Tamir Rice Reminds Us of How America Has Always (De)Valued Black Lives

by Leah C.K. Lewis

It is official: Cleveland’s descent into moral decay has been solidified with its proclamation that a twelve-year-old boy playing with a toy gun caused his own death.

James Holmes was 24 at the time he shot 24 people dead and wounded 70 others during his rampage at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012. At the time of this writing, James Holmes, due to the legal wrangling of his defense team, has yet to be tried for his “alleged” crimes: 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder. My point is that James Holmes actually killed people and wounded others and he is still alive.

Tamir Rice had a toy gun and he now lives, as we say in the African American church, on the other side of the Jordan.

Firearms have been around since the 1300s. I suspect the creation of the toy gun followed shortly thereafter. Toy guns and children of the United States have a long tradition. Who has not played with a toy gun? Who has not felt the exhalation of a water gun fight on a hot summer’s day? Even so, I am not a gun advocate—toy or otherwise.

We can argue all day long that Tamir never should have had that gun or that he never should have had it outside appearing to “menace” people. I understand the presence of this argument due to our context and the fact that African American children, in particular, have been killed in the past when police have presumed toy guns real. Yes, context matters. But the appearance of a toy gun—emphasis on “toy”—did not kill Tamir.

Timothy Loehmann did. A rookie officer shot Tamir, less than two seconds after arriving on the scene. TWO SECONDS. Prior to being hired by the Cleveland Police Department, Loehmann was deemed “unfit for duty at a previous police department and was in the process of being fired when he resigned from his post.”

Loehmann lacked the requisite ability to serve and protect, but was hired by the Cleveland Police Department anyway. Clearly, the officers in Aurora were fit. Those officers were so competent they subdued a man armed with enough weaponry to injure at least 94 human beings.

Competence is only part of the issue here. The central issue is the valuation of human life. Let me be exact: the vulgar attempt to judge the value of life is a critical issue here. Loehmann, it appears, judged Tamir’s life to have no more value than a cardboard shooting target. Our recent national history is replete with stories of innocent unarmed men, women, and children dying at the hands of law enforcement and armed citizens. To murder someone is to assess the value of that person’s life as worthless and expendable. This is an abomination.

You know where I am going next. Our society still fails to recognize the equal value of human life across and throughout the color spectrum. All life is invaluable. In actuality, all life is priceless.

Actuaries may project life expectancies, but no one is capable of truly affixing a value to human life because life is sacred. Let me dream a prophetic dream for a moment: In a world where humility reigns, humans would recognize that only our Creator has the power to make life, and therefore, our Higher Power is the only One with the authority to take a life.

There is an adage from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, which says, “Evil turns on itself.” The evil within the United States continues to turn on its very citizens. If I were to call the roll, you would see that the evil within is turning on the most vulnerable among us—children, women, the mentally ill, and the homeless. African Americans are seemingly dying at a disproportionate rate.

Madness and mayhem of this nature will continue until a critical mass of people decides that this wave of violence must end. As a society, we must begin to reorient ourselves toward the truth that all life is holy. For our own sustainability, we must begin to socialize our children with the honorable idea that all lives matter including, of course, the lives of people of African descent.

This nation has struggled with the truth of the immeasurable value of African American life since Africans and Europeans came to its shores. We have an exceedingly weighty history to overcome. Various U.S. caste systems that have declared particular individuals enslaved or indentured, worthy of the right to vote or not, fully human or only three-fifths human have scarred the U.S. psyche in ways that are so obvious and so profound. A great lie has marred this land and its people since the nation’s participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the mutually dehumanizing specter of the slave market, auction block, and the inspection of human beings made cargo and chattel. To enslave is as dehumanizing as to be enslaved, perhaps more so.

It does not matter if life is possessed by a homeless man, who may be mentally ill, on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. It does not matter if a woman who remains in a violent relationship, or stumbles drunk and high on a stranger’s porch after a car accident possesses the life. All life is sacred.

We are in the throes of mayhem. When a legal brief blaming a child for his death comes into existence and is filed with the court simply because it aims to alleviate a municipality’s liability in a boy’s murder, the death knell of decency has been sound. When the world finds it acceptable to kill a twelve year old holding a toy gun on a playground we have truly lost our way. Our descent into madness is buttressed when money associated with a likely legal settlement takes precedent over taking responsibility for an immoral and depraved act.

Tamir Rice was a twelve-year-old boy. Killing a child is particularly heinous. My heart aches for any society that lacks the ability to hold the lives of our children as holy. Young lives, I say, should matter most.

Photo: Tamir Rice

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., is a minister, councilwoman, author, and animation producer. She recently completed her dissertation on sex and sexuality in the African American Baptist Church and a manuscript on legal, religious, and political rhetoric pertinent to “race.” Follow her @HumanStriving and on SoundCloud.com/Reverend-Leah-CK-Lewis.

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