Much has been written about the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, most of it written in an attempt to put Rice's death in some sort of larger context, or to resist the creation of any such larger context. But what keeps coming back to me is how awful it is, how appalling it is all by itself.
For those of you for whom it has become a sort of background noise, one more example of That Awful Thing That Keeps Happening, I just want to focus on this one stupid death.
Watch the video. Rice is hanging out in the park, and the police car races up, onto the grass. The policeman on the passenger side shoots Rice in less time than it takes to read this sentence, before he can even get all the way out of the car. No warning, no instructions, no chance for Tamir Rice to do much of anything in reaction to the car barreling across the grass in the park.
Why were the police there? Another person in the park made a 911 call about a kid waving a gun around. Probably a fake, but he's scaring people.
What happened next? The police left Rice lying on the ground, dying. When Rice's sister arrived and tried to run to her brother's side, they tackled and cuffed her. And then, Rice died.
There are plenty of questions here. Why drive the squad car so close to Rice in the first place? Why no warnings? Don't even the most casual tv cop show watchers know, "Freeze! Police! Drop it!!"
And one of the biggest questions-- why had anyone given Timothy Loehmann a badge and a gun? His previous experience was four months of police academy, followed by one month on a force during which his superiors determined that he was unfit for duty-- emotionally unstable and unwilling to follow orders. He quit before he could be fired. the Cleveland police department never checked his record, even though it had all happened about a dozen miles away.
Now, as the rest of us
welcome in the New Year and clean up the dishes of last night's
celebration as we prepare to watch the Rose Parade on tv, Tamir Rice's
family faces another holiday for which their son, their child, is not
there. Because he's dead. And not because of some tragic accident or
random disease, but because somebody shot him. We can talk all day about
what Rice did or didn't do, how wise or unwise he was in those moments,
but we have to remember that those moments are now past, and Tamir Rice
is dead. Do you see anything on that tape, in these events, that justifies a death sentence for Tamir Rice? Neither do I.
I have relatives who are police; like most police, they are good men doing an important job. I know a little bit about how tough and dangerous certain situations can be, how split-second decisions in moments of huge stress can be hard and important. This was not one of those situations, and everything that made it more tense (the dispatcher who didn't report that probable fakeness of the gun, parking the car only feet away from Rice) was a mistake by the authorities, not the child. If Tamir Rice had been shot by a civilian in those exact circumstances, and that civilian was put on trial, and claimed self-defense, that civilian would be laughed into the penitentiary.
I wonder how you teach in a situation like this. How do you teach children to deal with authority in the school building when the authority outside that building might kill them, suddenly, in the space of seconds, with no warning, no chance to save themselves. How do you help a classroom of twelve-year-olds wrap their brains around a classmate's loss at the hands of police, for nothing, at the hands of police. How do you prepare students to live in a world where that happens?
I wonder what it was like in Cleveland at Christmastime, watching the unending reruns of Christmas Story, another Cleveland classic story. From the house where Ralphie went outside to shoot his BB gun to the park where Tamir Rice died holding his is about five miles-- a ten minute drive according to Google. Ralphie was worried about shooting his eye out; nobody was worried that a policeman would drive up and shoot Ralphie dead before he could even speak a full sentence of explanation. And literally nothing separates Ralphie and Tamir except five miles, a few decades, and race.
It is so easy to get sucked into the larger implications of an event like Tamir Rice's killing, to use it as a gateway to larger discussions about race and racism and class and the proper role and responsibility of police and how large chunks of our urban landscape have been dragged off the rails by neglect and systemic racism.
But when we look at those bigger issues (and we should-- we must) the specific event, the individual person and his family, all start to look like small trees in a large forest. And as a father, a parent, a person, I just can't get past the image of that young man, not yet a teenager, going in just a split second from bored to startled to dying on the ground, alone and scared. Tamir Rice is dead. How can it be that nobody has to answer for that?