By Mychal Denzel Smith
We have been here before and we will find ourselves here again. The extrajudicial killing of black people like 12-year-old Tamir Rice is not new, and neither is the fact that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who killed him, will not face any criminal charges. Our recent history with Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Daniel Pantaleo and Eric Garner in New York, and the mysterious death of Sandra Bland in Walter County, Texas, show us how little to expect for black lives in the current “justice” system.
The killing of Tamir Rice felt like it could have been different. He was a 12-year-old shot in broad daylight while playing with a toy gun. That much was surmised, or at least hypothesized, by the person who made the initial 911 call. But somehow, that information didn’t make it to the officers who responded to the call, Loehmann and Frank Garmback, and when they arrived to the scene Loehmann opened fire within two seconds. They later claimed that Tamir had ignored their repeated commands to drop the (toy) weapon, but video that surfaced shows them acting more swiftly than their accounts of the shooting would have you believe—too swiftly to have assessed any threat, to make any commands, or made any good-faith attempt at de-escalation. It was the video, that damning piece of evidence, that was supposed to make this time different—the video we didn’t have when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
The police are not afraid of cameras because the cameras only capture the police doing their jobs.
We had video when Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner, and that didn’t make a difference. But maybe Tamir, a child, would be a more sympathetic victim than the 53-year-old Garner, who was accused of the vicious crime of selling loose cigarettes. Tamir was a child playing in the park.
But black children aren’t children, as we were reminded after the McKinney, Texas, pool-party incident, where officers assaulted a black girl wearing a bathing suit, and the assault on a 16-year-old Spring Valley High School student in South Carolina. Black children are assumed latent criminals with violent intentions. Tamir was big for his age and therefore perceived as older, we are told, and should have known as much before playing with his toy gun in a public space. Then again, Ohio is a state where it is legal for an adult to carry a firearm openly, so what grounds, then, did the police have for shooting him?
And what to make of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty’s declining to indict Loehmann and Garmback, and, in the words of Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, acting “like the police officers’ defense attorney” by suggesting to the grand jury that no charges be brought against them? What does it mean when those charged with upholding the law interpret the law in a way that leads no one being held accountable for the death of a 12-year-old black child? How could anyone look at that video and draw any other conclusion than the legal definition of murder?
The video didn’t matter to McGinty, because killing black people is not a crime. The police are not afraid of cameras, because the cameras only capture the police doing their jobs. “Serve and protect,” as popularly understood, is a myth. For the police, to serve means to use violence, including lethal force, at their discretion at any time, and to protect means to validate the threat of blackness born of the racist imagination. They are not meant to deter or prevent crime; the police exist to violently reinforce the status quo of white supremacy and economic degradation. Killing black people is not a crime. Instead, it is the basis of American identity.
Every now and then, the system surprises us, as in the case of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, recently convicted on four counts of rape after assaulting 13 black women. It’s these moments that are suppose to inspire hope that the system can be tinkered with and reformed, that we can find justice for black lives within the current structure. But this is the exception. More often, “justice” looks like non-indictments in the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice. It looks like a year to bring charges against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, or a hung jury in the case of William Porter, the first officer to go to trial for the death of Freddie Gray. More often than not, “justice” looks like black people being killed by police with no headlines or hashtags. It is the routine killing of black people by the state with no chance for accountability.
When indictments and charges and convictions do come down, it feels like a moment to rejoice. This system has never accounted for black people as citizens, so on the rare occasion that it does, there is some relief. But that relief is tempered by the fact that killings and beatings will continue, no matter the consequences for a select few officers, because the job of the police has not changed. We still call on them to “serve and protect”—to arrest and kill—because every black child is seen as latent criminal with violent intentions. We are still delusional about the role police can play in curbing violence. We still think that 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who was killed when cops responded to a domestic disturbance call in Chicago last weekend, deserved to die, and that 55-year-old Bettie Jones’s death in the same incident was an “accident.” We think Tamir Rice’s being big for his age is enough of a justification for the bullet that killed him.
We have been here before and, unless white people decide that black lives are more valuable than the American identity built on violence toward blackness, we will find ourselves here again. Until then, the police will do their jobs, the cameras will capture it, and everyone will go about their business.