DETROIT – About 50 years ago, Greg Bowens was given “the talk” — sage advice about what young Black people should do and, more importantly, not do when stopped by police in Detroit.
But just this month, Tyre Nichols, a Black man, died after police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, stopped, threatened and brutally beat him, even as he seemed to follow the same advice Bowens heard in the 1970s.
“The talk” has been passed down in many Black families for generations as a way to prepare their children for interactions with police. It is part of historical distrust of law enforcement, often seen as being more heavy-handed and violent in dealings with Black people or in Black neighborhoods.
“(Nichols) had his window down. He was stopped. He was calm,” said Bowens who watched several videos showing the traffic stop, beating and failure by officers and medical personnel to render aid to Nichols as he lay writhing in the street. He later died at a hospital.
“It didn’t seem like they were trying to arrest him," Bowens added. "It seemed like they were trying to hurt him. It was terrifying. I was in tears.”
Nichols, a 29-year-old father, was on his way home from taking pictures of the sky on Jan. 7 when police pulled him over. He was just a few minutes from the home he shared with his mother and stepfather when he was brutally attacked.
The unit the officers were part of was disbanded Saturday.
The videos were released Friday night by Memphis police. They showed Nichols being roughly pulled from a car after the vehicle was stopped. Nichols was heard saying, “I didn’t do anything,” as a group of officers began to wrestle him to the ground.
Even as one officer yelled “Tase him! Tase him!” Nichols calmly said, “OK, I’m on the ground,” and “you guys are really doing a lot right now. I’m just trying to go home.”
“Stop, I’m not doing anything,” he yelled moments later.
Black parents have long warned about brutality by white police officers. Those arrested and charged with murder in Nichols' slaying are Black.
“He was more calm than the cops,” said Detroit-area attorney and former Detroit police officer David Robinson, who also watched the videotaped beating.
“It just tells me something was going on before we see what we see in the beginning of the video," Robinson said. "There is some history there. There’s something brewing. What? I don’t know yet.”
Lee Ivory, a 64-year-old media consultant and a former senior media executive in the Washington, D.C., area, also watched the videos.
“I don’t know what you would tell a young Black person who has only been driving for five or six years right now, having watched that thing last night," he said. "Do you just lay on the ground during the first encounter and just let them beat the hell out of you? Or do you try to get away and hope that you run into a more level headed officer down the road? I don’t know.”
“Even the chief of police says we still haven’t been able to discern what kind of traffic violation he’s accused of,” Ivory added.
Nichols, Ivory says, tried to employ the same techniques he had imparted to his now-29-year-old son over the years.
Bowens, 58, runs a Detroit-area public relations firm. Bowens was warned about the police by his parents, grandparents and other Black adults who preached “you don’t want to get in trouble and you don’t want to disappear."
“They said avoid the cops and do whatever they say when they come up on you,” Bowens said. “And if something does happen, call us right away. I don't know anybody, personally, who disappeared, but that was the boogeyman story that was out there.”
Robinson, 68, said he didn't receive “the talk” because his brother was a police officer and their father was involved in law enforcement.
“It was sort of presumed with that background I was sort of safe,” he said. “But reality is reality.”
Robinson described driving as a teenager and being pulled over by police who searched his car without cause. After having his own children, now 41 and 40, Robinson said he made sure to teach them how to comport themselves around police.
“Always be respectful to the cop. Don't talk down to him. Do what he says,” said Robinson, who spent 13 years as a Detroit police officer. “The bottom line is cops have a tendency to let their passions come out in those encounters. They have to say ‘sir’ to their supervisors for eight hours so when they get in the street they want somebody to call them sir, and it does make a difference in our encounters with the cops. It sends a message that you are not a threat.”
Bowens said he had the discussion with his two sons and daughter by the time they were in elementary school. They're now adults.
“As a young Black boy you go from being cute to being a threat as soon as they hit that growth spurt,” Bowens said. “You are growing into manhood. You are tall and you're brown-skinned and people have their prejudices and they are going to stop seeing you as cute and start seeing you as a threat.”
“The first rule is to be cool in your interactions with adults in stores, in school and with the police,” he added. “It's not fair. It's not right, but it's the way it is.”
G.E. Branch, 65, and one of Ivory's former journalism colleagues, said his advice to his sons was — and is — to be respectful and comply with the instructions. But watching the video, Nichols was on the ground and police were still screaming at him. “He was complying. What more could he have done?” Branch said.
Branch said his takeaway, unless there are changes in the culture and bad officers are weeded out, is “push our efforts to de-escalate” even more in discussions with young people.
“Clearly the officers aren't doing it," he continued. "It's unfair but we have to take ownership of that. It is crazy but to get home, that's your objective now.”
Fields reported from Washington, D.C.