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Tamir Rice Acted Like a Kid, and Police Officers Shot Him to Death for it

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy.

Set aside everything else for now: the gazebo he was sitting in, the toy gun he sort of lazily waved around on the herky-jerky surveillance footage, the sweatshirt that obscured his waistband, the 911 caller who told the dispatcher that the gun Tamir held was “probably fake” but called just in case, the police officers who drove up on the grass and screamed at Tamir and then fired, the tearful funeral, the angry protests, the investigation that dragged on and on, the heavily redacted official report, the police officers’ oddly inconsistent accounts of what happened, the grand jury that chose not to indict the officers, and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who, incredibly (?), admitted on Monday that he recommended that very result. Set all that aside and remember that Tamir was 12 years old. He was a child. Playing with a toy, in a park.

From the Washington Post:

Tamir can be seen on the surveillance tape playing with snowballs and pointing his gun at imaginary villains.

Throwing snowballs and being an action hero! Writing as a former middle school kid who goofed around at the local rec center, Tamir’s behavior seems pretty consistent with middle school kids goofing around at the local rec center. On the day two police officers shot him to death, Tamir wasn’t old enough to buy a drink, or drive a car, or get an after-school job. He couldn’t see a PG-13 movie without an adult present.

Rationalizing or explaining away the death of a 12-year-old as an inevitable, expected outcome should be a facially impossible task. But the alternative—that two police officers killed an unarmed, harmless child, and there is nothing to be done about it—is too awful a reality to consider. Fortunately, those in power have an alternative at their disposal: they can assuage their discomfort with a horrifying result by portraying that result as the product of the powerless party’s choices. So on Monday, prosecutor Tim McGinty framed the story of Tamir Rice using the language of responsibility for one’s actions, of culpability for one’s failings. But it was the choices of the kid who was shot to death, not the armed adult who pulled the trigger, that were to blame.

As evidence that officers are not responsible for Tamir’s death, McGinty explains in grotesque detail exactly which of Tamir’s actions (all of which parents should recognize as typical to every 12-year-old boy ever) constituted his tacit acquiescence to being shot to death. This narrative borders on the delusional. Tamir chose to be in that park on that day. He chose to play around with a toy gun that lacked the trademark orange tip. He chose to play with a toy gun, and not some other innocuous toy that would not attract quite as much attention. He should have known better.

Instead of complying, the boy lifted his shirt and reached into his waistband, [the officer] said, prompting the officer to run for cover behind the cruiser.

It goes on. Tamir chose to wave the toy gun around, and to put it in his waistband, and to not put his hands up when the officers told him to do so. This shooting wasn’t negligent. It was simple cause and effect. Tamir didn’t do what the officers told him. What did he expect would happen? 

While he scrutinizes every single one of Tamir’s last moments for evidence of fault, McGinty simultaneously encourages and re-encourages you to carefully consider the perspective of the officer, a grown man with a very real gun. He, not Tamir, is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. On Monday, McGinty couldn’t offer even a one-sentence acknowledgment of the wrongfulness of Tamir’s death without reiterating that, no, remember, this was a mistake, but it was not the officers’ fault.

“It is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older

BNBG: Big Negro, Big Gun.

and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day —

Tamir knew that his toy might “get him in trouble.” Like they always say: play with fire (a toy, in a park), and you might get burned (shot to death).

either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun,” McGinty said. “But…

The briefest concession that Tamir perhaps, just maybe, didn’t deserve what happened to him, and then, BUT!

“…there was no way for the officers to know that, because they saw the events rapidly unfolding in front of them from a very different perspective.”

Consider the myriad factors that forced officers’ hands, McGinty urges. They responded quickly. They lacked complete information; although the 911 caller had told the dispatcher that Tamir Rice was a kid with a “probably fake” gun, the dispatcher didn’t pass that message along, so the officers believed they were dealing with a dangerous, unpredictable active shooter. Throughout the entire episode, they scrupulously did what they were trained to do.

“I kept my eyes on the suspect the entire time,” Loehmann said. “I was fixed on his waistband and hand area. I was trained to keep my eyes on his hands because ‘hands may kill.’ ”

To the officers, McGinty offers, the gun looked real. They believed that they were in danger. In a move that seems particularly grotesque given Tamir’s age—again, 12—McGinty couldn’t stop talking about about how big Tamir was, as if his weight, waist measurement, and shoe size were sufficient to invite bullets in a city park.

Prosecutors stressed that Tamir was large for his age — a 175-pound boy who wore size-36 pants and size-12 shoes.

The officers did what they had to do, and they acted only when Tamir made them do so.

When he saw Tamir’s elbow moving upward and the weapon coming up out of his pants, Loehmann said, he fired two shots.

This is, of course, insane. Tamir was a child, pretending to be Jason Bourne or whoever and hanging out in the park on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Tamir Rice was 12 years old. How in the world was he supposed to know that the penalty for anything less than instantaneousprecise compliance would be getting shot three times?

Consider what McGinty did not. Tamir was a 12-year-old boy, bored, sitting around and playing with a toy gun on a throwaway Saturday afternoon. He was daydreaming, waving the gun around like an action hero or a soldier or maybe a cop. And then, suddenly, an actual cop car came screeching to a halt on the grassy patch directly front of him, and two officers jumped out and screamed at him to put his hands up. He was scared and flustered and disoriented. Maybe he understood what they were saying, and maybe he didn’t. Things probably moved in slow motion, and it didn’t seem like it could be real, this movie scene unfolding in front of him instead. Something very bad was happening, sure, but what? What did he do? He was just goofing around, lost in thought. Suddenly filled with dread at the real guns staring him down, he all at once wanted to explain that what was in his hands was a toy, and say that he didn’t do anything wrong, and make this whole scary situation stop. But damn, the cops were still screaming, and their guns were out, and words weren’t exactly coming easily. So he decided to do the next best thing to talking, the thing that would help everyone understand: he showed them the toy gun. And then they fired.

It’s a cruel irony that the only people armed with actual guns were the type who shoot first (within seconds of arriving on the scene, according to the official report) and ask questions last. In his entire explanation of what happened to Tamir, McGinty never suggests that, perhaps, the two armed adult law enforcement officers couldn’t have waited just a few beats more to see if Tamir actually wanted to shoot them, or if he had a gun at all, or if he was indeed just a 12-year-old playing with a toy.

McGinty goes to great lengths to frame Tamir’s death as a misunderstanding caused by Tamir’s choices. Tamir acted irrationally, officers responded rationally, and tragedy resulted. But if he were to consider for one moment Tamir’s point of view, he might arrive at an entirely plausible alternative explanation to the one offered on Monday: Tamir acted rationally, like any 12-year-old would. It was the police officers who responded irrationally. And since police officers are held to a higher standard in the execution of their duties, those who exercise poor judgment will be held responsible. Instead, McGinty’s staunch refusal to consider any perspectives other than those of the men with the guns leads inexorably to his absurd conclusion: that “getting shot to death by police officers” falls within the scope of expected outcomes for kids who play in the park. He ignores both human nature and common sense in a strained effort to show that the horrible thing that happened is, in fact, nobody’s responsibility but Tamir’s.

Here’s what Tamir Rice’s mom had to say after Monday’s announcement:

“Officer Loehmann shot my son in less than a second. All I wanted was someone to be held accountable.”

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor did hold someone responsible. The problem is that that person was Tamir. He was a normal kid who was acting like a normal kid, and the people charged with protecting him killed him for it.

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