In 1857, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Roger B. Taney shared his opinion in the Dred Scott case with the world. He wrote that the framers of the Constitution had created a nation in which blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights the white man was bound to respect.” So even free blacks were not really citizens—the nation had never been intended for them and certainly not for the enslaved.
The Tamir Rice case, or should I say incident, or killing, because Cleveland has decided not to press charges against the police officer who shot the boy, brought these words to mind once again. Taney actually went on to say that if such rights were recognized, black Americans would gain freedom of speech and movement, could become involved in politics, and could “keep and carry arms wherever they went.” The state of Ohio is now an open-carry state as it assists the NRA in creating a utopia in which everyone is armed and no one is afraid, depressed, or ever makes a mistake. Young Tamir Rice’s mistake was to openly carry—a fake gun, and to carry it while black.
No doubt Tamir’s behavior unsettled those who alerted the police. Apparently the police had not been clued in via dispatch that the gun was probably a fake and that Rice was not of age. But this is where I have trouble sorting out their actions. Let’s sift a little.
If the officers truly believed that Tamir Rice was dangerous, why would they drive up aggressively at high speed right off the road and onto the park grounds and stop dramatically in front of him? The action seems rather, shall we call it, confrontational. At that point, the chances of them shooting were much higher since they were right next to him. In any case, Officer Timothy Loemann shot Tamir in less time than it takes to read this sentence (two seconds for Loemann, four-to-five for the sentence).
How might the play have gone had they cruised up briskly but with a degree of caution (after all, he’s waving a gun around, right?) and stop some reasonably safe distance from him rather than within virtually point-blank range? At that point they could have used the car as a shield if necessary (I know ‘cause I’ve watched TV shows) and told him to put the gun down. Before shooting him, he might have had a chance to at least tell them it wasn’t a lethal weapon. They could have asked how old he was. They could have asked whether his family was nearby. They might have asked questions first, in other words, and shot later or, presumably, not at all. But subjecting people of color to discipline seems to trump every other consideration in these cases.
Family was nearby, as we know. All his sister got for her grief and horror was a tackling and cuffing by the police who had shot her younger brother and left him bleeding without any attention for four minutes. I recall the research that shows white Americans believe black Americans have a higher pain threshold. How convenient for slave keeping and police brutality!
Anyone with any sense knows that this isn’t how serving and protecting is supposed to go, and usually doesn’t. But anyone with any sense also knows that one incident can be rationalized, two raise suspicions, and a couple of dozen spread across the map are likely a sign that we have a major problem, one that whites like me are more concerned about now because of the advent of surveillance cameras and smart phones. Who knows how many incidents, deadly or merely violent, have transpired since the vigilantes handed off to the police force sometime after the Emmett Till case made lynch law look like a bad way for white people to get famous? No more posing for locally produced lynching postcards—you could end up on Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite now. Better let the badges handle things—right through to the digital age and the ability of social media to expose and distribute virally.
Apparently it has been business as usual since the Rodney King aftermath convinced white America that blacks got what they deserved. I hope that those who continue to mock or are outraged by the Black Lives Matter movement look at this Cleveland incident very closely. Can we honestly say that the life of a twelve-year-old (no matter his size, people) has been valued appropriately at any stage of the process since he died just before Thanksgiving in November 2014?
I can’t imagine what last year’s, and this year’s, holiday season have been like for Tamir Rice’s family. After the no-charge announcement, I happened to rather idly scroll through my news feed on Facebook. Photo after photo of happy children, many with toys, enlivened the page. For so many people, what happened in Cleveland is so unlikely to happen to their children that it might as well have occurred on Pluto. Meanwhile, the status updates of people of color on the feed bristled with the Tamir Rice news. How can anyone not understand that Black Lives Matter is responding to a clear and present danger? Yes, even to children? It is up to everyone who cares about justice to support reforms in our system—evaluating training of police; more stringent hiring and suspension guidelines for those who have shown instability or who have already used excessive force; a long, long look at a secret grand jury system that seems to be the puppet of prosecutors and police union allies. And yes, common sense restrictions on guns that will create fewer possible arenas for confrontation. If you believe that “criminals will get them anyway,” is that any reason to not try anything? Other countries have, and those countries are demonstrably safer than the United States.
Here’s to a safer, and more just, New Year.