Statement on Memphis by YDS Dean Greg Sterling

January 28, 2023
Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling issued the following statement today.
Like many of you, I watched the horrific video recordings of the heinous assault on Tyre Nichols by the Memphis police. It is an unbearable experience to watch a human being beaten to death. Our hearts go out to Mr. Nichols’ family. The assault took place only around 60 yards from his mother’s house. He was clearly trying to make it home; his calls for his mother were plaintive and will remain in my memory. His family knows that he got close but never made it, a fact that will only exacerbate their grief. We need to keep them in our prayers.
As devastating as this family tragedy is, it points to an even greater tragedy: the breakdown of justice. It is not clear why Mr. Nichols was stopped by police. The vague “suspicion of driving recklessly” is not an acceptable response. While we need to hear the final report, it is hard not to think of “driving while Black.” We all know that this is a common pattern. I have made a practice of asking Black male students at YDS whether they have ever been stopped by the police without cause. In 11 years, no one has ever answered negatively: they have all been stopped without cause. I know many of these young men quite well and know that they are not only exceptionally talented men; they are good men. I thought of them when I heard Mr. Nichols cry, “I didn’t do anything!” Those of us who are white cannot relate to their experiences. Our parents never had to have the “talk” with us. This vast disparity in experience with policing is a galling injustice. 
The fourth video was hard to watch. Here was a young man in the prime of his life who was kicked, slugged, and beaten with a baton while he was held by individuals who had taken an oath to protect people. The police appear to have encouraged one another in their violence: they had a mob mentality. They probably thought that they were acting without record, but the pole camera captured their heinous brutality. I had to wonder how many times this same scene has played out without a pole camera to capture it. Many of us who are white react quite differently to police than those who are Black. When I see a police officer, I assume they are there to help. Many Black people have a very different reaction, even to Black police officers—and this video explains why in unambiguous terms.
It was also hard to watch as other police officers arrived on the scene and no one intervened or made an effort to assist Mr. Nichols. It took the medics 16 minutes to open their bags! These police do not appear to understand that they are undermining their credibility as officers of the peace—not just for themselves but for police everywhere. I know police officers who are great human beings and denounce in the strongest terms violence such as that witnessed in Memphis—officers like Ronnell Higgins, Yale’s Associate Vice President for Public Safety and Community Engagement, and Anthony Campbell ’09 M.Div., Chief of Yale Police. They would never tolerate behavior like this. It is past time for police officers everywhere to stand up for justice and to intervene when their colleagues commit crimes. The lack of intervention makes them accomplices.
The videos that we saw suggest that Tyre Nichols was the innocent victim and the police were the criminals. I applaud the officials in Memphis who took immediate action and filed appropriate charges: the video suggests this indeed is murder. We all need to make our voices heard and cry, “Enough!” “Enough!” “Enough!”
May the words of an ancient Hebrew prophet ring in our ears and guide our actions: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
January 28, 2023