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Memphis and the nation focus on another example of police violence


It's worth noting what is not the news this morning.


We do not have news that some people feared violence in response to police videos. Memphis authorities released four videos on Friday night. They show a traffic stop where police seized and beat Tyre Nichols. The 29-year-old later died. The nonviolent response allows us to focus on a different question - how to address the repeated police use of excessive force.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Michel Martin hosts weekends on All Things Considered. She's in Memphis. Michel, you got there the day after the footage was released. How are people feeling?

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Well, a range of emotions, as you might expect, A. Many people feel hurt and angry. Some people told us that they were ashamed that Memphis is in the national spotlight for this - Memphis, of course, being where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and, more recently, where there have been a number of really scary street crimes that have also made the national news. But what I, frankly, did not expect was the number of people who recounted similar, very frightening encounters with Memphis police. And I'm not just talking about demeaning language like being cursed at for very little reason, which is bad enough. We're talking about people who spoke of having their doors broken down by police who had the wrong address on a warrant. We're talking about family members being treated so roughly after being stopped for minor traffic issues that they needed medical treatment. It was really disturbing to hear how common an experience it was for many of the people we spoke with.

MARTÍNEZ: You also attended a church service. So where'd you wind up going?

MARTIN: Well, A, we visited an historic church with a majority Black congregation, Centenary United Methodist Church. A lot of people still travel quite a distance to attend, even if they've moved farther away. And the bishop was making a special visit there yesterday, so it was a big turnout there. And a lot of people told us that the killing of Tyre Nichols, as terrible as it was, is giving them the motivation to recommit to the kind of work they know needs to be done anyway. Here's Courtney Davis (ph). He's a lifelong congregant of this church. And he said police reform is only part of it.

COURTNEY DAVIS: We have to start at the root of the problem, and that's educational equality, financial opportunities, and start to create an environment for the citizens that are here and the ones that hadn't even made it to the earth yet.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. It sounds like Memphis is almost starting over. At least, that's where their mindset seems to be. What about elected leaders in Memphis? What are they saying?

MARTIN: Well, we talked with a veteran congressman who represents much of the city, Steve Cohen. And we also talked with a young environmental activist who just got elected to the Tennessee statehouse in a special election, Justin Pearson. He's going to be sworn in just a couple of days from now. They're both Democrats, and they both talked about wanting to move forward with legislation that would require things like better and more consistent reporting of abusive police behavior, more accountability, addressing training and culture. Now, you can't help but notice that both of these lawmakers are now in the minority in their respective legislative bodies. And these - this kind of legislative moves have not necessarily been seen as a priority for the Republicans, who control both chambers that they are in. But Pearson said even though he's young, he's had tough fights before and come out on top, like his fight to ensure that an oil pipeline isn't built over an aquifer here in Memphis.

JUSTIN PEARSON: It started with the pipeline fight, but that turned into three laws that we passed in Shelby County and in Memphis. And we changed the law in Tennessee that would have been totally pro-pipeline. Like, we know that this works, but it takes persistent and engaged and activated constituents.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Michel Martin in Memphis, Tenn. Michel, thanks.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.