George Washington University sophomore Tyler Bray wasn’t necessarily shocked to learn of Tyre Nichols’ death when it happened. In fact, seeing a Black man die at the hands of law enforcement has been so repetitive throughout his life that he felt almost numb to the initial news.
Then he saw the video footage from Jan. 7 of the 29-year-old FedEx driver being brutally beaten by five members of the Memphis Police Department. They pulled him over for a traffic stop just 80 yards from his mother’s home. Released to the public on Friday—17 days after Nichols died in the hospital—the bodycam video quickly turned Bray’s numbness to a gut punch.
“That could have been me,” said Bray, an international affairs major at GW. “That could have been my brother or uncle or any of my loved ones. So, I think it hurt just a little more.”
Growing up Black in Alabama, a state that bears the ugly history of Bloody Sunday, Bull Connor and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Bray was taught since childhood to operate with an extra level of caution when it came to interacting with law enforcement. So much so that shortly after obtaining his driver’s license, he received a dashboard camera for Christmas—a tool that he could use while driving in case he encountered any issues should he be stopped by police.
Nichols’ death was the latest in a long line of violence at the hands of police claiming the lives of civilians, a disproportionate number of them Black, including Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. On behalf of the university, President Mark S. Wrighton strongly condemned all acts of violence and acknowledged the pain members of the university community may be experiencing.
“As an institution of higher learning, our university has an important role in addressing racial injustices and creating safer communities for all,” Wrighton said in a message to the university. “I urge our community to share our support for one another as we process these recent events.”
Need for Redefining Police Role, Fostering Dialogue
Nichols’ death shines light on law enforcement as a whole, as the five police officers, who have since been fired and arrested, are Black. A sixth officer, who is white, was "relieved of duty" by the department on Monday. According to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative from news sources, government reports and advocacy groups, U.S. police kill civilians at much higher rates than police in other countries with similar GDPs.
“I think the question is that is this the way too many police and others treat people who they perceive as powerless?” said Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and Professor of History and Sociology Robert J. Cottrol. “The officers involved seemed to think that they could do what they did with impunity, and that's the issue. You’ve got to figure out how members are being empowered by their badge or office.”
George Washington University Police Chief James Tate also condemned the actions of the Memphis police officers.
“I was both angered and disgusted by the unlawful actions of police, as well as their failure to render aid after Mr. Nichols was in custody,” Tate said. “What we saw in the video goes against our values and training. Police departments must be aggressive about identifying bad policing practices early and eventually ending an officer’s employment before anything close to this happens again.”
Cottrol said it’s not out of the question that the officers—currently charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault—could ultimately face first-degree murder charges. “Very often I think it ends up being a fine line and a judgment call on the part of the prosecutor,” he said.
Gianna Cook, a senior English major who is also the president of the Black Student Union, was taught the importance of Miranda rights on a school trip in Harlem when she was just 6 years old. Her teachers thought it was that important and necessary that children who still had baby teeth start learning what to do should police ever stop them.
She acknowledged that there’s a divide between citizens, especially those in communities more affected by violence and police brutality, and police institutions. She hopes that energy from protests around police brutality and violence over the years, especially the sheer volume following Floyd’s murder in 2020, can ignite bridging that gap.
“I think there's always going to be perpetuated forces regardless of who's wearing the badge unless we make an active choice to combat these narratives of violence,” Cook said.
Kayla Laws, president of the GW chapter of the NAACP and secretary for the GW chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, believes Nichols’ death underscores the need to teach history and specifically Black history in an effort to better understand how violence and brutality are embedded in the very institutions of policing and law enforcement. This, she said, can help form those narratives moving forward.
For example, the officers who beat and ultimately killed Nichols belonged to the Memphis Police Department’s now-disbanded SCORPION Unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. But as Laws, a junior Africana Studies and English double-major points out, people may be afraid to call the police in their own neighborhood or town given the historical context of law enforcement interactions within their demographics. Having nuanced conversations about the role and perception of the police across communities is vital to progress, she said.
“The more we talk about these issues, the better we will get as a society, as a nation and as a world,” Laws said.
“Being able to have different people from campus to connect with is essential,” said Student Association President Christian Zidouemba. “Whenever there is an issue, we can come together as an institution and as a community overall.”
GW provides support for community members affected by Nichols’ killing. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers safe, non-judgmental and confidential counseling to students who are seeking it. Its Real Talk service is a drop-in space for Black students, Indigenous students and students of color to come together to discuss and process shared experiences, receive support and share information.
University resources are also available through the following:
For staff and faculty:
Through your benefits, you have access to the GW Employee Assistance Program for free, 24/7 confidential counseling for any emotional health concerns as well as Headspace, an app that provides mindfulness support. Employees enrolled in our medical plans also have access to behavioral health benefits as well as telemental health support.