Tyre Nichols' casket is carried away after a funeral service...

Tyre Nichols' casket is carried away after a funeral service at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Andrew Nelles

On March 5, 1991, a plumbing supply salesman and amateur videographer named George Holliday called Los Angeles Police Department headquarters to offer them a video he’d shot of a confrontation between LAPD officers and a driver who had been pulled over.

The cops weren’t interested, so Holliday took the footage of officers savagely beating Rodney King to KTLA, a Southern California television station, and helped begin an era of absorbing police violence via video.

Most Americans of a certain age have seen King being beaten repeatedly, one of three images of King burned into the national consciousness. The second is the interview after King’s release from jail, when he shared with reporters his attempts to appease the cops, broken leg in a cast, face smashed and shattered, chest scorched by a stun gun, crumpled but calm. 

And the third was his plea, broadcast in the midst of rioting that began after his attackers were acquitted, when he asked the nation: “Can we get along?”

Those six days of riots killed 63 people and injured 2,383 … and added vastly to our mental library of man’s inhumanity to man.

Thirty-one years later, I admitted to a friend that I have not watched the video of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death by Memphis police, as we jogged together.

“I just feel like … I know,” I said. “Is it possible it’s more numbing to watch than to look away?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I haven’t watched, either.”

And now so many people have, upon hearing my admission, also said they haven’t watched the video, and I wonder … are we allowed to turn away?

We watched them kill Oscar Grant in 2009, after a cop shot him in the back as he lay handcuffed on the ground at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station, killing him. That cop got 15 months.

We watched them kill Eric Garner in 2014 in Staten Island a hundred times. Our skin crawling and eyes burning, we heard him gasp, “I can’t breathe,” again and again. It took them five years to fire that cop, and he never faced a criminal charge.

And 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death by cops seconds after they arrived at the Cleveland park where he was playing, because of the toy gun in his hand. We watched that, and then learned that no one would be charged.

Have we ever stopped watching George Floyd die at the hands of police, or will his murder forever play on a loop in a quiet corner of our brains?

Are we really supposed to watch it, every incident? Probably, yeah. Looking away feels like an evasion no matter how many gritty descriptions you read.

But sometimes it seems that watching such violence repeatedly robs it of its impact. As we count the blows and note the sound of contact, do we normalize such violence? Does prose communicate it better, or poetry? 

Can anything change the pattern?

Can we get along?

Certainly, newspaper columnists must view such videos. I didn’t, with Tyre Nichols, and this piece will be my final one as a newspaper columnist. I'm moving on to a new job in a different field. I have enjoyed this work, and the interaction with this audience, more than you can ever know. 

Thank you for reading, and responding.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.

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