On Jan. 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols, a Black resident of Memphis, was stopped by Memphis police officers for alleged reckless driving. As shown in body cam footage released 20 days later on the City of Memphis’ Vimeo account, the officers’ excessive aggression in the stop prompted Nichols to attempt to flee. In response, he was violently beaten, and without proper treatment for his injuries, he died in custody on Jan. 10. The five officers involved in the killing have since been charged with official misconduct, aggravated assault, second-degree murder, and kidnapping. Eight additional officers are facing charges, and a total of six have been terminated.
The horrific footage of the killing of Tyre Nichols invoked a national response upon its release, with protests and vigils being held in major cities across the United States. In Rochester, a vigil was held on Feb. 1 in Daniel Prude Square at MLK Park. The event was organized by Free the People Rochester (FTP ROC), an organization which, according to their Instagram account, seeks to build on the legacy of Black liberation in the Rochester community, defund the police, and abolish the prison industrial complex. Just after 7 p.m., a crowd of roughly 90 people were in attendance, with some filtering in and out. Local media was at the event taking interviews from the crowd and organizers.
The vigil started as FTP organizer and councilmember Stanley Martin addressed the crowd. “Policing as we know it is a system of terror, a system grounded in domination, a system grounded in abuse,” he said. Martin noted that what happened to Tyre Nichols has happened in Rochester and it may happen again, and ended his speech by stressing the point that sanitizing methods of policing, employing Black officers, and using community policing tactics will only continue to result in “Black and working class people being murdered.”
“So many of us have been killed and forgotten,” Martin said in an interview with WHEC-TV. “When we gather and say their names, it’s for their families, it’s for their loved ones. It’s to let them know that we who are on the ground, who are one degree of separation away, who might experience it at any time, remember, and we will hold them in our hearts and literally everything we do will be in their honor.”
After Martin, Joe Prude, the brother of Daniel Prude, took the mic. “It’s never been about race. It’s about a gang with badges,” he said. Prude went on to compare policing to lynching. In reference to his brother, Prude said, “They treated him like a piece of meat.” As Prude spoke, many voices from the attendees shouted in support.
Among the speakers at the vigil, there was a throughline within their speeches that criticized policing as a system which had not failed to enact justice; instead, they characterized policing as something built to enact injustice and domination.
After Joe Prude, organizer Chris Thompson took the mic. Thompson made it immediately clear that “we won’t be handing out flowers to white people tonight.” He stated that any white people in attendance had opportunities to engage in this movement for years prior, but went on to express the importance of solidarity within the movement for racial justice. Thompson cited Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party’s work in Chicago in the early 1970s to assemble the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial, multicultural collection of organizations, most of whom subscribed to anticapitalist ideals.
Furthermore, Thompson mentioned the killing of Keenan Anderson, a Black man in Los Angeles who was tasered six times by LAPD officers and subsequently died of cardiac arrest. Unlike the killing of Tyre Nichols, Anderson’s death was largely forgotten by major media sources. Upon the mention of his name, few in the crowd had heard of Keenan Anderson. Thompson’s words painted a visceral picture of how Black death is sensationalized and dismissed by the general public, demonstrating the devaluation of Black lives as subjects for media coverage or material for political clout.
Throughout the crowd, there were various remarks about the absence of Rochester Mayor Malik Evans at the event. Mayor Evans and Police Chief David Smith released a joint statement on the killing of Tyre Nichols. The statement reads as such:
“This Administration and the Rochester Police Department are working tirelessly to establish a higher level of trust between our officers and community because we recognize that trust is a vital component of the peace we are working so hard to achieve.”
After Thompson and other speakers concluded their prepared statements, the floor was open for anyone to speak. Attendees recounted their personal experiences with police, including experiences of unlawful aggression and speeches explaining their objections to the institution of policing. Additionally, speakers discussed the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta, which is run by activists labeled as “forest defenders” opposing a large-scale police training facility set to be constructed in the Weelaunee Forest. One speaker made note of a forest defender, Tortuguita, who was in a police raid on an encampment of forest defenders on Jan. 18. No body camera footage has since been released by the police.
As the indoor portion of the vigil concluded, attendees were asked to follow FTP ROC and attend their future actions to get more involved. After, attendees moved outside and left flowers and candles below a portrait of Nichols before dispersing.