In one Memphis park, Quintin “Rico” Fields saw it often: Skaters donning headphones and pushing off on a board, losing themselves in the rhythm of long glides and quick jumps.
“You’re leaving the world behind … You’re just getting away from stuff,” said Fields, who has long found a community among the bowls and rails of Memphis skateboarders.
Tyre Nichols, 29, was a member of that community too. Friends said he was a “free spirit” who reveled in a sport often intertwined with music and art.
That ended when Nichols died Jan. 10 after what police first called “a confrontation” following a traffic stop. This week, local prosecutors charged five Memphis officers with second-degree murder and other crimes in connection with his death.
In recent days, skateboarding communities in Memphis and beyond have held tributes and expressed solidarity with Nichols and his family — including many celebrating the joy that skating brought to his life, even amid his tragic death.
Latosha Stone, widely recognized as the first Black woman to own a skateboard company when she founded Proper Gnar in 2012, said it was heartening to see videos of Nichols’ love of the sport in the midst of Friday’s release of police video.
“It was just nice to see something positive instead of negative and to be able to remember him in a good light,” said Stone, 35, of Greenville, Ohio.
A video of Nichols skating was recently reposted on social media by his family’s lawyer, civil rights attorney Ben Crump. That drew further attention to Nichols U.S. skateboarding figures and communities.
Jordan Thrower, 30, a Black skateboard business owner from San Diego, learned of Tyre before the incident because someone recently had posted on Instagram videos of Tyre skateboarding.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to about it that knew him, they would just all say he was a really good guy, and he was super cool. He was very smooth on his skateboard,” he said. “I think everyone is really outraged right now in skateboarding, for sure. And that’s the only lens that I’m looking at it through. Everyone’s super sad about it across the board, Black, white, everyone.’’
Marty Grimes, 62, who, along with his late brother Clyde, in 1975 became the first Black pro skaters, also weighed in: “It’s obviously a real and systemic problem. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a skateboarder or not,” he said.
More:Video shows Memphis police violently beating Tyre Nichols in the traffic stop that led to his death
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In Memphis this week, skaters held a solidarity event at a skate park and visited city hall. As the family viewed footage of the traffic stop and ensuing police actions inside, skaters outside cycled through ollies, tic tacs, and kickflips, the Commercial Appeal reported.
One sign scrawled on cardboard read, “Skaters for Tyre.”
“I’ve never been more proud of my Memphis Skate Community,” one member of the community Tweeted, saying that Black skaters and the entire skate community had supported his family. “We’ve lost one of our own. We’re all grieving.”
Angelina Paxton, one of Nichols’ friends who knew him from Sacramento, California, where he lived before moving to Memphis, recently told the Commercial Appeal that skating was a big part of Nichols’ life.
“When you’re going to inner-city schools, you either choose to be part of the gang banging and all the crazy stuff, or you choose to be part of sports,” Paxton said. “Or you can be an outcast and be part of the street team — that’s what we call skaters and long-boarders and roller skaters.”
Nichols was also a photographer who spent some time at the Art Institute of California before moving to Memphis for a fresh start.
“He had such a free spirit and skating gave him his wings,” Paxton said.
Memphis resident Joy Brooke Fairfield, who was among the skaters at city hall this week, said the skate scene in Memphis also overlaps with music and activist circles.
And while Fields, 34, a skater and musician, didn’t get a chance to skate with Nichols, he said his death felt like it happened “to one of our own, especially being a Black skateboarder.”
Fields said the skateboarding community in Memphis, especially Black skateboarders, has grown over the years in Memphis after long holding important places in larger cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles.
“It’s more popular to do. And it’s more acceptable to be a Black person that does stuff outside of what people consider Black stuff – basketball, football, things of that nature,” he said.
Even though the skating community in Memphis is racially mixed, he said it was important for him to refer to Nichols as a Black skater given the circumstances of his death.
“This was a Black man first and a skater second,” he said.
Stone said Nichols’ death hit hard in the larger skating community.
“It definitely hits hard because not only is he another Black person, but he is also a skateboarder. And I feel like skateboarders have a long history with cops” of not always skateboarding allowable places, she said.
“But I guess a lot of us kind of see ourselves in him. Kind of like it could have been any one of us,” she said.
Josh Peter of USA TODAY and the Commercial Appeal contributed to this story.
Chris Kenning is a national correspondent. Reach him at [email protected] and on Twitter @chris_kenning.