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Tyre Nichols' death 'was more than police brutality. That was a lynching,' says Rev. Danté Stewart

Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols near the White House on Jan. 27, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols near the White House on Jan. 27, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Memphis has been mourning 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who died three days after police officers brutally beat him at a traffic stop on Jan. 7. Nichols’ funeral will be held Wednesday.

Protests erupted across the country following the senseless killing, including in Memphis, in the three weeks since. So far, six police officers have been suspended for their involvement in Nichols’ death, and five have been charged with second-degree murder. Body camera footage released last week shows officers giving Nichols’ impossible commands and kicking, punching and using a baton to beat him while he laid on the ground.

“I saw two officers kicking him the way we used to get burned and lynched,” writer and speaker Rev. Danté Stewart says. “They had no pity.”

4 questions with Rev. Danté Stewart about police brutality and Nichols’ murder

Did you watch the body camera footage?

“I believe vicarious suffering is a very real thing. We do not just suffer alone, but we see what other people go through and have to endure, and we feel that pain as well. But I also believe that vicarious love is a thing as well.

“I’ve chosen to watch because, in some way, I don’t think I need the video to feel the trauma, to feel the pain. But in some way, I personally have done it because I don’t want him in some spiritual way to have to endure that alone.

“For me, and I’m even getting emotional even thinking about it, I don’t want that to be the only eyes on him, the eyes of those officers who wanted to assault him.

“I want to be with him at every moment I possibly can, not just in that video, but also in the video of him skateboarded in a video of his mother saying, ‘That’s my baby,’ and even laughing, saying, ‘My baby said he wanted to be famous. I didn’t know he meant this.’ I don’t want them to go through it alone.”

Your father called you after seeing the body camera footage. How do you speak with older family members about this type of violence?

“I actually write about this in my book, ‘Shoutin’ in the Fire,’ where I talk to my grandmother about what it meant to live in America, in a place that was so drunk on nostalgia, at a time where people like her or people like my father were silent and abuse continually.

“My dad said, ‘it makes me so angry.’ But then the most telling part about his anger was this: He said that when he heard Tyre cry for his mama, it made him want to cry. And he just could not do it as a parent and doesn’t understand how any parent or any child or any person could see what we saw and hear what we heard and feel what we feel and not be moved to deep grief, sadness, and in some sense, rage.

“That’s what I felt in my father’s voice. Rage at the reality that he has to remember Rodney King, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and now Tyree Nichols.”

Why do you describe this killing as a lynching?

“That was more than police brutality. That was a lynching. They wanted to kill him because, in some sense, lynching is about the spectacle. It’s about what someone with power does to another human being to ride and rid them of every ounce of their dignity and put it in the public to show this is what we think about this person.

“When those in the past put Black people up on noose, it was a message to them: This is our estimation of your life, and much more, this is our hatred of your life. And when Tyre Nichols was beaten and the just immense disregard to him, it showed us in public once again the estimation of Black life, white racism and white supremacy.”

You write, “Just because Black people are present doesn’t mean anti-Blackness is absent.” Does systemic racism exist in policing that affects all officers?

“History tells the story that it doesn’t matter who has the badge. The badge has power that whiteness has given it in the world, whether one is able to stop a person because they believe that they are criminal or they believe they’re in the wrong place, or they believe that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. That is a power that has been given to them, that has been inherited from the inception of this nation.

“As a Black person, when I get the badge, or when I get the ball, my race is in some sense under the shadow and the covering of it. So it doesn’t matter who it is. It is about what policing has meant and has done to us and continues to do to us. So, yes, the historical record shows that no matter who they are or where they come from, policing does something to people in this country. We know it and we better deal with it.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.