Let's Stop Calling Tamir Rice's Death a 'Tragedy'

Tamir Rice's death wasn't a "tragedy." Nor was Michael Brown's, Eric Garner's, Trayvon Martin's, and the countless others'. Their deaths are all perfectly explicable as the product of a racialized criminal justice system prone to use excessive force. That means their deaths were also all unnecessary and avoidable.
12/31/2015 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2016
FILE - In a Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 file photo, Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy fatally shot
FILE - In a Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 file photo, Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy fatally shot on Nov. 22 by a rookie police officer, in Cleveland, Ohio, during a protest in response to a grand jury's decision in Ferguson, Mo. to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, in Washington. For centuries, grand juries have held some of the criminal justice system’s best-kept secrets. But their private process has come under extraordinary public scrutiny after high-profile decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed men. Calls for more transparency have sounded in Congress, statehouses and editorial pages, mixed with notes of caution about forswearing secrecy that can safeguard witnesses and the accused. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File) (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana))

Commenting on an Ohio grand jury's decision this week not to indict officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback for killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice over a year ago, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty stressed, "The death of Tamir Rice was an absolute tragedy. But it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime."

Rice was shot and killed seconds after Loehmann and Garmback rolled up on him, in response to a police dispatch call "of a male black sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people." Testimony and surveillance video putatively show Rice reaching into his waistband for the reported gun right before he was shot. That gun, it turns out, was an Airsoft replica. McGinty emphasized that, from the officers' perspective, it was "indistinguishable" from its real counterpart, though it's important to emphasize that Ohio is an "open carry" state anyway. Nevertheless, for the sake of all involved, McGinty emphasized that it's time for the community "to learn from this tragedy and start to heal."

The decision not to indict has been roundly criticized, on numerous fronts. There's an obvious racial component at work: a young, black boy gunned down by white police officers. Indeed, the attempt by prosecutors to sidestep Rice's age by claiming that he was "big for his age--5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, with a men's XL jacket and size-36 pants--and could have easily passed for someone much older," repeats racial stereotypes that portray black boys as older and less innocent than their white peers. It's the same sort of stereotype that Darren Wilson trotted out against Michael Brown, whom Wilson described in testimony as a "demon," among other things.

Rice's death should, in this sense, be understood in relation to other high-profile, but really all-too common, confrontations between black men and women and the police, confrontations that have their roots in systemic racism and white privilege. But the failure to indict Loehmann and Garmback also exhibits the assumption of impunity under which an increasingly-militarized police force mostly operates: not even the death of an innocent 12-year old is enough to warrant charges, and the police seem to act regularly in full knowledge of this reality.

Clearly, Rice's death exposes deep-seated problems in our criminal justice system, and the country as a whole, which is why we shouldn't call it a "tragedy," as McGinty does. To label something a "tragedy" or "tragic" implies a certain amount of resignation in the face of what are taken to be unforeseeable, unpreventable, and inexplicable events. Otherwise put, "tragedy" manifests a somewhat uneasy combination of accident and fate: it says that, all things considered and unfortunately, things couldn't have turned out otherwise. Hence McGinty's claim that Rice's death was the "perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved."

It's easy and commonplace, of course, to appeal to tragedy in the face of horrible events, but in the context of carefully-crafted, public statements, such appeals often function more to absolve certain parties of any responsibility and to deny the structural features in play. To label the death of black bodies "tragic" is the prosecutorial equivalent of the politician's "prayers" in the face of mass gun violence: it's little more than an empty gesture, though one that here conveniently falls along established divisions of racial power.

And so it's no accident that McGinty is not alone in the way that he describes Rice's death. Commenting on a grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch described the death of Michael Brown as essentially a tragedy. Brown's death, and the circumstances surrounding and leading up to it were, according to McCulloch, "tragic." In his statements made after the grand jury's failure to indict, he goes on to say of Brown's death that "it is a tragic loss, regardless of the circumstances. But it opens old wounds and gives us an opportunity now to address those wounds, as opposed to in the past, where they just fade away."

Daniel M. Donovan Jr., then District Attorney for Staten Island, said the same regarding Eric Garner, who was basically choked to death by officers arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. Responding to the grand jury's refusal to indict the officers involved, Donovan noted that Garner's death was "tragic," and that there was "no reasonable cause to vote an indictment." Likewise, the Justice Department found "insufficient evidence" to pursue federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, though Eric Holder did note that his death was a "devastating tragedy."

To call these deaths "tragic," however, misses the mark. Doing so slides past the systemic problems involved, in effect naturalizing them through the rhetoric of sympathy and concern. Rice's death was certainly terrible, so the thinking goes, but there's not ultimately much that can be done about good old human error, mistakes, and miscommunication. Better to move on, to "learn" and "heal."

No significant "learning" or "healing" will happen, however, unless we begin to take seriously the fact that errors and mistakes can often, at the end of the day, be chalked up to systemic problems associated with race, violence, and militarization. That applies, as well, to police actions that are deemed "reasonable" and "justifiable." Tamir Rice's mother is right, in her response to the non-indictment of the officers who killed her son:

In a time in which a non-indictment for two police officers who have killed an unarmed black child is business as usual, we mourn for Tamir, and for all of the black people who have been killed by the police without justice. In our view, this process demonstrates that race is still an extremely troubling and serious problem in our country and the criminal-justice system.

Tamir Rice's death wasn't a "tragedy." Nor was Michael Brown's, Eric Garner's, Trayvon Martin's, and the countless others'. Their deaths are all perfectly explicable as the product of a racialized criminal justice system prone to use excessive force. That means their deaths were also all unnecessary and avoidable. It's time to drop the language of the "tragic," and take specific, concrete steps toward fixing a broken, and racially-skewed, system.