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Life Inside

How the Police and Vigilante Killings of Black People Have Forced Me to Look Inside

It feels hypocritical to reserve my rage for the men who killed Tyre Nichols and Trayvon Martin when I, too, have taken Black lives.

An illustration shows a Black man, in a dark green prison suit, with his eyes closed as he faces a white dove.  In front of the Black man, a black silhouette looks down. Four police officers are lined up on the left side of the illustration, with one officer handcuffed.

Last January I was sitting in my cell crocheting, radio tuned to NPR, when I heard about the release of video footage showing five Black Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop.

The video shows police using their fists, feet, Tasers, batons and pepper spray on the Black 29-year-old father and FedEx worker. At one point during the deadly attack, Nichols yells out, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” He was less than 100 yards away from her home. He was in critical condition for three days, then died of his injuries in the hospital.

When they cut to the press conference featuring his mother, RowVaughn Wells, I stopped crocheting, leaned my head back on the hard cinder blocks, closed my eyes and absorbed her anguish.

She spoke of her family’s loss; of the pain she felt as a mother who couldn’t save her son’s life; of how she didn't want his legacy to be connected to acts of rage.

I respected her strength. She should’ve been at home mourning her loss, but she made her pain public. Perhaps she hoped sharing it would prevent other people from committing senseless acts.

Later on, I sat in silence while other prisoners watched the footage on the TV in a common area. Some of the men were cursing the cops. In my head, I was too. At the same time, it felt dishonest of me to hate these police officers for pummeling Tyre Nichols when I once caused other mothers the same pain.

In 1995, at 20 years old, I went out one night to a bar known for its shady crowd. I was a drug dealer; I fit in. There were looks, words, weapons drawn, then a shootout. Five people got hit, myself included. Two men died. One had a gun on him. The other didn't have a weapon at all; he was just as innocent as Nichols.

I fully accept responsibility for my actions that night. I’ve been incarcerated now for over 29 years, serving 62 ½ years-to-life for two counts of murder and an attempted murder. That means I'll be 82 when I make my first appearance before a parole panel — if I live that long.

Living in this environment, change doesn’t come easy. It’s difficult to try to grow in a place that respects the very thing that sent you here: violence.

While I've never been the type to go out seeking trouble, prison taught me to answer any challenge or altercation with aggression. I became desensitized to the fights, slashings, and stabbings around me. As I've aged, I’ve calmed down. But real transformation has come in moments, epiphanies and regressions.

One of my epiphanies came a decade before the Nichols killing, in the form of George Zimmerman. On a TV in the prison yard, I watched the trial of the 28-year-old, White vigilante of Hispanic descent who had chased down and fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin because he’d decided that the Black boy walking home from 7-Eleven was “a real suspicious guy.” I was angry at Zimmerman’s demeanor. He appeared to be indifferent to the pain and suffering of Martin’s family sitting behind him in the courtroom.

But then a shameful realization set in: That was me during my trial! Because my lawyer didn’t want me to make a bad impression to the jury, he advised me to sit expressionless and refrain from making outbursts if I heard anything I didn't like. I could only imagine how I appeared to the families in the courtroom. Inside, I felt regret and fear. But day after day, I projected an air of coldness, heartlessness and arrogance.

A part of me — a wiser, more mature part — wishes I had turned around and apologized to the family members of the men I killed. I know that's not how murder trials work, but I wish I could have looked them in their eyes and said, “I’m sorry. It all happened so fast. I was impulsive. You all in this audience are innocent, and I’m truly sorry for your pain and suffering.”

By the Zimmerman trial, I was 38 years old. I had grown out of the character I played as a teen and young adult and started severing ties with old friends, inside and out, who weren’t on a path to growth. But I was still a work in progress.

One side of me leaned toward the negative: I was still smoking weed, gambling and drinking prison-made moonshine. On the other side were all of the positive things that I was doing. I was facilitating workshops with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which helped me build community with other men in prison. I took leadership roles in prisoner-run organizations, which taught me to interact with prison administrators. I also took up the unlikely hobby of crocheting, which is meditative and cathartic.

In more recent years, with the help of prison journalist John J. Lennon, I’ve developed my voice as a writer. In our sessions here at Sullivan Correctional Facility, I’ve learned how to use my personal experiences to tap into the tragedies in the news, reflect on my own thinking, and write something meaningful. Through writing — and the emotional support of my wife and family — I’m on firm footing. Yet, the time is getting harder to do because I often feel like I no longer fit in my surroundings.

When the killings of Black men like Tyre Nichols and boys like Trayvon Martin play out in the public, I can't help but feel mixed emotions — anger, confusion, regret and remorse. Some may think it’s strange to compare myself to rogue cops and vigilantes like Zimmerman, but we all have different lived experiences, and lessons come in different forms.

I’ve spent many nights staring at the ceiling with my fingers interlocked behind my head, thinking about the night I senselessly killed two men. I used to rationalize my actions by saying that a gun was flashed on me and that I was shot, too.

But I had to take full accountability to transform. While there are societal forces that explain how I wound up a drug dealer in a shootout in some seedy bar, I still had to acknowledge how far-reaching my crime was and how it affected both families and the community overall.

And that’s why my outrage isn’t only reserved for the cops who senselessly beat Tyre Nichols or the man who killed Trayvon Martin. If I only allowed myself to feel rage at them, I would be a hypocrite.

LaMarr W. Knox has been incarcerated for over 29 years. He is currently in Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York and has a pending clemency application before Gov. Kathy Hochul.