A Sickness Unto Death: Affluenza, Tamir Rice, and the Erasure of Black Childhood

01/18/2016 05:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"A sick thought can devour the body's flesh more than fever or consumption."
-Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla et autres contes fantastiques

"I won't rest until black children are taught to love themselves as themselves."
-Dr. Frances Cress Welsing

Few recent stories elucidate the inherent, unrelenting racial disparities in our nation's criminal justice system, and their fatal consequences, than the juxtaposition of the announcement from Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty that a grand jury "declined to bring criminal charges [against Officers Timothy Loehman and Frank Garmback]" in the death of Tamir Rice, and the announcement Jalisco authorities captured Ethan Couch in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The announcements came the same day.

Ethan Couch made international headlines in 2013 following the aftermath of his fatal car accident, whereby he killed four people and injured several others. Couch, then sixteen, crashed into a stationary car while driving drunk. His blood alcohol level measured three times the legal limit. In a subsequent trial, Couch was convicted of four counts of intoxication manslaughter. Notwithstanding the deadly outcome of Couch's crimes, Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to ten years probation, presumably persuaded by the testimony of an expert witness retained by Couch's defense, psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller. Dr. Miller argued Couch suffered from a condition he termed "affluenza," a condition Miller attributed to Couch's wealthy upbringing, and coddling from his parents, which ultimately hampered his ability to determine right from wrong.

Couch resurfaced in current headlines when video footage emerged of him playing beer pong at a party hosted on October 4th of last year, a direct violation of his probation if proven. The discovery of the video prompted a local investigation. Tarrant County Sherriff Dee Anderson issued a warrant for the arrest of both Ethan Couch, and his mother Tonya Couch, after finding evidence Couch, with the aid of his mother, changed his appearance, and fled the country to avoid punishment for his alleged probation violations. The two even hosted a "farewell" party prior to absconding.

Jalisco authorities captured the two with the use of electronic surveillance following their use of a cell phone to order Domino's Pizza delivered to a condominium in a secluded part of the plush resort town Puerto Vallarto. While authorities have successfully apprehended Couch, there remains significant legal wrangling as to when he might return to the United States. Even when he does, it appears as though the most severe punishment he may face for his grave misdeeds is 120 days in a juvenile detention facility. Tamir Rice never received such mercy.

On November 22, 2014, Cleveland Officers Loehman and Garmback responded to a 911 call regarding a "guy" pointing a gun in Cudell Park, located in Cleveland's Westside near the intersection of Detroit Avenue and West Boulevard. The caller believed the gun in question was "probably fake." One of the responding officers, Timothy Loehmann, shot the "guy" on sight. The "guy" was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.

As video footage from the park's security cameras confirmed, Loehmann shot Tamir Rice within 0.792 seconds of arriving on the scene. What followed the fatal encounter is as Charles Blow, writing for the New York Times, describes as "an unconscionable level of human depravity ... a stunning disregard for the value of [Tamir Rice's] life and a callousness toward people who loved him." As Mr. Blow recounts, Officers Loehmann and Garmback, shot Tamir Rice instantaneously, refused to offer any first aid or comfort to him in the four minutes he lay on the ground dying. They then tackled, handcuffed, and shoved his 14-year-old sister, Tajai, into a police cruiser when she attempted to come to his aid. Both officers later indicated they did what they felt necessary. In many ways, their obdurate demeanor revealed their true thoughts of Tamir.

It was a grisly scene. A distraught teenage girl desperately trying to reach her wounded younger brother as he lay on the ground expiring. Two officers barricading her from aiding him in his moment of distress. She was so close, yet so far. Tajai watched helplessly as their hopes and dreams of who Tamir would grow to be slipped out of his youthful frame as his blood soaked the autumn snow. His final moments became a vapor that whisked away in the frigid breeze.

Tamir died the next day in Cleveland's MetroHealth Medical Center; his transgression, holding a pellet gun while brown skin clothed his adolescent body. The incredulity of Officers Loehmann and Garmback's statements regarding the death of Tamir Rice is astounding. The two maintain Rice ignored their commands to "show his hands", and they believed Rice was an adult. Even if one takes the officers at their word--they believed Rice was an adult--Ohio is an "open carry state," pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 2923.125. Thus, if Officers Loehmann and Garmback legitimately believed Tamir Rice was an adult possessing an actual firearm, both should have presumed he had the legal right to carry it, because carrying a gun is not a crime in and of itself under Ohio law. An investigation with Rice could have swiftly revealed the truth. Nevertheless, Loehmann shot Rice immmediately, well before he could have reasonably responded to any command to "show his hands," and now will face no penalty for his part in Tamir Rice's death.

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In defending the grand jury's failure to indict Officers Loehmann and Garmback, prosecutors said, "Tamir 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." In other words, Timothy McGinty contends Tamir's size made him more menacing, and thereby less worthy of empathy. This comports with a study by Drs. Philip Atiba Goff and Mathew Christian Jackson, recently published with the American Psychological Association, which found "police are likelier to use force against black children," "officers 'dehumanize' blacks," "black boys as young as ten may not be viewed in the same childhood innocence as their white peers ...", and "perceptions of essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence." Similarly, in 2011, Frontiers in Psychology published a study finding that white observers tend to implicitly believe blacks feel less pain when given the same or similar stimuli as whites. This subconscious thought--that blacks have a higher tolerance for pain--could partially explain the use of greater amounts of force against blacks, particularly children.

This difference, of how our society perceives black and white children is what makes the juxtaposition of Couch and Rice particularly compelling. The controversy circling Couch, and his ensuing trial, centered on Dr. G. Dick Miller's assessment that he could not fully comprehend the magnitude of his actions due to his "affluenza," Judge Jean Boyd accepting that assessment, then incorporating it in sentencing Couch. Accordingly, the court deemed Couch too young, too privileged, too innocent to appreciate the gravity of his reckless behavior. Our criminal justice system allowed him to revel in his "youthful indiscretions" because it held firm to the belief he knew no better. The carnage he laid in his wake served as mere collateral damage.

The individuals within the cogs of the criminal justice system examining the liability of Officers Loehmann and Garmback in the death of Tamir Rice absolved them of responsibility in Rice's tragic death. In so doing, they effectively put him on trial for his own demise. As Daniel Marans of the Huffington Post observed, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty commissioned expert reports questioning the guilt of the officers, leaked those reports to the media, declared Loehmann (who was deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty in his prior small-town police position) a "reasonable" police officer, characterized Tamir Rice as "big and scary," and failed to advise the grand jury on their need to mitigate a perceived threat against perceptions of its imminence. Our criminal justice system allowed for this because it held firm to the belief Tamir Rice deserved no better.

McGinty never characterized Rice as what he was--a child in a park playing with a toy. It is as Drs. Goff and Jackson found--black children are rarely perceived as children. Black children live in a different reality than their white counterparts, and as a result, cannot always exercise the same liberties. We see examples of this idea in pop culture; the iconic film, A Christmas Story, depicts a nine-year-old Cleveland boy named Ralphie who cajoles his parents, his teacher, and Santa into giving him a Red Ryder Range 200 Shot BB gun for Christmas. White children can ask Santa for toy guns, black children must not be found with them. The implications are fatal.

The media further affirms this notion of white children inherently possessing more innocence. The reporting on Couch repeatedly refers to him as the "Affluenza teen", though he has reached the age of the majority, and currently wears a full goatee. He is still moments from childhood despite, the fact he has killed four people, allegedly violated the conditions of his probation, and fled the country to avoid the consequences. By way of comparison, Michael Brown, eighteen at the time of his death was "no angel;" Aiyana Stanley-Jones, seven at the time of her death, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; Trayvon Martin, seventeen at the time of his death, was a marijuana-smoking, gun-toting belligerent; Jordan Russell Davis, seventeen at the time of his death, hung with the wrong crowd. These depictions, though widely circulated, spin bold fabrications, and deny the tenderness of their youth. We have told this tale for quite some time, and Tamir Rice's death serves as a painful reminder of how it often unfolds. Indeed, America has reminded us yet again that its grapple with the "Darker to the lighter races" continues, and it has profound impact of the lives of children.