Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said Saturday that he wanted "intelligent discussion" around the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer. It sounds like a commendable aim from the prosecutor, following his office's release this weekend of a lengthy, redacted report on the incident. But from where I'm standing, there's not much to discuss.
McGinty's comments betrayed the dissonance between public opinion and official narrative. "If we wait years for all litigation to be completed before the citizens are allowed to know what actually happened," he said, "we will have squandered our best opportunity to institute needed changes in use of force policy, police training, and leadership." And I agree; we shouldn't wait for a drawn out judicial procedure to weigh in on the shooting, or the context of racist police violence in which it took place. But citizens, rightfully furious over the young black boy's killing, were not waiting for "years" for litigation to be complete before taking action.
Karl Marx had a point when he noted that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce." The tragic repetition has not stopped when it comes to cops killing unarmed black people. We find ourselves at a grimly farcical point, however, when a state prosecutor, who has failed to bring charges against Rice's killers in the seven months since the child's death, is telling an enraged, pained public that we should not wait for litigation to be complete to call for change.
We were not waiting. Nor were we waiting for a 244-page investigation to see vicious injustice in the brutal death of another black child by police bullet.
Thanks to surveillance footage, we know that Officer Tim Loehmann stepped out of his police cruiser just feet from Rice, while the car had not yet even pulled to a complete halt. We know from video footage that the cop fired two shots at the boy almost immediately—Rice was struck in the abdomen within "one to two seconds" of the car's arrival. We know that neither cop administered first aid to the child, who died the next day.
We know Rice was holding a pellet gun, and that the 911 caller who reported him had hypothesized that the weapon was fake, but that this crucial particular was not conveyed by the dispatcher to the officers. The silent footage sees Rice walking aimlessly around a largely desolate playground, before the cop car pulls up at high speed.
Perhaps the most significant detail in the new report is that witnesses contradict the officers' initial claim that they issued warnings from the car before shooting. One witness claims to have heard shouts, but only after the sound of shots. Whether the cops did or did not warn Rice is all important in determining whether the use of deadly force was justified, in the eyes of the law. But it points to the excessive leeway that U.S. justice accords police, that Loehmann's account has even been entertained.
Only in the magical realist world of police reports could three warnings to drop a weapon be issued, heard, and responded to during seconds in which the cop car is anywhere near the boy before he is gunned down. Loehmann's claim requires no less than a rip in the spacetime continuum to be plausible. It belongs in the canon of fantastical police killing narratives that assert Freddie Gray could snap his own spine, or that young black men, searched for weapons, handcuffed and placed in the back of police cars, manage to shoot themselves in the head.
A Cleveland judge, who has already concluded that there is probable cause to prosecute both officers, said he was "thunderstruck by how quickly this turned deadly." His turn of phrase is eerily apt. Thunder doesn't strike, it's the roar created by something that does. And since Rice was struck down, there has been little more than thunder from the authorities.
Community leaders, making use of a rare Ohio legal loophole, appealed directly to the judge to call for charges against the cops. The judge agreed with their grounds, but asserted that his findings were only a recommendation to the prosecutors. The community effort to intervene in judicial business-as-usual was effective, but no challenge to the (overreaching) authority of prosecutors in U.S. justice.
With the Rice shooting, the prosecutor is playing by the book. "This case, as with all other fatal use of deadly force cases involving law enforcement, will go to the Grand Jury," McGinty said in the statement following the judge's probable cause decision. McGinty's appeal to standard judicial process seems anodyne, until we consider other recent cases of police deadly force taking black life, and how justice in Cleveland has been delivered. Even before Rice's death, a Justice Department report criticized the Cleveland Police Department for its "excessive and unreasonable" use of force.
In 2012, Cleveland officer Michael Brelo stood on the hood of a car and shot at the unarmed black occupants 15 times. McGinty's office didn't bring a murder charge—Brelo was tried on voluntary manslaughter and assault. He was acquitted of all charges by a judge. Twelve other officers had already fired 100 bullets at the car in eight seconds before Brelo climbed atop the vehicle and shot 15 more times. He claimed he still feared for his life, believing the unarmed, bullet riddled couple were still shooting. They never shot once, their car had backfired. In acquitting Brelo, and in refusing to even bring a murder charge, and in legitimating his fear, the Cleveland justice system affirmed the most pernicious strain of police impunity: That officers are justified in treating black life itself as a deadly threat.
The speed with which the situation turned deadly for Rice points to the same fearful, racist sentiment, applied in this case to a child with a fake gun. The vile treatment of black children at a pool party in McKinney, Texas last week was another reminder that black children are by no means exempt from racist police abuse. It was tragedy, and tragic farce again—the historic, ongoing ideology of white supremacy, that demands the physical containment of "threatening" black bodies, crystallized in the image of a white cop sitting on the diminutive body of a 15-year-old black girl in a bikini.
Or the tragic scene of a 12-year-old boy wandering around a playground in the snow, before police arrive and immediately shoot him to the ground. And then the farcical claim from a cop, that he had "no choice," and the tragedy, once again, that such a defense is even entertained.