Tyre Nichols, who was described by friends as joyful and lovable, was beaten by Black police during a traffic stop in Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 7, 2023; he succumbed to his injuries three days later.

Graphic video showing the last lucid moments of Tyre Nichols was recently released by the Memphis Police Department. This highly anticipated video is positive from the perspective of transparency and accountability – but it is also very traumatic.

I made the personal decision not to watch it. In truth, I’m tired.

I’m tired of seeing video after video of unarmed Black folks pleading for their lives before being killed. I am tired of feeling the pain of hearing the last words of a grown man, crying for his mother as he leaves this Earth. It is incredibly emotionally and mentally destructive to keep watching them.

Psychologists and therapists have connected feelings of grief, sadness, and pain after viewing this kind of footage to a concept called “linked fate“ – the feeling that what happens to individuals in one’s group may indelibly shape one’s own life. This means that seeing someone going through a horrible trauma because they look like you has a harmful impact on the mental health of your entire community.

There is an argument for those who feel that they need to bear witness by watching as a way of honoring the person’s death, and being centered in the greater movement around policing, accountability and reform. However, there is room for everyone in the social justice movement. We all do not have to support this work in the same exact way.

Protecting my peace in this moment is healthier for me so that I can have the clarity of mind to continue to fight and raise awareness, rather than be depressed and having to process what I witnessed. To be clear, I do intend to watch the video before providing any legal commentary on the trial, which will likely occur within the next two years.

We cannot underestimate the emotional damage these types of videos cause. Watching the level of violence that is heaped upon another person who is a member of a marginalized population can be overwhelming and cause viewers to operate from a place of fear. You become afraid to send your loved ones out to the store or to the park, to allow them to go jogging or do anything out in the world, because you are afraid that one encounter with the wrong member of law enforcement will lead you to having to bury them.

The breathless anticipation that all news outlets exhibited before the video’s release was also disturbing. The number of alerts that popped up, taking different angles about what the public will see in this video came fast and furious. It almost harkens back to the time when lynchings were advertised in the paper, and white families would pack a picnic basket, bring their children and be entertained by a Black person being brutally murdered.

There are some who watch that video to further their own agenda – racists who take pleasure in the brutalization of Black bodies or apologists who watch to simply say “See? You asked for diversity – but Black cops are just as bad! Racism is not the problem!”

The reality is much more nuanced. Representation absolutely matters, but the representation must be reflective of the community being represented. In this instance, it is clear that these officers opted to “bleed blue“ and not see the humanity in this young man who looked like them. To be clear, if Nichols had been white, the story would not have ended the same way. While this still may be surprising to some, there is historical precedence for this.

During slavery, white plantation owners would sometimes designate an enslaved Black person to serve as an overseer (known as a “driver”), who was often much more brutal than their white counterpart. The proximity to power allowed them to think of themselves as separate – and above the folks who looked like them. As with Clarence Thomas, having a person that looks like you in a position of power does not automatically ensure justice.

Each person must decide what makes sense for themselves in the moment. No one should feel pressured to watch the end of someone’s life. After years of being a homicide prosecutor, you develop a tolerance to violence so that you can function in your job. This comes at a great personal and mental cost. The danger for all of us in consuming too many of these videos is that we develop a collective immunity to this kind of abuse, and it becomes an everyday thing – much like mass shootings in the United States. We cannot allow ourselves to become numb.

Melba Pearson, Esq.

Melba Pearson, Esq.

We now have another opportunity to obtain meaningful police reform because of this horrible murder; we need to channel our energies into getting justice with passage of a policing bill in Congress that contains meaningful elements, including strong mental health provisions, and penalties for organizations that do not root out “bad apples.”

Protect your peace so that you can raise your voice.

Melba Pearson is an attorney specializing in civil rights and criminal justice policy. She is the president of the National Black Prosecutors Association Foundation and co-chair of the American Bar Association Prosecution Function Committee.