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Why some who experienced police confrontations say Tyre Nichols was right to run

“What was he supposed to do? Stay there and take the abuse?” said a survivor of a police assault. “I hate how it turned out for him, but I would have run, too.”
Photo illustration of a scientific diagram of a human brain with scratch marks and scribbles, and a Black man with his hands behind his back as police surround him.
Some say Nichols should not have run from police, but one psychiatrist explains Nichols’ reaction was a natural response to the explosive situation.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP

Andrew Smith Jr. said he felt a “weird anticipation” to see the video of Memphis police beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop, which led to Nichols’ death three days later. He said he “didn’t want to see it, but needed to see it.”

As a younger man, Smith, 38, had encounters with New York police officers that turned physical and scary, and he said over the years he has questioned his response to their aggression.

“In a way, I wanted to see the video to see if it was like my situation with cops in New York,” Smith, who works in New York for a technology firm, said. “One situation was degrading and a little physical — made me and my friends sit on the curb.”

He said another situation “got heated. And I wanted to run. I didn’t because I couldn’t.”

After watching Nichols flee officers during the Jan. 7 traffic stop near his home as they shouted an array of commands at him, doused him with pepper-spray and fired at him with a Taser, Smith said he understood why the 29-year-old father of a young child would run. Several Black people who experienced aggressive stops by police or in some cases met with force by officers told NBC News they shared similar instincts.

“What was he supposed to do? Stay there and take the abuse?” Smith said. “I hate how it turned out for him, but I would have run, too. Who wouldn’t? He was pulled out of his car. He complied and got on the ground ... and they still were screaming and yelling, roughing him up. I know — he was scared. And when you’re scared, try to get away.”

The five officers who have since been fired and arrested on second-degree murder charges shouted a flood of orders — 71 commands at Nichols in 13 minutes, according to a New York Times analysis — adding to the chaotic scene.

In some social media circles, people have said that Nichols should not have run, that he should have obeyed the officers’ commands. But Yale psychiatrist Terrell Holloway said Nichols’ reaction was natural.

“I don’t see why anyone would be outside of their rights to want to live and by doing so, running,” Holloway said. “It’s not as though you’re thinking rationally anyway. So, it’s a lot of blaming the victim, when in fact, in this state — him having seen Black men killed on television before — this fight or flight response was to try to save his life. … If it were me, I would have run, too.”

Smith said watching the video of Nichols reminded him of an incident he had with police officers in Brooklyn when he was 22. Smith said he was stopped “for no reason” as he walked home one night in Crown Heights. 

“Two officers pulled up beside me,” he recalled. “‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘Home. Why?’ And that was it. They jumped out of the car, shoved me to the ground and used their clubs, feet, fists. Everything. They were yelling to ‘get on the ground’ and ‘don’t resist.’ I was just covering up to protect myself. I wanted to run, but I was afraid they’d shoot me. And I couldn’t get on my feet. Finally, after about a minute, they stopped and just left me there. One Black officer, one white. I relived it watching what they did to Tyre.”

He added that the intensity of the moment — the screaming of commands and blows coming at the same time — created a panic that manifests itself in a loss of time and place. 

“It’s like it’s happening, but it’s not happening because it doesn’t seem real,” Smith said. “All the noise, the yelling by them. You can’t process it all. It’s just, like Tyre said, too much. … I don’t like talking about it because it’s not a good memory at all.”

Fred Gore teared up in talking about an instance when he was 27 and his older brother by two years was confronted by police outside a corner store on Easter in Trenton, New Jersey.

“He was wearing my grandfather’s suit,” Gore, now a residential builder, recalled. The officers “harassed him, egged him on,” until they got into a scuffle.

“Five cops got on him in a heartbeat,” Gore, 62, said. “And they called some more. They beat him so badly and then took him away to jail. When my mother and I saw him the next morning, it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. But he would have been wrong for running? No, you can’t put that on someone when you’re outnumbered and they are aggressive with clubs and everything else. How can you sit as someone who hasn’t been in that situation and say someone should just stay there and take it?”

Davette Daggett, who lives in Houston, recalled driving a friend’s Mercedes Benz in her hometown of Washington, D.C., to visit her cancer-stricken mother in the hospital when she was pulled over by police. 

“I didn’t run a light. I wasn’t speeding,” said Daggett, a financial analyst. “I was driving a nice car. That’s it.”

A Black female officer began aggressively questioning if it was Daggett’s vehicle. When she told her it was a friend’s, the officer called for backup. 

“It seemed like 10 cars showed up,” Daggett said. “It was crazy. And my response was to freeze. I was like a deer in headlights. They ended up taking the car; the woman officer drove off in it like it was hers. And I was left standing on the street in a bad part of town.

“All those officers for me? They didn’t get physical, but I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t run. I just froze. But having been in that position, I understand why people run. It’s scary because we’ve seen what they do to Black people.”

Holloway, 39, one of chief psychiatric residents at Yale, who is opening a trauma and stress-focused practice this summer, said the concern for those who face these confrontations, whether they run or freeze, is the lingering impact of the encounter. He said when he worked in New York he would chart a route home that would give him the least chance of being stopped and frisked by police. 

“What is it like to be a person that’s exposed to that danger all the time with people who are supposed to be helping you — police officers?” he said. “Who’s to say similar thoughts were not running through Tyre Nichols’ mind? They probably were.”

He called the reaction to run in the face of so much peril and chaos “a trauma response. If trauma can be transmitted indirectly — think of 9/11 broadcast on television — the trauma of Black men’s death by cops has been broadcast for years. So, when faced with a trigger of a similar threat when interacting with police, a response of running is not unheard of or bizarre.”