Video captures brutal beating of Tire Nichols

Before moving to Memphis — before being brutally beaten by police officers there on a Saturday night — Tire Nichols lived in California, in the Sacramento area, where he socialized with a crowd of skateboarders.

They were a bunch of teenage mavericks. “Our group of friends, we were a bunch of little rebels,” said Angelina Paxton, one of Mr. Nichols’ best friends in Sacramento. But Mr. Nichols, she said, was usually the voice that warned them of confrontation and serious trouble.

“At least he was the one in the back who said, ‘Come on, guys,'” recalled Ms. Paxton himself. “He was cold. He was peaceful. He was relaxed.”

Mr. Nichols, she also said, as a black man was wary of the police. His social media posts show that he identified with the Black Lives Matter movement and harbored a distrust of the ruling government and economic systems.

And yet, said Mrs. Paxton, Mr. Nichols had recently considered becoming a police officer.

“He was talking about how that might be the easiest way to change things in the system — by becoming the system,” she said.

Nichols, 29, died on January 10 in a Memphis hospital, three days after he was apprehended for reckless driving. He had fled the officers on foot and apparently ran to his mother’s and stepfather’s home, where he had lived.

“My son was just trying to go home,” his mother, RowVaughn Wells, said at a news conference earlier this week. “He was two minutes from the house when they killed him.”

Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Mr. Nichols’ traumatic death shook Memphis and forced the capital of old Southern cotton belt to account for a nightmare scenario that doesn’t fit neatly into most stories of racial violence: all five officers, who have been fired and charged with crimes, including manslaughter, are black. So does Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis, who this week called the officers’ actions “heinous, reckless and inhumane.”

Mr. Nichols’ life story also ran counter to ancient accounts of African-American migration patterns. Decades ago, black people left the former Confederate states in droves for places like California in search of opportunity and the hope of greater freedom.

But for Mr. Nichols, it was California, and its high cost of living, that was beginning to feel oppressive. In early 2020, Ms. Paxton said, he headed to Tennessee to find a way to make ends meet.New Great Migrationof black Americans back to the states of the old Confederacy.

“At least everything here is affordable,” Mr. Nichols wrote in a 2021 Facebook post. “Good jobs with decent pay. Cheaper registration fees. Cigarettes that don’t cost $10 a pack lol.

Ms Paxton, 28, met Mr Nichols when they were teenagers. They were both involved in a California youth organization called Flipt 180. “They were trying to give teens an outlet that wasn’t on the street,” she said.

She remembered how she first bonded with him in a car on their way to a church event. She noticed that they were both wearing shocking shades of lime green. She found him gentle, but hard to pin down. When he DJed for his friends, he played everything: country music, the rappers Lupe Fiasco and Tupac, reggae.

As they grew closer, Mrs. Paxton discovered that her friend’s situation was complicated. He lived with his father in Sacramento, but the father was terminally ill and would die before Mr. Nichols finished high school. His mother was 1,800 miles away in Memphis. Skateboarding offered a way out.

“He went through a lot,” said Ms. Paxton. “When he skated, it was like he wasn’t worried anymore. It was like nothing mattered more than when he pulled that trick, you know?

Sometime after his father died, Mr. Nichols moved in with the family of a close friend. After high school, Ms. Paxton said, he bounced from job to job. He had a son with a woman with whom he had a relationship for a while. The pressure to move up the economic ladder increased.

At one point, Mrs. Paxton said, “he spent most of his time trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life.”

His move to Memphis in 2020 roughly coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns. He posted online about missing California, his old friends, and his son: On the child’s fourth birthday, Mr. Nichols bought cupcakes in his honor, but acknowledged that he would eat them himself.

But on other occasions, he celebrated escaping to Tennessee.

“He felt the creator’s presence in Memphis more than ever before,” Ms. Paxton said. “I mean, the nature, the people are nice – it’s just a whole different world.”

Mr. Nichols was an avid amateur photographer and his love for his new home was reflected in his own Wix page, where he posted images of blues clubs, local landmarks, and the sun setting over the Mississippi River. “He liked to watch the sunset and take pictures,” his mother said at a press conference in Memphis on Friday. “That was his thing.”

His embrace of Tennessee was also evident in his Facebook posts. In August 2021, he posted a video of himself in a plaid shirt, ball cap, and mirrored sunglasses, dancing against a backdrop of farmland to Jason Aldean’s “Girl Like You.”

His other posts offered a glimpse into his passions and his politics. He posted about professional football and basketball. He wrote passionately about the plight of Indigenous peoples and the resilience of African Americans in the face of centuries of oppression. He denounced modern racism, political corruption and the power of elites. He embraced conspiracy theories about chemtrails, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the AIDS epidemic.

Credit…Brad J. Vest for The New York Times

In June 2020, the month after George Floyd’s murder, he posted a drawing based on a famous photo of Malcolm X peering out of a window, armed with a rifle. Below it was a caption, “Because I have a black son,” it read, followed by a drawing of a heart. That same month, Mr Nichols wrote in a separate message that he had seen “many more officers” who had decided to “kneel with all the demonstrators” and walk beside them “without clubs and high-powered weapons”.

“Humanity is SLOWLY being restored!” He wrote.

Eventually, his stepfather, Rodney Wells, helped him get a job at FedEx. Headquartered in Memphis, the company has long been seen as a critical driver of economic maintenance and mobility for Black residents across the economic spectrum. “Those jobs are like post office jobs back in the day,” said state representative Joe Towns Jr., who represents part of Memphis. “Everyone wants one.”

He worked the evening shift and would come home around 7 p.m. with his stepfather, who worked the same shift, when his mother had to cook at home. Ms. Paxton said Mr. Nichols had specific goals: to earn enough to buy a car and a house, and be able to fly his son over to visit. On weekends he would skate and take pictures.

On the Saturday night he was beaten, his mother had planned to cook him sesame chicken, a favorite. When police stopped him, she said, he was driving back from Shelby Farms, a 4,500-acre park in the heart of Memphis, where he had probably admired the sunset.

According to an initial police statement, the officers apprehended him at 8:30 p.m. and a confrontation ensued. He fled, but they chased him and seized him. The statement made no mention of the beating, but did mention that he complained of shortness of breath. An ambulance arrived and took him to hospital in what police described as “critical condition”.

At a press conference on Monday, Ms Wells acknowledged that it seemed every mother in her position would describe their child as good. “But my son, he was actually a good kid,” she said. Ben Crump, a lawyer for the family, noted that Mr. Nichols suffered from Crohn’s disease and was almost impossibly slim as a result: six feet and 145 pounds.

On Tuesday, one of Mr. Nichols’ three surviving siblings, Jamal Dupree, posted on Facebook a photo of Mr. Nichols lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his mouth, his face swollen and bruised and resting on a bloodied pillow.

In a later post, Mr. Dupree addressed his younger brother directly: “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you,” it read.

It was accompanied by a video shot from above the cloud line, with a blazing sun on the horizon appearing to be rising or setting.

Rick Rojas and Susan C. Beachy reporting contributed.