Today a grand jury in Cleveland did what this system does. They put an exclamation point on the statement that black lives don’t matter. That black children do not matter. That being young, black and free is a crime punishable immediately by death.
For over a year, there has been a chorus of people demanding some semblance of justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s family, without daring to acknowledge that impossible hope that flickers each time another black person falls victim to state-sanctioned terror.
Don’t we know better by now?
Don’t we know after George Stinney and Emmett Till, Trayvon, Aiyana, Kimani and too many others, that our children are at worst viewed as targets, and at best as collateral damage in the hunt for other black bodies to destroy? Don’t we know that, unlike 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis, for whom justice was swift and sure, this country does not weep for them?
“The death of Tamir Rice was an absolute tragedy,” said prosecutor Timothy McGinty. “But it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime.”
McGinty said this after stating that Tamir was executed by Police Officer Timothy Loehmann on Dec. 22. Like the grand jury’s decision, that is incorrect. Tamir was gunned down on Nov. 22, 2014—almost two years to the day that 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot down by white supremacist Michael Dunn for listening to loud music.
But when it comes to a dead black boy, who in the halls of (in)justice actually gives a damn about facts?
McGinty used interesting words in his victim-blaming statement: “the law that binds us.” Us. As if we are really a collective of citizens with the same rights and privileges. It was both warning and reminder that black people are still tethered to a country that views our children as disposable.
Back in March, the city of Cleveland blamed Tamir for his own death, saying that it was “directly and proximately caused by the failure of [Tamir] to exercise due care to avoid injury.”
How dare he, in an open-carry state, play with a toy gun that can be found on the shelves of most major retailers in this country? How dare he go to a playground with a toy? How dare Tamir—in a country that clings to its weapons, in a country where white women can point BB guns at police and live, where white extremists can openly menace black neighborhoods with assault rifles—walk around in his black skin and be a child?
I’ve written previously that our children are positioned on a seesaw of white hypocrisy and black respectability on the derelict playground of American racism. That is the playground that Tamir Rice stepped foot on that day.
“Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” either Loehmann or his partner, Frank Garmback, radioed in. “Black handgun.”
In a country that overwhelmingly distorts black childhood to fit its vile and violent racial prejudice, Tamir never stood a chance.
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, Ph.D., of UCLA, in his study “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” (pdf). “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
But we don’t need a study. We have the body count of our children. We have the shards of broken hearts, the echoes of rage and grief, the trail of tears that flood black communities across this country.
“Tamir consistently came to school every day,” said Carletta Goodwin, Tamir’s sixth-grade teacher, at the child’s funeral. “He would tap on his desk, he would sing to himself. I would say, ‘OK, that's enough,’ because he would get the rest of the class going.
“I thank you for your son’s life,” Goodwin told Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice. “He will be greatly missed.”
Tapping. Singing. Dreaming. Being. Dead.
I wonder what he was feeling, lying outside in the cold, bleeding out on that playground. I wonder if he heard his 14-year-old sister’s screams as she ran to his side before they tackled her to the ground, handcuffed her and shoved her into the patrol car. I wonder if he saw Loehmann’s hatred for him as he possibly parted his lips to tell him that the gun wasn’t real.
I wonder if Loehmann—who has a documented history of being “weepy,” “lacking maturity,” an inability “to perform basic functions as instructed” and exhibiting a “dangerous loss of composure during live range training”—looked into Tamir’s eyes before executing him in 0.792 seconds. Or was his blackness all that he needed to see before he pulled the trigger?
When I see photos of Tamir, husky and bright-eyed, smiling that mischievous grin, I am reminded of my three sons, especially our eldest, his innocence and awkwardness encased in a large 10-year-old frame that causes passersby to remark on his size. I am reminded that to his father and me, he is our baby, but to cops like Loehmann and Garmback, he is guilty of existing until proved otherwise.
I am reminded, again, that justice in this country looks like dead black children and the free white cops who kill them. It always has.
Tamir will never again be able to tell his mother about his experiences, his excited words climbing clumsily on top of each other, one after the other, scrambling to break free. He will never again tap, or sing, or dream, or be, because some coward with a badge said that a baby “gave him no choice” but to end his life—a ridiculous assertion agreed upon by a grand jury and a prosecutor who didn’t even care enough to know the day Tamir’s life was snatched away from him.
Many black mothers, after sending our children outside to play and roam and sweat, will joke upon their return, “You smell like outside.” Tamir Rice will never again bring the smell of grass and dirt and sun and snow in his wake as he returns to the safety of his mother’s arms.
For too many black parents, outside smells like fear; it smells like terror. It smells like the rancid odor of inevitability.
Outside, for far too many of us, smells like our children’s brutal deaths.