Congress must act to pass national police reform, Vice President Kamala Harris told mourners at the Wednesday funeral of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten bloody by Memphis police officers last month.
Harris’ trip to the Southern city comes five days after Memphis officials released nearly one hour of videos showing officers punching and kicking Nichols after a traffic stop. Nichols died at a local hospital three days later.
Five officers shown in the videos — Justin Smith, Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills Jr., Demetrius Haley and Emmitt Martin III, all of whom are Black— have been fired from the Memphis Police Department and charged with second-degree murder. They face up to 60 years in prison if convicted.
At the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, Harris spoke on stage at the request of the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“We are here to celebrate the life of Tyre Nichols,” Harris said. Harris praised the “extraordinary” strength, courage and grace of Nichols’ mother and stepfather, RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells.
“Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God when they hold that child, that that body and that life will be safe,” she said. “Yet, we have a mother and a father who mourn the life of a young man who should be here today.”
The beating of Nichols “was not in pursuit of public safety,” Harris said.
The vice president called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the bill in the wake of Floyd’s murder in 2020. As a senator, Harris co-sponsored the bill with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Negotiations between Democratic and Republican senators collapsed over a range of issues, including qualified immunity, a legal principle that generally shields police from personal liability.
“As vice president of the United States, we demand that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — Joe Biden will sign it,” Harris said. “And, we should not delay, and we will not be denied. It is nonnegotiable.”
Harris sat next to Nichols’ mother and stepfather during the funeral service.
When most of the mourners were seated, African drummers shuffled down the aisle, leading a procession that included Sharpton, Nichols’ mother and civil rights attorney Ben Crump. As the service began, images of Nichols skateboarding and taking selfies flashed on giant TV screens hanging behind the stage.
Seated in the crowd were family members of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and other Americans killed by police.
The Rev. J. Lawrence Turner, the church’s pastor, said he hoped that Nichols’ death would galvanize the movement for racial justice.
Turner said he prayed that Nichols’ killing would ensure the Black Lives Matter hashtag gets “canceled” and is no longer necessary.
It was disturbing that Black police officers in a city with such a rich history of civil rights activism would betray their roots, Sharpton said.
“Five Black men that wouldn’t have had a job in the Police Department; wouldn’t have been thought of being in an elite police squad,” Sharpton said. “There’s nothing more insulting and offensive for those of us who fought to open doors.
“You didn’t get on the Police Department by yourself,” Sharpton continued. “The police chief did not get there by herself. People had to march, and some of them lost their lives, for you to get there. How dare you?
“You wanna be a tough guy? Well, let’s get rid of qualified immunity and see if you use the same manners on the white side of town as you do on the Black side,” Sharpton said, to rousing applause.
Nichols’ cries for his mother, like George Floyd’s, resonated with Black men everywhere, Sharpton said.
“The only thing between you and disaster was your mother, to understand what calling for your mother means,” Sharpton said. “All he wanted to do is get home.”
A White House official said that Harris expressed her condolences in a Tuesday morning phone call with Nichols’ mother and stepfather, who invited the vice president to the funeral.
Harris was joined by two other senior White House advisors — former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
President Biden also spoke with Nichols’ mother and stepfather Tuesday to express his and First Lady Jill Biden’s condolences, according to a White House official.
Investigations into Nichols’ death are ongoing. The officers who have been charged with Nichols’ murder were members of the “Scorpion unit,” a special group focused on high-crime neighborhoods. On Saturday, Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis announced she would dissolve the unit.
On Monday, the Memphis Police Department said that it had suspended two officers in addition to the five it fired. The city also fired two emergency medical technicians who can be seen in the videos not providing care to Nichols, who was visibly injured, for several minutes.
Logan reported from Washington and Jany from Memphis, Tenn.