By Aaron Morrison and Adrian Sainz
Tyre Nichols’ family and friends gathered Wednesday for a funeral that blended a celebration of his life with outrage over the brutal beating he endured at the hands of Memphis police and heated calls for police reform.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Vice President Kamala Harris both delivered impassioned speeches calling on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a broad package of police reforms that includes a national registry for police officers disciplined for misconduct, a ban on no-knock warrants and other measures.
Harris said the beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, by five Black police officers was a violent act that went against the stated mission of police to ensure public safety.
“It was not in the interest of keeping the public safe, because one must ask, was not it in the interest of keeping the public safe that Tyre Nichols would be with us today? Was he not also entitled to the right to be safe? So when we talk about public safety, let us understand what it means in its truest form. Tyre Nichols should have been safe,” she said.
Vice President Kamala Harris sits with RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells during the funeral service for Wells' son, Tyre Nichols, at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)
Sharpton said the officers who beat Nichols might have acted differently if there was real accountability for their actions. He also said he believes that if Nichols had been white, “you wouldn't have beat him like that.”
“We understand that there are concerns about public safety. We understand that there are needs that deal with crime,” Sharpton said.
“But you don’t fight crime by becoming criminals yourself. You don’t stand up to thugs in the street becoming thugs yourself. You don’t fight gangs by becoming five armed men against an unarmed man. That ain’t the police. That’s punks,” he said, to rousing applause from the crowd.
The Rev. J. Lawrence Turner called Nichols “a good person, a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being” who was gone too soon and "denied his rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, denied the dignity of his humanity, denied the right to see the sun set another day, to embrace his mother, hang out with his friends, hold his child, and the right to grow old.”
“As we celebrate Tyre’s life and comfort this family, we serve notice to this nation that the rerun of this episode that makes Black lives hashtags has been canceled and will not be renewed for another season,” Turner said. “We have come and we shall overcome.”
Tiffany Rachal, the mother of Jalen Randle, who was fatally shot by a Houston police officer in 2022, sang a rendition of the classic gospel standard “Total Praise” to rousing applause from the congregation and Nichols’ family.
Mourners arrive to the funeral service for Tyre Nichols, at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. Nichols was beaten by Memphis police officers, and later died from his injuries. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
“All of the mothers all over the world need to come together, need to come together to stop all of this," Rachal said.
Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, fought back tears as she spoke of her son.
“The only thing that’s keeping me going is that I truly believe that my son was sent here on assignment from God. And I guess now his assignment is done. He’s gone home," she said.
She also urged Congress to pass the law named after George Floyd. Members of his family and others who have been killed by police attended the funeral, including Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean and Eric Garner.
“We need to take some action because there should be no other child that should suffer the way my son — and all the other parents here have lost their children — we need to get that bill passed,” Wells said. "Because if we don’t, that blood — the next child that dies, that blood is going to be on their hands.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Nichols' family, referred to the graphic video showing the officers punching, kicking and beating Nichols, even after he lay helpless on the ground.
“Why couldn’t they see the humanity in Tyre?” he asked.
In the three weeks since Nichols' death, five police officers were fired and charged with murder. Their specialized unit was disbanded. Two more officers have been suspended. Two Memphis Fire Department emergency medical workers and a lieutenant were also fired. And more discipline could be coming.
But Wednesday was about Nichols, a skateboarder and amateur photographer who worked making boxes at FedEx, made friends during morning visits to Starbucks and always greeted his mother and stepfather when he returned home with a sunny, “Hello, parents!”
Nichols was the baby of their family, born 11 years after his closest siblings. He had a 4-year-old son and worked hard to better himself as a father, his family said.
Nichols grew up in Sacramento, California, and loved the San Francisco 49ers. He came to Memphis just before the coronavirus pandemic and got stuck. But he was fine with it because he was with his mother, RowVaughn Wells, and they were incredibly close, she said. He even had her name tattooed on his arm.
Friends at a memorial service last week described him as joyful and kind, quick with a smile, often silly.
“This man walked into a room, and everyone loved him,” said Angelina Paxton, a friend who traveled to Memphis from California for the memorial service.
The beating of Nichols happened after police stopped him for an alleged traffic violation Jan. 7. Video released after pressure from Nichols’ family shows officers holding him down and repeatedly punching him, kicking him and striking with him batons as he screamed for his mother.
Nichols’ death was the latest in a string of early accounts by police about their use of force that were later shown to have minimized or omitted mention of violent encounters.
AP reporters Travis Loller and Jonathan Mattise contributed from Nashville, Tenn.
UPDATES: With remarks from Nichols' mother.