12-year-old boys and Toy Guns: A Black Mom’s Reflection

I have had writer’s block for nearly two months.

I am drained.

We write, we protest, we stand up and things keep going as they have gone. We can recount all of the names of our fallen. The images of crying parents are imprinted on our souls. Earlier this week, yet another grand jury refused to indict police officers for criminal behavior. The murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot within seconds by an unfit police officer, should shock America’s conscience.

This country is morally bankrupt. Our injustice system is riggedagainst people of color and poor people.

When I was growing up, my mother never allowed us to play with toy guns. She felt that guns should be used wisely and were not for play.  Even our water guns looked like animals. The no-toy-guns rule stayed with me when I began raising my own children. Somehow I believed it would keep them safe. When we moved to West Virginia in 2010, my son made some great friends through Cub Scouts. Although we were often the only black family around, the kids were always welcome. There was never any feeling of not belonging or of sticking out. We fell into a great circle of people. There were times when race seemed to not really matter.

One time, when my son was about 7, we were at a play date. His new friend wanted to play guns in the backyard. My son knew my rule, but his friend thought it was unfair because they could have so much fun. So his friend asked why I wouldn’t let my son play with guns — they were fun, of course! His parents paused and tried to help shoo the kids away. I explained to him that where I grew up guns were not toys and we didn’t play with them. People used guns to kill each other not for fun. The little boy had no frame of reference for what I was talking about. The innocence in this kid’s face simply faded away. My son looked uncomfortable. It was a moment we all needed to experience. Eventually I gave in and allowed my son to play in the woods with his friend. They played army and hunting. With another friend he built his own tree stand. But there were rules and parameters. I let him go shooting and to target practice. We were in West Virginia and this was common — what harm could there be?

He is older now, and the rules have once again changed upon moving to the Atlanta area. We impress upon the children the importance of being mindful of their surroundings and how they interact with others. I do not want my kids to live in fear, but they need to be aware. In fact, they are fearless and intent on doing anything and everything they set their minds upon. However, “good” behavior might not save them.

I cannot help but look at my son, with headphones on, excited for his birthday. My son who even at 5’8” is my baby. He is the younger of my two children, but he is often mistaken for an older teen. All I see is the same little face looking at me. The same face that looked up at me when he was in preschool.

My son got a paintball gun for Christmas.  Not thinking, he ran outside to show his friends. As soon as I realized he was outside, I freaked out and made him come back inside. I scolded him for not thinking. No matter what, he always has to think. No, the paintball gun does not look real, but what does that matter?

I shared my Christmas day story with my godmother, who recounted a time when my  little brother was surrounded in a park by police with guns. He had been playing with friends who had BB guns. He did not have one. Some neighbor frantically called the cops because there were people in the park running around with guns. It never occurred to anyone that these were kids playing. With the area surrounded by police with drawn guns, my little brother hid in a bush and called my godmother. My godmother contacted the mother of one of the other boys and urged her to go across the street to the park and help diffuse the situation. Thankfully, all three boys left the scene unharmed.

As I listened to the commentary earlier his week regarding the grand jury’s decision to not indict the officers who ended Tamir’s life, these stories flashed in my mind. My momentary panic came back when I thought about my son outside holding his new paintball gun. I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were. How easily a kid excitedly showing his new Christmas present could’ve gone wrong. Or how common it is for little boys in West Virginia to play with replica guns. Or even to do target practice, for “fun.” My son’s friend was most proud of his sniper rifle. It was a toy. No one would ever think that despite its appearance, he actually had a real gun. And even if someone thought it was real, he would be given the opportunity to explain the situation.  His parents probably never thought twice about the way he would perceived with such “toys” in his possession.

My son turned 12 on Tuesday.  He is an average sixth-grader. He likes to play with his friends, and he jokes around more than he should. However, at 5’8” and 130 pounds, he is often perceived as older than he is. He wears size 13 shoes. None of this should matter … but it does. As he attempted to justify the grand jury decision, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor discussed Tamir’s size and appearance as “older” — as if somehow his mere presence as a seemingly “big black man” justified the officers’ actions.

Jumping out gangster-shootout style and murdering a child in two seconds is not reasonable. It is not justifiable.

tamir-rice-posterThere is no excuse for not indicting the officers in question. We must stop allowing irrational fears and stereotypes to be viewed as reasonable in the eyes of the law. We must stop protecting police officers and police departments from the reckless and indifferent choices they make. No one who reasonably fears for their life runs up on an allegedly armed person and just starts shooting wildly.

This ain’t the wild wild west.

You are not in a gangster movie. And that is not a tommy gun.

We need to demand that prosecutors like Timothy McGinty of Cuyahoga County be held accountable. There is no reason for a prosecutor to botch a criminal case. NONE. Sir, you do not work for the police.  Your job is to uphold the law and pursue justice for the citizens of your jurisdiction.

Prosecutors fail to do their duty, when they refuse to prosecute cases against police officers. A grand jury inquiry is a very low legal threshold. Probable cause is a lower standard than even preponderance of the evidence, the standard in a civil case. As we know, in many of these cases, municipalities and counties are paying out millions of dollars for single incidents. This does not include the money paid for wrongful property damage and injuries. Coddling “bad” officers only reinforces this untouchable notion.

There is no deterrent for bad behavior. There is no check on the corruption from absolute power. It is dangerous to have individuals who are above the law. This isn’t Judge Dredd. Everyone should be held accountable for the things they do. The officer who killed Tamir Rice should be held accountable for the reckless and cavalier attitude with which he took an innocent life. Earlier this summer a municipal court judge in Cleveland determined there was probable cause to exist to arrest the officer who murdered Tamir Rice.  In two seconds, he could not have evaluated the entire situation. In two seconds, he could not have given time for Tamir to respond.

Deadly force is used in far too many instances in which police officers misjudge situations, presume incorrectly and make fatal errors rooted in stereotypes and irrational fear. We need to look at law enforcement training and use of force through the lens ofinternational human rights law, not the “reasonable officer” standard. What is considered reasonable officer behavior has been passed down through the vestiges of a system ingrained with racial and ethnic disparities.

I try not to worry about if someone will overreact to my son because he is “so big for his age.” How could they? He still has that sweet baby face and pleasant disposition. To know him is to love him.  My son says “yes ma’am” and “no sir.” That matters, right? That’s what we are told. As long as we behave and follow the rules, everything will be fair. Right?