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Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson on Tyre Nichols killing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we came here to Memphis to get a sense of how people here are responding to the latest revelations about the death of Tyre Nichols earlier this month, after he was beaten by five former Memphis police officers. Videos of the incident made public Friday show an array of disturbing scenes, including overwhelming brutality and what seems an effort to create a cover story to justify it. One of the people we met here is Justin Pearson. He grew up in Memphis and has made a name for himself as an activist, and he's spent years trying to prevent an oil pipeline from being built over an aquifer here. This past Tuesday, he won a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. When he's sworn in later this week, he will be the second-youngest person serving in that body. When we met earlier today, I asked him to share his thoughts about recent events, as well as his hopes to change things.

JUSTIN PEARSON: It's just a level of pain that we are all enduring at this point. And we had the opportunity to see his mother speak, alongside Ben Crump. And it was one of the most challenging experiences I've ever had in my life to witness a Black mother publicly mourn over a son that's one year older than me. We are dealing with an immense amount of grief from his murder by police and my own classmate's murder by someone else in the same week.

MARTIN: In the same week.

PEARSON: The same week. And so it's been a really difficult time.

MARTIN: How do you think about that?

PEARSON: You pray a lot.

MARTIN: I assume your friend - forgive me.

PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was it a street crime, as it were, what we call - how - why - how did your friend die?

PEARSON: Yeah, he was murdered.

MARTIN: He was murdered.

PEARSON: He was shot and killed and then set on fire.

MARTIN: That's horrible. In the same week.

PEARSON: In the same week. And Larry Thorn's his name, and he was just really sweet human being. And we graduated high school together. In fact, I did a podcast with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and he's in the podcast because when I walked up to school to do the interview, he was right there working with our flag team.

MARTIN: Forgive me for - first of all, I'm so sorry for the loss...

PEARSON: Appreciate it.

MARTIN: ...Of your friend and for the loss of your fellow citizen.

PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But how do you think about that? Because the stated reason for putting this group together was to fight crime - right? - as to - sort of this response to what a lot of people are very distressed about, which is an increase in - you know, last year, Memphis set a record, you know, for homicide. And it bested the previous record, which was the year before. And so the argument was that this unit, this special unit, was supposed to deal with, you know, hot spots.

PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: And yet, you know - so what do you - how do you think about that?

PEARSON: Yeah. The institutional failures and harm of having a SCORPION gang within the police force has created more trauma and harm than any benefits that it could have possibly have thought that it was going to create.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that. Like, what do you make of the fact that the police department is majority Black? The police chief is Black, and all five officers, who are the main protagonists here, are all Black. Does that mean something to you?

PEARSON: It means a lot to me. There's something systematically wrong here. And it is a system of white supremacy, right? It is a system of anti-Black racism that can have Black people perpetuating racist practices and policies that lead to outcomes where people are viewed more like a criminal than your cousin or your brother. And I think in this instance, it's an apparent example of what happens when we have unchecked power for people who we have empowered with the ability to harm us. We give them guns. We give them badges. We give them the ability to say, you are responsible for the life of, for us, 600,000 people. And when we do that and they operate in ways that are unchecked and in ways that - where the intention from the beginning is wrong, they hurt us.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you are going to be sworn in as a state representative...

PEARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the next couple of days. Like, what's your job right now? What's job one? As we said, you kind of got involved in public service because of environmental activism, and then this occurs. Like, what's your plan? Do you have one?

PEARSON: Yeah. I will be joining the criminal justice committee at the statehouse. And our work, as it always has been, is to build power locally that has effect in our city, our county, and across the state of Tennessee. Listen, my job does not stop in Nashville, nor does it start there. Memphians in Shelby Countians elected me, and I'm deeply concerned about what's happening here. And elevating the issues of our community to a state level is going to be the work. And so in these committees, we're going to put forward some legislation that helps to hold people who have been given these positions of authority and power accountable and also helps to heal our communities who are being wounded as victims of violence, whether it be by police or in other ways. And so this is obviously a priority. And I'll be working with members of the city council and passing some legislation here, as well as staying actively engaged in our movement for justice that's here as well.

MARTIN: Justin Pearson, thanks so much for talking with us today.

PEARSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.