with a fragile ego," he'd say.  

I'm going to attempt to explain those egos and how they fit into this system to my daughter every year as she grows older and gains more understanding. But sometimes I wonder if it really matters. Do the lessons work? The Talk feels like such a crapshoot when the culture of violence we have upheld historically allows police officers to do what they want to Black people. 

Dad never told me to comply or negotiate with uniformed terrorists.

Tyre was also a father and the actions of those cops will forever have a negative impact on his child's life. He could have received all of The Talks in the world, and he is still not here. His death, captured on video, proves it doesn't really matter if you always comply or if you keep your hands in sight.

For those who may not be outraged by that — because a police officer never hurt you, or because you are a cop (one of the "good ones") or because you think this only happens to street thugs who don't comply, who deserve it — I encourage you to read the personal statement on Mr. Nichols' photography website. "I mostly do this stuff for fun but i enjoy it very much," he wrote. "Photography helps me look at the world in a more creative way. It expresses me in ways i cannot write down for people. ... My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what i am seeing through my eye and out through my lens." The people we turn into hashtags after they are killed are still people with dreams and goals and ambitions and people who loved them. Tyre was surrounded by love.

Nichols was 6-feet, 3 inches tall but weighed only about 150 pounds, due to his Crohn's disease. This paper-thin man was tasered, pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and beaten so badly by police officers that he died of his injuries, after being stopped for allegedly reckless driving. That was his death sentence. He wasn't a drug kingpin waving an automatic weapon at a crowd of people, or out snatching purses from elderly women. He was just driving. The video of his horrific lynching was recently released by Memphis authorities. It's all over the Internet, but I highly recommend that you not watch it. Watching the video will not bring Mr. Nichols back, but it will create new trauma, recycling the violence that poisoned those officers enough to make them think beating a handcuffed person — or any person — is justifiable. 

While I believe the indicted cops — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — are equally disgusting as individuals, the culture that keeps creating officers like them is much worse. It's a culture that prides itself on beating, destroying and even killing Black lives. I want to be extremely clear: I am not making excuses for the officers. But even if they ended up serving 750 years under a jail, it wouldn't bring Mr. Nichols back. And it would not stop us from passing down the culture of accepted police violence toward Black people to our children.

The five cops who have been arrested for killing Mr. Nichols were a part of Memphis PD's special SCORPION unit, which was created to combat violent crime. (I'm sure targeting an artist who doubled as a FedEx employee needed to be a top priority.) The unit has since been dismantled, which is normal after viral killings that receive national attention. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis condemned the actions of the officers quickly and fired them. They face second-degree murder charges, among others. Indictments for cops are rare in these incidents, so rare we have to acknowledge it when we talk to our kids about how the system functions. It normally doesn't work toward justice, but this time it's moving efficiently. Are we experiencing change? 

At the same time, the question of whether these particular cops were fired so quickly because they are Black is spreading. It's an understandable complaint. But in this case, we need to focus on how quickly the officers were charged, and also wait to see if they will be convicted. We saw Baltimore officers quickly charged in the death of Freddie Gray, after all, and three of those six officers were Black. Those cops are all free now. They were never really held accountable. So there's that. Police culture, including our inability to hold police officers accountable, is killing us. Black people like me who grew up in neighborhoods policed by Black officers understand they are often as just terrible as the white cops. So while we do want all crooked cops to be brought to justice, the focus needs to be on the crooked system that too often demonizes people who look like Mr. Nichols. 

How many more hashtags will it take before we nix the "bad apple" narrative? Before we stop saying stupid things like "cops need better training" and really do something to honor victims like Mr. Nichols — and Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Rekia Boyd, and the long list of Black names who died because of reckless law enforcement violence? 

How long before our governments, before these police departments all over the country, before those dirty police unions, and all of the perpetrators involved admit to the structural racism in their organizations? To their own racism and self-hate? Before they acknowledge the way they terrorize Black communities, and then beg to make amends for the harm that they have done, and will continue to do? Only then will we be able to begin the work to stop violence against innocent Black people and from that poison being passed down to our children. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Commentary Parenting Police Brutality Racism Tyre Nichols