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RowVaughn Wells is nervous; at 61, she never expected to be the face of a movement, to visit the White House, or to be singled out in front of the nation by the president of the United States. Now, a month to the day since her son, Tyre Nichols, was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers, she is hoping to turn her pain and presence into action to prevent deadly encounters with law enforcement for other families.
Nichols died at 29 years old, three days after he was hospitalized for his injuries.
“In going to the State of the Union, hopefully we can share again what happened to our son, hopefully they can see that police reform is due,” Wells told The 19th on Monday night as she prepared to head to Washington with her husband and Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney, who will also attend. “They need to see, they need to see what happens to families when these tragic incidents happen.”
For the first time at a State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the mother of a Black man killed by police will be a guest of the first lady of the United States. Other parents with similar tragedies will be in attendance as the guests of members of the House of Representatives; they will be visible reminders of the parade of unarmed Black Americans who have lost their lives, representing families calling for change in the wake of tragedy. Most are mothers, who have largely been the face of the movement to demand action and accountability from lawmakers and the legal system.
President Joe Biden spoke about police reform during his State of the Union address, singling out the Wellses ahead of his remarks and calling for Congress to “finish the job on police reform.”
“I’ve never had to have the talk with my children — Beau, Hunter, and Ashley — that so many Black and brown families have had with their children,” Biden said, referring to the conversation many Black parents have with their children about how to interact with law enforcement in an effort to minimize confrontation that could turn deadly.
Biden cited RowVaughn Wells’ “courage and character” and said she told him that Nichols “was a beautiful soul and something good will come from this.”
Federal police reform legislation has stalled in Congress, but in his appeal Tuesday night, Biden spoke to the American people, saying: “We all want the same thing. Neighborhoods free of violence. Law enforcement who earn the community’s trust. … Our children have a right to come home safely.”
He called on lawmakers to “rise to this moment.”
“I know most cops and their families are good. decent, honorable people, the vast majority of them,” Biden said. “And they risk their lives every time they put that shield on. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better. Give law enforcement the real training they need, hold them to higher standards, help them succeed in keeping everyone safe. … We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do.”
Last month, Biden issued a statement and called the Wells family to offer condolences. On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris attended Nichols’ funeral in Memphis at the invitation of his family. She sat next to the Wellses and embraced RowVaughn Wells before addressing mourners and the country, urging Congress to pass police reform legislation.
“Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold that child, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of his life,” Harris said. “… This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe.”
RowVaughn Wells said it “meant a lot” for the vice president to attend the funeral and call for action.
“We’re actually both from Oakland, California,” Wells said. “I hate that it had to be under these circumstances, but it was very nice for her to attend. It showed me that she had some compassion for the situation. We need to get a federal law passed. Other kids’ parents, they want this as well. So hopefully she can help and get it done.”
The president and vice president met with the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss police reform. A measure named for George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, stalled in the Senate last year. It is unclear whether any action at the federal level is possible in a politically divided Congress.
Attorney Ben Crump, who has represented many of the families of the Black men killed by police over the past decade, said the moment is “long overdue.”
Biden “has to use his pulpit and all his influence to marshal the Senate and the House to make this a priority, because our children are dying,” Crump said.
The Wellses met with Congressional Black Caucus members Tuesday morning and visited the White House ahead of the State of the Union address.
For the past month, RowVaughn Wells has had to grieve in public. She said she has received messages of sympathy “from around the world.”
“It’s just amazing how people are responding to this, and how people are grieving behind the tragic loss of my son,” she said. “They had to open up their eyes to see that this really does exist.”
RowVaughn Wells is working to come to terms with the loss of her son. She said that Nichols was “on assignment from God” and that now “his assignment is over and he got to come home.” Her assignment now, she said, is to get justice.
“My son was just on his way home. Our family right now is devastated. He was the baby brother of the family … Those police officers took a shining, bright light away from our family,” Wells said. “Hopefully, by me attending the State of the Union, Congress will recognize that (the police) need to stop beating up and killing Black and brown young men as if they don’t mean anything. Maybe that’ll help them recognize, because this should never have happened to my son. Never.”