Justice Department and FBI leadership on Friday cautioned any potential protesters from turning violent during demonstrations expected across the country in response to the release of police footage from a traffic stop that led to the killing of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.
“Expressions of concern when people see this video, we urge that they be peaceful and nonviolent,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland at a DOJ press conference on Friday. “That’s what the family has urged, and that of course is what the Justice Department urges as well.”
The call for peaceful protests comes in the wake of the killing of Nichols, a Black man who died on Jan. 10 — three days after a confrontation with police officers during a traffic stop — and as a video of the incident is expected to be released to the public sometime Friday. Nichols’ family and their lawyers have said the video shows five Memphis police officers, all of whom are Black, beating Nichols for three minutes.
The officers were all fired from the department last week and have been charged with murder and other crimes related to the death of Nichols.
The White House on Friday echoed the calls for peaceful protests ahead of the video’s release. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing that the White House has been “in coordination with the relevant agencies to ensure they prepare if protests become violent.” She said no one in the White House, including President Joe Biden, has seen the video, though the president has been briefed on the video.
“We understand the outrage people have currently, and how hurt and painful this is, but we are going to continue to say, violence, but violence is unacceptable,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden also called Nichols’ mother and stepfather, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, and spoke with them for more than 10 minutes, according to a Washington Post reporter who was in the room during the call.
“RowVaughn, your comments today were moving, I don’t know how you did it,” Biden said during the call, calling Nichols’ death “devastating,” and telling the pair that he knows how it feels to lose a child, having lost his son Beau to cancer, and his daughter Naomi in a car accident that also killed his then-wife Neilia.
“I don’t know you how you stood there… I didn’t have the courage to do what you did,” he said.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told CNN Friday morning that the video shows “acts that defy humanity” and “a disregard for life” — namely, the officers using what she said was a group-think mentality to exert an “unexplainable” amount of aggression toward Nichols. She added the video is “about the same if not worse” than the graphic video of Los Angeles police officers brutally attacking Rodney King in 1991.
“I was outraged. It was incomprehensible to me. It was unconscionable, and I felt that I needed to do something and do something quickly,” Davis said. “I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything of that nature in my entire career.”
Garland on Friday said though he hasn’t seen the video, he’s been briefed on its contents and called it “deeply disturbing” and “horrific.” FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was also at the briefing, said he was “appalled” by the video.
“I have seen the video myself, and I will tell you I was appalled,” Wray said. “I’m struggling to find a stronger word, but I will just tell you I was appalled.”
Wray added that all of the FBI’s field offices have been alerted to work closely with their state and local partners, particularly in Memphis, “in the event of something getting out of hand” during protests over the weekend. U.S. Capitol Police have beefed up security on the Hill — with bike-rack style security fencing erected overnight — as police departments across the country are also bracing for protests related to the footage.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way in this country to express being upset or angry about something, and we need to make sure that if there is that sentiment expressed here, it’s done in the right way,” Wray said.