As of today, Tamir Rice has been dead for a year. Of all the public horrors that police have perpetrated upon unarmed black people in the past few years, many of which we’ve witnessed on video, I feel a particular kinship to Tamir’s case because I was also once a 12-year-old black boy horsing around in a park in Cleveland. No, I didn’t have an unloaded airsoft gun like Tamir did, but that isn’t why he’s dead. He’s dead because a jumpy cop with a terrible track record, Officer Timothy Loehmann, fatally shot him. Within two seconds of the car stopping in front of the boy. Without ascertaining whether his weapon was real or even issuing a warning.
Unfortunately, litigating the tragedy here may be futile at
this point. Tim McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, seems to be purposely sabotaging his own prosecution by commissioning and publicizing three
outside reports that justify the shooting. Even if Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, are somehow
indicted, a conviction seems like a fantasy.
I also don’t want to reexamine Tamir’s death just to join in the mourning, or out of some journalistic opportunism, pegging an essay to a noteworthy anniversary. It needs to be addressed again because the people killed by police don’t have a long shelf life in the American public memory. Fifteen months after the fact, we hear the name of the St. Louis suburb in which Michael Brown was killed far more often than his name. Jeremy Mardis, a white 6-year-old boy from Louisiana, is possibly the youngest victim of the more than 1,000 fatal police shootings in 2015, and his death made only a couple days of news, at best. Eric Garner may be an exception, largely because the video of his chokehold death sparked a revitalization of the civil rights movement that began with Brown’s death. However, there are plenty of other New York City victims—Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Akai Gurley—who are far from household names.
Even when there was video of the event, or significant unrest in the city where it happened, these victims tend to disappear from public memory, whether due to benign neglect or active ignorance. And as each victim of police violence fades from our memory and as the protests subside, the conservative narrative about crime too often goes uncontested.
Revisiting Tamir’s death reminds us to stand up against those who would prefer to excuse these killings. In the latest episode of my podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz reminded me of Congressman John Lewis’s call to make “necessary trouble” in order to tell the stories of boys like Tamir. We need to confront a toxic cultural climate in which a 12-year-old black boy with a toy gun is seen as a deadly threat. And we need to push back against the likes of Donald Trump, who would have us believe that these deaths are somehow just.
Mercutio Southall, Jr. interrupted a Trump rally and promptly got his ass beat for it. Several white male Trump supporters assaulted the Birmingham activist Saturday morning after he began chanting “Black Lives Matter!” As he was being kicked and punched, a Washington Post reporter saw one of the men put his hands around Southall’s neck. A woman looking on reportedly yelled, “Don’t choke him!”
Trump himself wasn’t as concerned with Southall’s health as he was with continuing his speech. “Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?” Trump yelled from the podium. Security made sure that happened, but that wasn’t enough for the Republican front-runner. He doubled down the next morning, telling Fox News that “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” He added, “I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it. And this was a very obnoxious guy who was a trouble-maker who was looking to make trouble.”
This was not the first time Trump fans have committed violence in his name. In August, one of two Boston men who urinated on a homeless Hispanic man before beating him with a metal pole cited Trump’s extreme rhetoric about immigration as inspiration for the act. Trump initially refused to condemn the assault, saying, “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country. They want this country to be great again. But they are very passionate. I will say that.”
This Sunday, Trump lied during an appearance on ABC’s This Week about witnessing Muslims in New Jersey celebrate the fall of the Twin Towers. Later that same day, his official Twitter account forwarded this graphic that was posted by another user.
This list of crime stats, which came from a neo-Nazi source, paints black
people as the chief murderers of white and
black people—all while suffering minimal death, percentage-wise, at the
hands of the police. Of course, it’s
all lies. The
FBI’s crime report from 2014 indicated that black people, for the most part, kill
black people. Likewise, white people mostly kill white people. This makes
sense, due to proximity. By sharing the graphic, Trump wasn’t expressing
an earnest concern about murder and crime in America; it was to make black folks
appear responsible for our country’s sins.
The Republican Party has long practiced “dog-whistle” racial and sexual politics, and we’re used to the promotion of policies that are deleterious to black communities—but not so much the literal promotion of violent acts against us.
The false graphic, the 9/11 lie, and the assault on Southall
were more significant than each individual event might have appeared in their separate
tabloid garishness. Seen together, the twisted worldview comes into focus: Not only
are black and brown people the chief architects of murder in America, but also
apparently enjoy the exercise of our
inherent criminality. It fits right in with Trump’s recent embrace of the fascist
policy of registering Muslim citizens in a national database and requiring
them to wear public identification. He condones the assault
on black and brown bodies while simultaneously criminalizing us, all to
discourage any sympathy. Why should anyone hear calls for an
appreciation for black lives, for instance, if black murderers are not only
killing their own at such crazy rates, but are also the primary slayers of
This misuse of data is not unique to Trump, of course. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted last year on NBC’s Meet the Press that too much attention was being paid to police killings of unarmed black people and that black communities needed to instead focus on “the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks”—the reason, he claimed, for the heavy police presence in those communities. Giuliani didn’t say a word about white communities needing similar policing, but in 2011, white offenders committed 83 percent of white homicides. In 2014, it was 82 percent, but Giuliani couldn’t have known that last stat at the time. When he said those words on NBC, it was still late November of last year—coincidentally, the exact same morning that Tamir Rice died in a Cleveland hospital.
The most Trump has to worry about here is his political future, and that seems in pretty good shape; his polling strength seems renewed after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. The stakes for those of us whom Trump scapegoats for votes, potentially even a future Tamir Rice, are much higher. We are left to be increasingly concerned about how our fellow citizens, particularly the police, approach us in everyday interactions. We become inhuman and beastlike, as Brown did in the eyes of the Ferguson cop who killed him. Our children magically transform into adults, as officers considered a bleeding Tamir to be at the scene of his shooting. (“Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one said.)
Just as this idea of an inherent criminality is forced upon people of color, we are similarly pushed to accept police as universally heroic and deserving of the benefit of the doubt. There’s at least one case, Tamir’s, in which that is plainly not the case. Whether or not his death was the result of a racist act is less my concern, frankly, than the fact that it fits an all-too-familiar script of immediate and inherent suspicion. It is a mindset that made a boy with a toy into a threat, one that will only continue to prevail if the likes of Donald Trump are given the reins of power.
Listen to the newest episode of Intersection, featuring an interview with Tamir Rice’s grandmother.