In Tyre Nichols’ neighborhood, Black residents fear police
MEMPHIS >> In a terrible way, the death of Tyre Nichols brings vindication to members of the Black community in Memphis who live in constant fear of the police.
Often, before, people didn’t believe them when told how bad it is.
The fatal beating of Nichols, 29, by five police officers tells the story many residents know by heart: that any encounter, including traffic stops, can be deadly if you’re Black.
Examples abound of Black residents, primarily young men, targeted by police. Some are in official reports. Anyone you talk to has a story. Even casual discussions in a coffee shop net multiple examples.
A homeowner who called the police because a young man who had been shot was on his front porch. The responding officers ignored the gunshot victim and entered the caller’s home. The caller was slammed to the ground and a chemical agent used on him as he was subdued. The officers then lied about the circumstances, but there was video.
A woman who lives in a “safe” northeast Memphis neighborhood yet says her 18-year-old son was hogtied and pepper-sprayed by police several years ago —while she was with him. He became agitated after police arrived on the scene while he picked up his child from a girlfriend, triggering a mental health crisis, she said.
In police sweeps, unmarked cars roll into neighborhoods and armed plainclothes officers jump out, rushing traffic violators and issuing commands. The result is a community in fear, where people text, call and use social media to caution each other to stay inside or avoid the area when police operations are underway.
“There’s one type of law enforcement that keeps people safe, and then there’s a type of law enforcement that keeps people in check,” said Joshua Adams, 29, who grew up in south Memphis’ Whitehaven, home to Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion, now a mostly Black neighborhood.
If you are in the wrong neighborhood “it really doesn’t matter whether you’re part of the violence or not,” said Adams. “I’m less likely to be shot in a gang conflict than I am to be shot by police.”
Chase Madkins was about a block from his mother’s Evergreen neighborhood home just east of downtown Memphis dropping off his 12-yearold nephew when the blue lights of an unmarked police car flashed behind him.
Within seconds the officer ordered him out of the car and told him he made an illegal turn, and his license plate was not properly displayed because it was bent at the corner.
Madkins said the officer, dressed in tactical gear with his face covered and no visible identification, refused to give his badge number, unless he consented to a weapon search of the car.
Madkins, 34, consented, but called an activist friend to get to the scene.
“I had to remind myself, ‘Chase, this is how people get murdered, in a traffic stop,’” he said. To this day he does not know who the officer was.
The random stops are meant to terrorize, said Hunter Demster, organizer for Decarcerate Memphis. He’s the one Madkins called when he was stopped in November.
“They go into these poor Black communities and they do mass pullover operations, terrifying everybody in that community,” Demster said. Some people might think the officers are looking for murderers or people accused of heinous crimes, or have stacks of warrants for violent criminals, he said, but “that is not the case.”
People want more police, Demster said, but “what they’re really trying to say is we want more detectives looking for violent criminals.”
Marcus Hopson, 54, a longtime resident and barber in the neighborhood, said the sweeps remind him of how in the early 1990s New York focused on nuisance crimes and zero tolerance and that morphed into stop-and-frisk.
“It didn’t work then. It’s not going to work now,” said Hopson, who now splits time with a home in Mississippi. “You are terrorizing the neighborhoods.”