America is on high alert right now, just before the release of video footage of five Memphis police officers beating and killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man they pulled over for reckless driving. Memphis is bracing itself for protests. Its public school system proactively canceled afterschool programs today and a local community college abruptly shifted to online learning. Other cities are also anticipating outrage once the video is made public.
All five “Scorpion Unit” cops have been fired. They were subsequently indicted on several criminal charges, including second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of official oppression, and one count of aggravated assault. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has seen the video. In comparing it to the police beating of Rodney King in 1992, “it is about the same, if not worse,” she told CNN in an interview this morning. She said she hadn’t personally witnessed anything worse in all her years of law enforcement.
Regarding the impending release of the video, Davis warned, “you’re gonna see acts that defy humanity, you’re going to see a disregard for life and the duty of care that we’re all sworn to. Individuals watching will feel what the family felt, and if you don’t, then you’re not a human being.” In a press conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he’d seen the video. “I’m struggling to find a stronger word, but I will just tell you that I was appalled.” Evidently, so too was President Joe Biden who spoke with the Nichols family on the phone today; Washington Post reporter Emily Davies tweeted a snippet of the conversation.
Even though the video has not yet been released, everyone who’s seen it seems to agree on how horrific it is. The video will traumatize lots of people, especially Black Americans. This will include Black professionals across industries and in every geographic region of the country, not only those who work in Memphis. Most business leaders who see it will be disgusted, but won’t know what to say or do. Unfortunately, some won’t care enough to do anything.
Many executives sent company-wide emails to employees following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. As I noted in a Washington Post article at the height of global protests in response to Floyd’s murder, those messages frustrated many Black employees who doubted their leaders’ authenticity because of longstanding demonstrations of carelessness for Black lives.
As the nation reacts to the murder of Tyre Nichols over the next several days, some executives will feel compelled to write to their employees. They should. But minimally, here are five things those messages ought to include:
- A genuine expression of how the video personally made them feel. This requires leaders to actually watch the video in its entirety once it’s released. It also demands that they replace usual sanitized, corporatized language that ultimately says nothing with more honest and authentic reactions to what they saw in the video.
- An acknowledgement that Nichols’ murder isn’t an isolated incident, but instead a continuation of the longstanding practice of police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Leaders might also strongly consider calling for more to be done to stop racial profiling, police brutality, and the killings of unarmed Black people.
- An acknowledgement that while all employees who’ve seen the video or heard about Nichols’ murder are likely negatively affected, Black colleagues are undoubtedly more devastated because Nichols was Black; because they, too, are susceptible to being pulled over and similarly terrorized; and because this latest murder compounds generations of trauma that Black communities have experienced as a result of police brutality.
- Encouragement to engage in self-care, including, but not limited to taking time off to recover from the trauma of this most recent racial crisis. For companies that can afford to do so, these should be paid wellness days.
- An affirmation of the value of Black lives. Doing this will be challenging for some executives who believe that all lives matter. They do. But in this instance (and in far too many others like it), it was a Black person’s life that tragically ended as a result of police brutality. Hence, this particular message at this particular time should focus on Black lives.
As was the case in June 2020, some Black employees and other colleagues will read emails from their executives with understandably high levels of skepticism and doubt, especially if the fifth point I’m recommending is grossly inconsistent with their everyday workplace realities. Given this, leaders must do all they can to consistently demonstrate their deep commitments by equitably hiring and promoting Black employees, ensuring workplaces are fair and inclusive, fixing structures and systems that cyclically disadvantage Black workers, and investing portions of their corporate social responsibility dollars into Black communities. They must also hold everyone else in the organization accountable for doing the same. This is what the email should say.