I didn’t watch the video footage of Memphis police fatally beating Tyre Nichols, and I won’t.
But like most everyone else on social media, I knew exactly when the footage was coming because city officials in my hometown of Memphis announced they were releasing it on the evening of January 27, some three weeks after five officers had punched, kicked, and billy clubbed the life out of Nichols—a young father, a taxpayer killed by municipal employees. Since the arrest of the officers, it had been impossible to escape the arc of the horrific story—the life of a vibrant, artistic, skateboard-loving young Black man extinguished brutally because a traffic stop became a death sentence. He could’ve been my son, nephew, or brother. And in a sense, he was.
In the days leading up to the video’s release, I tried to focus on Nichols’s life and not its gruesome ending. I watched and shared footage of him practicing skateboarding tricks and pictures the aspiring photographer snapped around Memphis, a city I left many years ago. Grief would sneak up on me with increasing intensity as if my soul was counting the hours until the video’s release, even if my mind refused to do so. I once caught myself before one of these squalls hit as my 15-year-old walked into my room. I could tell by his face that he saw the pain in mine. He said nothing, and I followed suit. What was there to say in that moment?
I came of age in the era of the police beating video, awash in footage and blow-by-blow analysis beginning with what happened to Rodney King in 1991. I wasn’t old enough to drive, but I was old enough to feel outraged. More cases inexorably followed as smartphones, dashcams, and bodycams documented cruelty beyond comprehension, the lens’s ubiquitous and merciless eye capturing it all like lynching postcards of the digital age. As numerous as these incidents were, they were a grim suggestion of the problem’s massive contours, hulking outside public view beneath opaque waters.
I turned all this over in my mind as the nation, if not the world, awaited the grisly Nichols footage with anticipation that, at times, evoked a blockbuster film or sporting event. The officers’ bodycams captured much of what happened, documentation they apparently treated with chilling disregard. The most comprehensive view, I’m told, came from a security camera a few blocks from his home. It had been installed by the Memphis Police Department in the interest of public safety, and plenty are around the city. It’s called SkyCop. Certainly, the video will be key to bringing these officers—five of whom face second-degree murder and other charges, including kidnapping —to justice. Nichols’s family members urged its release, seeking transparency since law enforcement agencies all too often bury facts and evidence. That the city released it relatively quickly rather than drag out the process is a good thing.
And yet, whether I—a private citizen, a Black woman, and the mother of three Black sons—should watch the video is a different matter altogether.
There’s a well-worn adage: Seeing is believing. But as I recently heard, if you see, you don’t need to believe; the facts are in front of you. When it comes to police killing citizens, I don’t need to see. I don’t merely believe. I know. And that isn’t only because I, like much of the country, have seen this happen so many times.
My father, Marrell “Mac” McCollough, was a Black officer in the Memphis Police Department whose presence in another horrific image of violence—the famous photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination—shaped our lives in ways I’m still discovering. This is the picture taken from the Lorraine Motel as King’s entourage points to where the gun was fired. In the image, Dad kneels over King, rendering first aid during a moment of senseless bloodshed that was also a historical hinge. Though the photo will be 55 years old in April, it still holds the power to shock, grieve, and enrage. The scene is ingrained in our national psyche.
In interviewing Dad for a book about how he came to be in that image and the fallout for him personally, I learned about his experiences as one of the few Black officers on the force. He told me about officers having to ask themselves whether they would wind up without a partner to “ride with” if they objected to something they thought was wrong. He mentioned a veteran Black officer—one of the department’s first—who bragged about doling out beatings in Black neighborhoods (the only areas where he was allowed to make arrests).
Much has changed in the decades since, but not nearly enough. We have enough grainy but painfully clear images to keep us watching 24 hours a day. But at what point do citizens become mere spectators or even consumers of violence? At what point do grief and rage become like birds that forever circle without a place to land? In recent days Nancy Pelosi said she had “no intention of watching the deadly assault” on her husband, Paul. Prince Harry shared that in a desperate effort to find out more about how his mother, Princess Diana, died in a Paris car crash, he examined photos from the investigation but was grateful that he was dissuaded from looking at the most lurid ones. Bearing witness, renewing our humanity, doesn’t require watching every minute, any minute, of time-stamped crime footage.
I recognize the irony of writing a book centered around perhaps the most famous crime scene photo in American history while avoiding the Nichols video. But my intention is not to relive the slaying but to draw the eye to an overlooked story of my father and the worlds in which he uncomfortably dwelled. Looking anew at King’s assassination is not the same as the fetishization of violence that can come from these videos.
If history has shown us anything, it’s that we can’t film our way out of a culture that views community members as adversaries and too often polices rather than protects. Videos can tell us what happened but do not offer a path forward. I don’t need to see more brutality; I need to see evidence of real change.
To bear witness without more is too much.