CLEVELAND, Ohio – The gazebo, under which 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by a Cleveland police officer five years ago, now commemorates that tragedy from its temporary home on the grounds of an art museum in Chicago -- nearly 350 miles away.
That’s how far we had to send it to escape facing what it symbolizes. The unthinkable death of a young black boy, who had been playing with a pellet gun, shot within seconds of a white rookie patrolman’s arrival. The surveillance footage captured it all, frame by excruciating frame. Tamir, one minute, tossing snowballs on the sidewalk, the next minute, bleeding out in the snowy grass without medical attention. If you’re human, that video made something inside you buckle and break.
It was Cleveland’s most shameful moment, when the terrible headlines from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City had found us, too. We were the nadir in the perennial story of police violence against black Americans.
And just like every high-profile police shooting of this past decade, Tamir’s slaying became a painful source of division and contempt, as a grand jury declined to indict the officer who pulled the trigger and the police union spent its resources vilifying a 12-year-old boy. So whatever sense of humanity Tamir’s death might have evoked in us as a city, we buried it deep, deep below the level where catharsis, or even reckoning, is possible.
We made no room for the gazebo, let alone healing or justice. We made no room for Tamir.
Five years later, it should be no surprise to find that wound still raw in Cleveland, given how little we’ve tended to it. Certainly, it can be argued that Tamir’s death propelled police reform efforts that might have faced more resistance had Cleveland not been the home of one of America’s youngest casualties of the use of deadly force.
But our healing as a city depends on more than a set of reforms forced upon the police by a federal consent decree. It depends on whether we can finally acknowledge the injustice and racism that violently cut Tamir’s life so short. It depends on whether we are ready to embrace what Tamir’s story has come to symbolize throughout the world and to support his mother Samaria Rice’s efforts to affirm his legacy and help Cleveland find the lessons in his death.
Among her many projects, Rice is about to release “Tamir’s Safety Guide,” a publication created under the tutelage of the ACLU of Ohio, designed to help black youth stay safe during encounters with the police in every setting – during traffic stops, when cops show up at a home, if they approach a youth on the street.
The guide might seem like a simple public service for children, but it carries a message that is far deeper, meant for the rest of us. It’s built entirely on the understanding that black and brown people, especially men and boys, are inherently less safe than their white counterparts during police interactions. That police are more likely to perceive them as threatening. That black citizens are more likely to get shot.
The reason for that, put plainly, is white America’s dangerous, racist and irrational fear. And it is alive in Cleveland. The fact that a grand jury concluded that officer Timothy Loehmann’s use of deadly force on a child was reasonable because, he said, he was afraid of him, simply reinforced those racist fears in our moral code.
And we, as a city and region in the aftermath of Tamir’s death, never faced that shameful truth. We have done little in the five years since then to encourage the kinds of meaningful conversations, both publicly and privately, that confront that racism head on and disarm it.
Instead, we turned our back on Tamir and his family. We dispensed with the gazebo that the world has come to see as the most recognizable symbol of police brutality in America. And we accept as practical and necessary a pamphlet that, frankly, teaches black boys how to stay alive when they cross paths with the police -- never pausing for a moment to consider the injustice of the fact that those are actual life skills that youth of color must learn in Cleveland.
Tamir’s place in history is inexorable, but his legacy is yet in the making. Samaria Rice has been carrying it forward, doing what one mother can to honor her child’s memory and to subvert the racial injustice that took him from her. But she cannot do it alone. And truthfully, that responsibility belongs on our shoulders – not hers.
After a recent interview, Rice told me that her activism for Tamir is exhausting and isolating work, but that she believes this year’s grim milestone could mark a turning point, when Cleveland finally acknowledges the greater meaning of her son’s death.
Her optimism in that moment reminded me that this town is better than the indifference we’ve shown her and Tamir these past five years. It reminded me that it is possible for us to overcome our shame and do everything it would take to ensure that her child’s death by police gunfire is the last we see in this city. In any city.
On this fifth anniversary of Tamir’s slaying, let’s commit to proving we are worthy of her hope.