Democracy cannot breathe, and will die, if those enjoined to protect and uphold the law snuff it out unjustly and without consequence. Justice cannot breathe when Black men and boys and women and girls are routinely profiled, abused, arrested, and killed with impunity by police officers. We must stop this. We must protect the lives of our young people—all of them. God did not make two classes of people or children and America continues to do so at its peril.
Like so many I have been deeply disturbed by the senseless loss of Black male lives at the hands of law enforcement officials. I was particularly affected by Tamir Rice’s senseless death—a 12-year-old sixth grader who loved drawing, basketball, playing the drums, and performing in his school’s drumline. Sometimes his teacher had to remind him not to tap a song on his desk with his fingers. When Tamir, a mere boy child, was shot and killed last November, who was there to protect him?
Not Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann—the man who shot him. Tamir was sitting outside a recreation center near his home holding a friend’s toy gun when Loehmann careened up in his squad car with his training officer. The surveillance video shows Loehmann took less than two seconds between getting out of the barely-stopped car and shooting Tamir. Worse, this child was left mortally wounded on the ground in agony for nearly four minutes while neither Loehmann nor his trainer Frank Garmback administered any first aid. An FBI agent who happened to be nearby responded to the police activity and was the first one to try to give Tamir help. When Tamir’s 14-year-old sister ran to see and comfort him she was tackled by a police officer, handcuffed, and put in the back of a squad car unable to comfort her stricken brother. When Tamir’s mother arrived at the same time as the ambulance the police wouldn’t let her get close to her son and she said they threatened to handcuff and arrest her too if she didn’t calm down. She was then denied entrance to the back of the ambulance to ride with or hold the hand of her son on the way to the hospital. I can only imagine the deep terror of both mother and child isolated from each other. Tamir died from his injuries the next day.
Who was there to protect Tamir? Not the Cleveland Police Department, who supposedly hired Officer Loehmann and put him out on their city’s streets before fully reviewing his previous record as a police officer. His personnel file from the Independence, Ohio Police Department shows he resigned in December 2012 just five months after he started training when he learned a disciplinary process of separation had already begun—appearing to have quit before he was fired. His previous supervisors said he displayed “a pattern of lack of maturity, indiscretion, and not following instructions,” a “dangerous loss of composure during live range training,” and an “inability to manage personal stress.” These red flags for the Independence Police Department should have been warning signs for Cleveland or any police department in assessing fitness for service. The Cleveland Police Department has a long history of bad policing that harms Black boys and men and those with mental illness. Just days after Tamir was killed the U.S. Department of Justice released harshly critical results of a civil rights investigation on overuse of force by the Cleveland police department and called for massive reforms.
The scene that unfolded in the minutes Tamir lay on the ground bleeding without comfort from anyone is perhaps the hardest part to understand. What kind of human beings and responsible law enforcement officials would act this way? Gunning down a 12-year-old, threatening his distraught sister and mother, and standing by watching a child just shot lying on the snowy ground dying?
Who was there to protect Tamir? In the end, no one. Now a child who might have become a musician or an artist or anything else he wanted to be is dead, and his mother has joined a long, long list of Black mothers crying out for justice. A few weeks after Tamir’s death she stood at a Washington, D.C. rally with Trayvon Martin’s mother and the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other urnarmed Black boys and men killed by police and told the crowd: “I have one thing to say to the police force: Don’t shoot. Our children want to grow up.”
Our children want to grow up. Our children deserve to grow up. And it is the responsibility of every adult in every sector to see they grow up safely and respected and seen and are not subject to “othering”—as someone less than or apart from ourselves. Until we can achieve a profound change in law enforcement culture and their taking as much care in protecting Black boys’ lives as White boys’ lives, our children are going to remain at risk. That places a burden on Black parents and faith congregations and community leaders and educators and everyone who believes in justice to stand up and do everything possible to make sure our children get home safely and can reach adulthood.
I am so grateful that the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is the Senior Pastor, is sharing the two-minute video message “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival If Stopped by the Police” to help Black parents and every member of the community help stop the killing of Black children. We must talk to our children. We must show them this video. We must post these ten rules for survival everywhere:
These rules would not have saved Tamir Rice, who never got a chance to say a word. The officer never really saw Tamir. The dispatcher who had been told the gun he was holding was probably a toy must not have thought that information from an inner city address was important enough to transmit. I hope we will see justice served in Tamir’s case soon so that parents and children in Cleveland can see a sign of hope that Black boys’ lives truly matter. And I hope that Trinity’s rules will help save some children’s lives until we can build the kind of America and law enforcement culture that respects the sanctity of every child as if he or she were our own.