If Our Grief Were Colorblind
Hundreds showed up Wednesday morning for the funeral of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Tamir was black, and all but a handful of his mourners in the pews were black, too. A group of white people was in the balcony, armed with cameras and media credentials.
I point out the lack of white mourners at Tamir’s funeral because it illustrates a willful disconnect, here in Cleveland and across the country. We white people, even the good-hearted liberals among us, tend to view shooting deaths of black children as a black problem. We don’t say that. Most of us don’t even think it. But how else to explain why virtually none of us thinks we should show up at such a child’s funeral? How better to telegraph that we, too, have suffered a loss than to disrupt our day and walk through the door of that church?
I do not mean to suggest I was one of those few “good” white people. I sat with my reporter’s notepad throughout Tamir’s service. Halfway through, I left the balcony to sit among the mourners, but only because I was feeling so uncomfortable with the voluntary segregation.
By now, if you are even a casual consumer of news, you’ve heard about Tamir Rice. You may not know his name — I’ve already discovered that too many times in recent days right here in Cleveland — but you probably know how he died. On Nov. 22, Tamir was playing alone in a Cleveland city park with an air pellet gun missing the telltale orange tip identifying it as a toy. A 911 caller told the dispatcher that Tamir was waving a gun but stressed that it was probably a toy. This detail was not conveyed to the two policemen, both of them white, who answered the call.
The police car zoomed up only feet away from Tamir, and within two seconds, maybe three seconds at most, the child had fallen to the ground after rookie cop Timothy Loehmann leapt out and shot him twice.
We know these details not because of the original police account, which cast Tamir as a young man waving a gun into a frightened crowd and ignoring three warnings from police to drop his weapon. We know what happened because of a grainy video later released by police, which captured the last few viable minutes of Tamir’s life. It is a silent, haunting depiction of an innocent boy who had no idea his life was almost over.
Tamir’s death and too much of the local coverage since have sparked outrage here and across the country. A low point for the Northeast Ohio Media Group was to post online a story not of this young boy’s short life but of his parents’ past criminal records. As if their misdeeds led to — what exactly, their son’s being alone at that park? Their son’s playing with a toy gun? Their son’s inevitable death?
This is what happens when you prize clicks over context and you sideline veteran Guild journalists who’ve been covering Cleveland’s neighborhoods for decades. To his everlasting credit, the editor in charge of visuals at The Plain Dealer, NEOMG’s partner, insisted publicly that he would do everything in his power to keep the story out of the print edition. In a small victory for journalism, he prevailed.
Initially, Loehmann was depicted as a young cop who, according to an interview with his father, had left a suburban police force for Cleveland’s because he wanted more action.
On the day of Tamir’s funeral, that suburban police department, in Independence, Ohio, released Loehmann’s personnel file, revealing a far more troubling story behind his December 2012 departure.
From Deputy Chief Jim Polak’s Nov. 29, 2012, letter in Loehmann’s personnel file:
“It appears from the pattern developing within our short time frame with Ptl. Loehmann that he often feels that when told to do something, that those instructions are optional, and that he can manipulate them if he so feels it can better serve him. I do not say he is doing this for some benefit, or in an insubordinate way, but he just appears to have the mind set that if he thinks he knows better, (then) that is the course he follows.
“Due to his dangerous loss of composure during live range training and his inability to manage this personal stress, I do not believe Ptl. Loehmann shows the maturity needed to work in our employment.
“Unfortunately in law enforcement there are times when instructions need (to) be followed to the letter, and I am under the impression Ptl. Loehmann, under certain circumstances, will not react in the way instructed. …
“…I am recommending he be released from the employment of the City of Independence. I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct these deficiencies.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of mourners prayed for a boy who should not have died at the hands of a man who apparently should never have been a Cleveland cop.
“This is not a problem of black and white,” Tamir’s uncle Michael Petty said in his eulogy, “but of right and wrong.”
May we prove him right.
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 (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: A group of Penn State University students organized a protest in reaction to the events in Ferguson on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in University Park, PA. The students dressed in black and laid on the floor of the HUB building for 45 minutes, many wearing signs that said “Black Lives Matter.” (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/TNS)