Even when Samaria Rice is surrounded by others, as she was at Tuesday’s news conference, she still seems so alone.
She is Tamir Rice’s mother, and her public demeanor telegraphs the enduring shock of grief. Flanked by garrulous attorneys, surrounded by family and community leaders, she stood behind the microphone at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and said so little, so softly. Most of the time, her eyes were cast downward, and even when she looked straight ahead, it was not clear whom or what she saw.
I do not presume to know how this mother feels. Few, if any of us, can. She is a parent who has lost a child, and that is a truth that distances her from us other parents — especially us other parents — because who among us wants to imagine this? The particulars of this tragedy render her suffering almost unfathomable.
A Cleveland policeman who was deemed by his previous employer to be unqualified for the job jumped out of a car, just feet away from 12-year-old Tamir, and shot him in a public park. As attorneys Benjamin Crump and Walter Madison pointed out Tuesday, the digital clock on the video of the shooting reveals that only 0.792 of a second passed before Tamir Rice was on the ground. How could that boy possibly have heard any alleged police warnings about the pellet gun tucked in his waistband before he lay dying?
We are still waiting to learn whether that policeman or the one driving the car will be indicted. Late last week, the city filed its response in court to the Rice family’s civil lawsuit over Tamir’s death. The language in the city’s brief set off another firestorm because it claimed that Tamir’s death and injuries to his family in the minutes before the ambulance arrived “were directly and proximately caused by their own acts.” Further, the city said that Tamir caused his own death “by the failure … to exercise due care to avoid injury.”
This isn’t the first time a city employee has blamed Tamir for his own death. The president of the Cleveland police union, Steve Loomis, told me last month, in an interview for Politico, that he objected to descriptions of the 12-year-old as a boy.
“Tamir Rice is in the wrong,” he said, using the present tense to offer his version of events. “He’s menacing. He’s 5 feet 7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” (Read more.)
On Monday, Cleveland Law Director Barbara Langhenry lamented in a news conference that the media had cherry-picked language from a list of 20 defenses. Hardly the point, but it augments lawyers’ arguments that the language is boilerplate and to be expected. That may be so, but such a defense smacks of elitism: If only all of us were as smart as the lawyers.
Language matters, especially now that so many court documents are posted online. Surely, a skilled lawyer should expect a keen level of public scrutiny in this highly publicized tragedy.
Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, also a lawyer, offered a more thoughtful response at the same news conference.
“In an attempt to protect all of our defenses, we used words and we phrased things in such a way that was very insensitive, very insensitive to the tragedy in general, the family, and the victim in particular,” Jackson said. “So we are apologizing today as a city to the family of Tamir Rice and to the citizens of the city of Cleveland for our poor use of words and our insensitivity in the use of those words.”
The city’s response will be amended, the mayor said, to address the “insensitivity of the language” and characterization of Tamir Rice while still preserving the city’s right to a defense.
The mayor ended the news conference by succumbing to a grandfather’s emotions.
“I got a 12-year-old grandson, who’s about that tall,” he said, raising his hand to his shoulder. “Wears size 12s. … I have an 18-year-old grandson and a 9-year-old and a 3-year-old. And it’s difficult for me to” — he paused, his eyes welling with tears — “imagine that.”
The next day, Samaria Rice stepped up to the microphone at Olivet and responded in a voice that could barely be heard over the whir of cameras.
“The city’s answer was very disrespectful to my son, Tamir,” she said. “I have … not received an apology from the police department or the city of Cleveland in regards to the killing of my son.” Long pause. “And it hurts.”
Moments later, she walked out of the room and into another day defined by her grief.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.