Current Events

Tamir Rice and the Fears of Black Fathers for Their Sons

Jemar Tisby

Another blow has been struck against confidence in the criminal justice system in America. A grand jury decided not to indict the two officers whose actions on November 22, 2014 led to the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice. Officer Garmback drove the police cruiser and Officer Loehman jumped out of the vehicle before it had even stopped. Within two seconds, Loehman, who is white, had shot Rice, who is black. The boy later died in the hospital. Explanations for why the officers reacted the way they did raise even more questions and controversy. Finally, after over a year of investigation, jurors decided the incident did not merit a trial to test the justice of the officer’s actions.

As citizens who value the rule of law we can neither condemn all police officers nor disregard the process that led to a non-indictment. The solution to injustice is not more injustice. Righteous indignation cannot devolve into lawless action. But if we can’t repudiate the criminal justice system, its personnel or its processes altogether, neither can we disregard its failure to honor the dignity of African American men, women, boys, and girls.

In the course of weeks and months, the sting of this non-indictment will fade. It is likely another tragedy will occur to reopen wounds that never completely healed. And it is those wounds to which we, as a society, must attend.

The death of Tamir affected more than his family, the city of Cleveland, or its police force. His death affected all Americans, especially those of African descent. The decision not to indict deepens the cut and scars the soul of any black person with enough emotional fortitude to reflect on these events and their implications. I am one of those who have chosen to reflect, and I am not alone. Below I have included my lament and two others (originally posted on Facebook) for our black sons. These reactions reveal that the legacy of Tamir Rice’s death and the non-indictment of the officers responsible is the constant fear of simply existing as a black person in America.

From Jemar
This one really hurts. My beautiful, black boy is five years old right now. Statistics say that by the age of 10 people will, on average, perceive him to be four years older than he is and as more likely to be guilty of a felony. When he and his eight year old cousin, another African American male, play together in public spaces, I see the looks, the glances, the apprehension. Such experiences will only increase in frequency and seriousness as they get older. Being young and black in America is authentically deadly. My heart wastes away, and my soul weeps. Yet I will trust in the Lord.
from John
To know that every time I walk in a Toys ‘R Us with him he may leave disappointed that he couldn’t get anything that looks remotely close to a gun (or projectile weapon) hurts as a father. But a Hot Wheels car set is safer for him.
To know that he senses dad’s palpable fear when dad passes a cop and dad’s hands tense up on the wheel is dehumanizing as a father. But a healthy fear is safer than an unhealthy fantasy (read: there are no race issues with the boys in blue).
Yet, he learns these rules daily. As much of a rite of passage as the birds and bees conversation between black fathers and their boys. This is our reality. Praying for the Rice family and their community.
From Tyler
One day, I hope to have a son. When he is 12, I pray this country sees his humanity, his dignity, his potential, his intrinsic worth. I pray his life isn’t casually diminished. I pray his existence is protected by the values this nation insists it truly believes.
I pray police handcuffs never hug his wrists, but if they do, I pray he is treated as a human being not animal. I pray he never picks up anything that looks like a weapon, but if he does, I pray he is given a reasonable chance to put it down. I pray he never stands in front of a judge, but if he does, I pray he receives proper legal representation. I pray that his father doesn’t just hopefully offer prayers without petitioning, acting and marching for every living kid who looks like he will.
I pray that America gives my son the justice it hasn’t extended to ‪#‎TamirRice‬. And I have to pray, because America has yet to prove to me, or to us, that it will.

Psalm 42:1-5

1As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

10 thoughts on “Tamir Rice and the Fears of Black Fathers for Their Sons

  1. Kevin Warren

    I long for the day when we are all just children of God. Not black, not white. Children of a living God. Brothers and sisters. All wonderfully made in the image of our Creator.

  2. David J.

    Jemar: I appreciate the reply, including the absence of the kind of condescension and incivility of comments such as Sidney Thompson’s. I’ve read the post at the Federalist that you linked. I’m as conservative as anyone at that publication, but that post was sloppy. More relevant, it wasn’t focused on the actions of the officer whom the grand jury declined to indict but had a much broader scope. Perhaps the police department shouldn’t have hired the officer given his previous record, but that’s grounds for complaints (and even lawsuits) against the department; it is emphatically not grounds for charges against him in the absence of adequate evidence that he in fact acted criminally in this specific incident. Two other facts are what were relevant: what he was told by the dispatcher and what he saw and did when he arrived on scene. Even if the dispatcher (and/or the agency she worked for) should be held accountable for her failure to pass on the (obviously important and ultimately critical) information that the suspect appeared to be a juvenile and that the gun was probably fake, the undisputed fact is that the officer knew only “that an armed man in a public park was frightening local residents.” With only that information to go on, of course the responding officers were going to be on extreme alert and not take any chances. The officer cannot in any way be faulted for not knowing in advance that he would be confronting a likely juvenile with a probably fake gun. As for what he saw, said, and did on the scene, none of that evidence — other than a short video clip — has been presented to the public (or at least it isn’t discussed at all in the Federalist post). The grand jury, on the other hand, as I pointed out in my original comment, was presented with and sifted through significantly more evidence of those events. Their conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge the officer with criminal conduct doesn’t mean that they think the officer acted perfectly, that no one was negligent, that it was all the boy’s fault, that the shooting was unavoidable, etc. It simply means what it says: insufficient evidence of criminal conduct. It is illogical and irresponsible to take the grand jury’s non-action and to convince yourself that this is evidence of personal or systemic racism, and it is even more so to trumpet it to others as evidence of such. I’m asking for more attention to facts (and, as much as possible, to actual truth about what happened) than to history, assumptions, emotions, hindsight, and other factors that are more concerned with what we fear might have happened. That seems to me to be the most biblical approach, which is important to both of us. Thanks.

  3. GT

    What if the injustice here is prosecuting an officer who committed no crime? Do we want justice if it involves no prosecution?

    There is a narrative seems common from Michael Brown on down that any time there is a police shooting of a black person, the police are automatically guilty regardless of the facts. Those who haven’t seen the evidence have decided that justice means a certain outcome. Yet how did that get decided, particularly by those who haven’t seen the evidence?

    There seems no real consideration that the non-indictment is justice. Why not?

    As Christian leaders, we need to work for justice, even if it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative being offered by some. The police officer deserves justice no less than Tamir Rice or anyone else.

    The boy was 12, but he pulled a gun on a police officer instead of doing what he was told to do. This is a sad and tragic situation, but prosecuting a person unjustly is not the answer to it.

    There is a whole complex of issues including parenting (why did the boy have a real looking gun in public? Why wasn’t he taught to respect police officers no matter what? Why not simply do what he was told?), society, education, community, law enforcement, etc. Perhaps the police officer shot too quickly. But when someone is pulling out a gun on you instead of listening to you, things change quickly. Pulling a gun out and shooting within two seconds is not wrong if the other guy has a gun and is ready to shoot. How much time should he wait to find out if the gun is real? Three seconds? Five? Sixty?

    I have no idea whether this police officer should have been indicted or not. But I didn’t hear the evidence, and so far as I know neither did you. I pastor in an urban community that is predominantly black. Most of the teenagers in our youth group are black. I don’t take this lightly, but we need to pursue the truth, even if it doesn’t fit our desired narrative.

  4. Jemar Tisby


    Here’s a summary (from a very conservative source) of the legalities of the case and the string of “human error” that led to the death of a 12-year old boy. From the hiring of personnel to the grand jury, this was a tragedy waiting to happen and systemic changes need to be implemented immediately.

  5. Sidney Thompson

    David J, read your spiel and it assumes a lot of “perfection” at every step of the process, and as the prosecutor stated “perfect storm of human error” that human error was not just with the law enforcement officers you proclaim met the standards of not having the grand jury indict them. Since the judiciary system is not “perfect” your presumptions and straw man arguments fail “perfectly.” The miasma of law enforcement must make your head spin, but most POCs can see through the haze of doubt. As others mention and we see correctly that POCs rarely walk away from encounters when whites do so more frequently and live to tell their side of the story…a luxury POCs do not have bottom line. You are actually wanting to “blame the victim” on this one and absolve law enforcement of all criminal activity. Finally, as you wanted to make it a “civil rights” violation issue, that a court could find monetary damages for harms caused, if the parents or family do not have the income to hire a lawyer, pay the fees even if they are on contingency, and hire all the experts needed to win such a case, that might happen…but don’t on it as we see more and more cases never get to a civil court case. However, in most instances the case gets brushed under the rug and another group of black voices are silenced. Not buying your version of “perfection” either in the actions of law enforcement, the judicial system, nor your desire to weave a tale of “innocence.” I’d suggest you grow up and smell the garbage for what it is.

  6. Emma Jones

    This is all very well and tragic but replica guns look very much like real ones to most people. What are black fathers doing allowing their children to mess with guns, even fake ones? There’s such an obsession in the States with religion and God – get rid and get rid. If you allow your kids to behave like gangsters, they are going to get killed, whatever colour they are.

  7. David J.

    Hold on, hold on, hold on. You’re assuming your conclusion. (And your commenters are assuming racist predispositions on the part of the officers.) The only way “[a]nother blow has been struck against confidence in the criminal justice system in America” or that system “fail[ed] to honor the dignity of African American men, women, boys, and girls” is if the grand jury got it wrong. How would you know that, much less have grounds to impugn their integrity (or the entire system) if you weren’t on the grand jury? You didn’t hear the testimony they did (including from the officers) or review the exhibits and other evidence they did. You didn’t deliberate with them. Unless you’re alleging that the police officers AND the grand jurors AND the prosecutors were all racist together, “the criminal justice system in America” worked — the officers were made to defend their actions to a properly constituted grand jury, the body that routinely decides who should be indicted and prosecuted and who should not. The officers weren’t exempted from the system. No, they won’t have to face a criminal trial, but you seem not to understand the workings of a grand jury if you actually think no one “test[ed] the justice of the officer’s actions,” because that is what in fact the grand jury did — and in a one-sided forum where the officers would not have been permitted to have their attorneys present to ask cross-examine witnesses or to make any arguments to the jurors. Moreover, I’m sure the officers face civil lawsuits as well, as to which the burden of proof isn’t “beyond a reasonable doubt” but is instead whether they “more likely than not” were negligent (or worse). They may well be found liable under that standard, so the legal system as a whole hasn’t reached a final conclusion yet.

    Likewise, “The decision not to indict deepens the cut and scars the soul of any black person with enough emotional fortitude to reflect on these events and their implications” only if the grand jury got it wrong AND did so not because there was room for reasonable people to disagree but because they were racists.

    I would have hoped for more careful analysis from an RTS grad and staff member.

  8. Paige Britton

    Thanks for this, Jemar.
    Have you ever read, or read recently, the book Invisible Punishment (eds. Marc Mauer & Meda Chesney-Lind, c2001)? I’m working through it and just happened to read today James Forman Jr.’s excellent chapter “Children, Cops, and Citizenship,” which made me think of you in your role as an educator even before I saw this post. Might be a timely read or reread for you now.

  9. Hovet Lee Dixon, Jr.

    The Ghost of Tamir Rice: Will Somebody Please Speak For Me?

    “Given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and communications by all involved that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police,” McGinty said.

    Greetings, kinfolks! I tried to sleep in this morning. However, ‘The Spirit’ directed a faint voice upon my earlobes. It wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tossed and turned. The voice was unfamiliar to my hearing, but the message conveyed was all too familiar. The voice was that of Tamir Rice crying out for justice, insisting his voice be heard.

    I got up out of my bed to watch the video of that November 2014 day in Cleveland. What I saw was my very own 7-year old son in the likes of 12-year old Tamir Rice outside playing with a toy gun made readily available in every toy store across America…no gun permit or parental advisory necessary. He was simply doing what young boys like to do. If I had to indulge in assumptions, I would assume Tamir had aspirations of being some sort of law enforcement agent. The video portrayed him walking and shooting his gun at invisible/fairytale ‘bad guys’ in the same manner the cops shot him. My son has a fetish for toy Nerf guns, which is a hot commodity amongst little boys right now. I often sit and watch him dress up like a ‘Special Ops’ military style law enforcement agent and run in and out of the house hunting down the ‘bad guys’. I did the exact same thing as a kid with peers in my neighborhood growing up. However, my means of having such fun didn’t come at the expense of my life. Tamir Rice didn’t deserve the death sentence for being a typical kid. If he’s deemed irresponsible in his actions, or a risk-taker for playing with such a realistic looking toy gun, then why not hold the manufacturer and toy store for making it so closely similar to that of a real gun accountable as well? It sickens me that adults can make such a grave error and then blame this helpless kid for simply being a kid.

    This Officer Loehmann was an ‘Officer-in-Training’, which further makes the error more disheartening. Either his training officer, Officer Garmback, was training him to shoot first and answer questions later, or the OIT was simply fearful of a kid of color with a ‘fake’ gun. The word ‘fake’ is not to be taken lightly here, because it was precisely the entail the officers had prior to arriving to the scene. The caller reported the gun the individual had walking around the park with was “probably fake”. The video I watched multiple times this morning showed the policemen’s patrol car had barely come to a complete stop before Officer Loehmann jumped out and started firing his weapon. Young Tamir Rice was shot less than 5 seconds within being encountered by the officers. In my opinion, they arrived with the all too familiar mentalities: “Shoot a person of color first, and answer any questions later.” That sounds bias on my part, and some may deem me a borderline ‘racist’ (give me a break), but the statistics of police encounters with subjects/perpetrators of color versus those not of color are alarmingly lopsided when we speak of who walks away with life and who doesn’t. It behooves me to know people who killed several in movie theaters in Colorado and Louisiana were able to walk away with life. Law enforcement agents literally received entail that shots were fired and the subjects/perpetrators were armed and dangerous prior to arriving to these theaters. However, they lived to see their dates in court. Timothy McVeigh orchestrated one of the most horrific terrorist acts on American soil, but yet although incarcerated he’s deemed somewhat of a braveheart by the way his act of terror is written in American History. The fact of the matter is: He lived to see another day beyond his act of terror. A guy walks in an abortion clinic and kills individuals because he’s not for women having the freedom to determine life or not regarding child-bearing. He was deemed armed and dangerous and deaths were reported prior to law enforcement agents arriving to the scene. However, he was placed in handcuffs. Call me a ‘racist’ or ‘too radical’ all you like, but if the facts aren’t awakening your consciousness in this regard, I don’t know what will. America has a race problem, and my consciousness of that race problem doesn’t make me a ‘racist’ for being aware. It’s like law enforcement agencies are killing people of color at a rapid pace, but want people of color to turn the other cheek, put on blindfolds, or put muzzles over our mouths. “Let us kill you, and you better like it” seems to be their expectations. Sadly, this ‘stuff’ is happening on camera, and justice is still undermined.

    Prosecutor McGinty suggested it was a “perfect storm of human error”, which I perceived as a compromising way to say they know the Officer-in-Training messed up, but it would taint the validity of the judicial system if they went on record saying the OIT was irresponsible. Prosecutor McGinty, in the same press conference, also suggested he hopes the civil rights investigative portion will provide the family the relief they are seeking. Basically, he hopes they are granted financial compensation to ease their hurt and pain. Such a gesture devalues the life of Tamir Rice, as well as victims of like circumstances. It’s becoming a national anthem it seems like, and voices from the graveyards are becoming louder in unison as ghosts of color.

    Tamir Rice was a 12-year old kid, living free from the worries of the world on that day his life was taken. He was enjoying being a kid. That’s what kids supposed to do! Has America become a dictator of which race of kids can indulge in what it has painted as the idealistic childhood? It’s ‘The America Way’ to buy some kids a pickup truck with a deer rifle in the window at age 16. They live to hunt and see another day. It’s ‘The American Way’ for kids to learn the art of handling a firearm and shooting at an early age in some households in order to protect oneself from any harm and danger. However, it doesn’t come at the expense of life like it did for Tamir Rice.

    A dear friend of mine recently asked me why was I buying toy guns for my 7-year old son in a sense of humor and sarcasm after I posted a picture to social media of him in his homemade ‘Special Ops’ gear hiding in is homemade man hole with his Nerf guns here in our livingroom. She was being sarcastic, as we often be with one another. However, I couldn’t help but to think about the double-standards that have been placed over one childhood versus the other as it pertains to race. Tamir Rice’s circumstance has prompted people of color to have very different conversations about toy guns with our kids than those not of color. Yes, as my son’s father, I can simply say he’s not getting a toy gun as a kid like I had done many years prior to his 7th birthday. However, he’s a big dreamer like I was as a kid and still am. If he is to be a law enforcement agent (Special Ops), surely I should be his biggest supporter. There’s no statue of limitations on what age dreams can begin and end. On that cold November 2014 day in Cleveland, Ohio, Tamir Rice’s dream became a nightmare for his family and friends, as well as a stumbling block for justice and equality in America.

    Until we collectively, across all races and ethnicities, come together to tackle America’s biases within the judicial system head on, we will forever be deeming sad days for people of color as they relate to ‘no justice’ for individuals like Tamir Rice. That kid deserved at least a chance to give an explanation, and within less than five seconds he was encountered by a firing squad of the people he trusted and adored most. Insane and purely ridiculous to say the least in my opinion! Yes, law enforcement agencies do have risky jobs to fulfill, but as of late, the tunes being sung aren’t that diverse in tragic and unfortunate outcomes. Tamir Rice justice should stretch from that park in Cleveland, Ohio to the Prosecutor’s Office to the Department of Justice to the steps of the White House and back to the graveyard in which his lifeless dreams preside their resting place. What happened to that young man that day was inhumane, and the entire world should know it, accept it, and collectively say: “America, enough is enough!”

    No, I am not a ‘racist’, I’m just wise and conscious enough to see my particular race is dying like deer during hunting season at the hands of law enforcement to no avail. If this context makes you uneasy, then you’re partially why America can’t be great as it can be. One can’t possibly understand the feeling unless you’ve walked a mile in our shoes. Tamir Rice’s voice is with the angels now, but ‘I Am Tamir Rice’ is my motto, and should be everyone else’s motto moving forward. I challenge you to say something on this young man’s behalf. Prosecutor McGinty, Officers Loehmann & Garmback, the DOJ, and President Barack Obama should all hear Tamir Rice’s voice through our actions to seek his justice. America, UNITE!!!

    Life’s a breeze. Be easy.

    -Hovet (12/29/15)
    *teary eyed and determined*

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