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Berkshire NAACP President: “Anger, emotion” after death of Tyre Nichols

A Black man holding a mic with a face mask and an NAACP sign stands in a sun-dappled grassy park surrounded by people
Josh Landes
Berkshire NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell at a demonstration in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts' Park Square in 2020.

On Sunday, the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP held a rally in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts to demand police reform after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis earlier this month.

On Friday, footage of Nichols – a 29-year-old Black father, photographer, and skater – being brutally beaten by five Black members of the Memphis Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods or SCORPION Unit was released to the public.

Nichols died from his injuries three days after the January 7th incident.

As protests, condemnations, tributes, and expressions of grief poured out across the country, Berkshire County residents took part with a demonstration at Park Square in Pittsfield on Sunday.

“A lot of anger, a lot of emotion. It was a different air to this stand out, as opposed to standouts in the past," said Berkshire NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell. “I personally did not, chose not to watch any of the video because I didn't want that to end up in my memory bank. Because it was just horrific just hearing it, hearing his voice as he was getting brutally beaten. It was not something I needed to have a picture, the actual picture of. The community that came out, it was clearly- Everybody was just in disbelief that again, here we are now going into 2023, and citizens are subjected to this type of police misconduct, brutality, vigilantism. I mean whatever you want to label it, it's wrong. It's wrong to think in America that we could have this SCORPION unit exist.”

In January 2022, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland specifically highlighted the work of the SCORPION unit in a speech titled “A City on the Rise” after emphasizing his efforts to increase pay for police officers. The unit has now been disbanded.

“I'm concerned with, while they talked about the great record and the number of guns removed and the number of arrests and all of that that this unit made, at what cost to humanity?" asked Powell. "We learned about this because unfortunately, Mr. Nichols died. But how many others through this tactic were brutally beaten, hospitalized, that didn't die? And yes, I understand now that the police chief has disbanded the unit. But I'm concerned that there were 40 members, police officers, that were part of this unit. We know five of them are no longer on the police force, but how can the other 35 just turn off this behavior that was acceptable by the mayor and by the police chief? This is why police reform is so important. It's not about Black police or white police. It's about the culture of police. It's about the power of the blue.”

Powell says Nichols’ death – even after years of demonstrations over police brutality against Black Americans – is particularly upsetting.

“My mind cannot even comprehend how five police officers in blue that look like football linemen could beat on a 140-pound man that looks just like them when they're no longer in their uniform, a Black man, and any one of them five out of uniform is at the same risk in this country as every Black man walking the street," he told WAMC. "This is why it's just so shocking. And you know, we heard, is this the watershed moment that's going to finally bring about police reform? I thought George Floyd was going to be that moment. I thought Breonna Taylor was going to be that moment. I thought every murder that we had was going to be that moment. And so, I ask, when are we going to come to that moment?”

Powell says the swift action against the officers who perpetuated the beating also underscores the racial dynamics of American policing.

“They were immediately fired, not put on administrative leave pending an investigation," he said. "Then they were arrested, charged with second degree murder, charged with official misconduct, aggravated kidnapping, official oppression, and aggravated assault. Some of these charges I had never heard brought against white police officers under the same circumstances.”

In his call for police reform, Powell takes direct aim at qualified immunity.

“How do we get accountability?" he asked. "And I know now they're saying if we got rid of the rule that protects police officers from being sued, then people would not join the police force. Well, if the only reason you're joining the police force is so that you could impugn punishment on people and not be held accountable, then so be it. But I don't think that's the case. I think there's a lot of police officers out there that want to do the right thing. It's interesting to note that no one even came to Mr. Nichols to administer any kind of aid or anything. He was thrown up against the car and just sat there. EMTs did not respond. They were standing there. Other officers standing there. All of them should have some accountability for the outcome of Mr. Nichols. And there's this, again, as an officer, I don't feel that I can reach out and help because I'll be seen by my other officers is not being part of the team. That's got to stop. That's that power of the blue that we've got to break through. We've got to do something about it. And we've got to really force and hold, nationwide, our elected officials to do the right thing. I don't know how We've all been saying it, we know what has to happen, but how do you change that mindset?”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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