MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Family and friends of Tyre Nichols were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and the Rev. Al Sharpton for a funeral Wednesday that was expected to draw thousands in the wake of the brutal police beating of a 29-year-old father and avid skateboarder.
His mother, RowVaughn Wells, thanked local activists for their support and thanked the family’s lawyers and police for acting swiftly. Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said the family will fight for justice not only for his stepson but for others who have died in police custody.
“Tyre was a beautiful person, and for this to happen to him was just unimaginable,” RowVaughn Wells said.
Harris spoke briefly during the service, acknowledging Nichols’ family. She called his death, which came three days after he was beaten by Memphis police officers who have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder, a “violent act” that “was not in the interest of keeping the public safe.”
“Was he not also entitled to the right to be safe?” Harris said, speaking at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis.
The service, which was delayed because of weather and travel interruptions, began Wednesday with a 70-person choir singing “Strength Like No Other” and remarks from the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner, who called Nichols “a good person, a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being.”
“We have come with heavy hearts that can only be healed by the grace of God, full transparency, accountability and comprehensive legislative reform,” Turner said.
Mourners were asked to read Nichols’ obituary during a photo slideshow that included images of Nichols, who was beaten for three minutes after a traffic stop and foot chase on Jan. 7, according to body-worn and utility pole camera footage released by the Memphis Police Department. The footage shows the officers pepper-spraying, kicking and punching Nichols while he was restrained, bashing him with a baton and shooting him with a stun gun.
After the beating, Nichols was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days later. He suffered “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to an autopsy commissioned by his family.
Sharpton, founder and president of the civil rights organization National Action Network, acknowledged that Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, were at the service before he invited Harris to speak.
“They know what it is to sit at a funeral like this,” Sharpton said.
Harris called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as Nichols’ mother wept and applauded. That bill failed to pass in the Senate in 2021.
“You have been extraordinary in terms of your strength, your courage and your grace, and we mourn with you, and the people of our country mourn with you,” Harris said to Nichols’ family.
Sharpton delivered the eulogy at the request of Nichols’ family. Sharpton said Nichols’ death is personal to him in part because the officers charged in his death are Black. The five officers were charged with second-degree murder, among other related charges, and have been released on bail ranging from $250,000 to $350,000.
“People had to march and go to jail and some lost their lives to open the doors for you, and how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?” Sharpton said.
Sharpton then invited family attorney Ben Crump to deliver a call to action and Nichols’ siblings and parents to share their memories of him.
Keyana Dixon said she was “completely heartbroken” by her brother’s death.
“On the night of Jan. 7, my brother was robbed of his life, his passions and his talents, but not his light,” Dixon said. “I see the world showing him love and fighting for his justice, but all I want is my baby brother back.”
The swift firing of and charges against the police officers should be the blueprint, no matter the race of the officer involved in alleged police brutality, Crump said. Nichols’ legacy “will be one of equal justice,” Crump said.
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Nichols’ death has sparked mostly peaceful protests around the country and renewed discussions around federal legislation to overhaul policing and debates over whether there is a possibility for systemic change.
The Memphis Fire Department has also fired three employees for failing to provide Nichols with adequate medical aid after arriving at the scene. Authorities announced Monday that two other officers have been relieved of their duties.
The duty of officers to provide medical care was a key factor in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted and sentenced to 22½ years in prison for the murder of George Floyd.
Federal investigators have opened a civil rights investigation, and the Memphis Police Department permanently disbanded the specialized street unit the officers belonged to, which is known by the acronym SCORPION.
Nichols’ parents are set to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next week after being invited by the Congressional Black Caucus, who are looking to meet with the president to push for changes in policing.
Opinion:Will Tyre Nichols’ death bring police reform? Police unions stand in the way of change.
Our View:Police should stop making minor traffic stops that too often turn into major tragedies
Contributing: Laura Testino, Micaela A Watts, Gina Butkovich and Lucas Finton, Memphis Commercial Appeal