Everyday America commits unacceptable atrocities in the name of our safety. Mosques and black churches burn, unarmed black and brown folks of all ages, gender identities, sexualities and classes are gunned down with impunity, and the tapes which record each moment continue to roll across the country in a procession of loss, a möbius strip of grief, and yet we accept these things. We accept them, have our coffee, and go to work.
It has come to the point where I believe that if there were a video of a cop shooting a black child, and this cop said that it wasn’t him in the video, that it never happened. Though we see it, though the police reports show it, though it was radioed in, and witnesses watched it happen, and his partner confirms it was him- he would get off. Not because he didn’t do it, but because his word holds more weight than the bodies of the dead.
For Tamir Rice and his killers, I thought there must be something this time. Never mind the track record of grand juries not indicting police-the chilling video evidence, the past violent and emotionally unhinged behavior of the firing officer would surely lead to an indictment, the fact Tamir was only a child. No. Nothing. Not because the evidence didn’t show anything. It did. But what good is evidence to a justice system designed to do exactly what it did?
Upon the non indictment announcement, I immediately thought of Jamar Clark in North Minneapolis. I’m not a Northsider, but grew up in the Twin Cities; I worked for six years only a couple blocks from where he was killed, both in a youth shelter, and a local high school running after school poetry workshops. I was in Boston when I heard Jamar was killed by police in Minneapolis. Before I heard his name, a sickening wave of youth, who have been brutalized by that very precinct that killed Jamar, who I love, ran through my head.
Over the next few days, I watched from the East Coast as 94W was blocked, as the 4th precinct became surrounded by protestors, some Northsiders, some not. Across the street from where Jamar was killed there is a security camera that likely picked up the entire event. From day one “release the tapes” was one of the rallying cries. Eye witnesses all agreed he was handcuffed and shot “execution style”, all the while the two officers are on paid leave of absence (vacation).
Yes, the tapes from nearby security cameras need to be released to the public, without a doubt. However, I am worried about the emphasis we put on demanding footage as an integral part in our pursuit for justice. Somehow, perhaps because humans are reckless in the way we hope, we still believe that a video showing everything the witnesses say happened will lead to a charge and then prosecution. Yet, historically where is the evidence of this? We saw every second of Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, and once again the tired words were uttered, “no indictment”. The problem with such a focus on video evidence is that it centers the demands around the moral compass of white legal institutions constructed not to protect all bodies equally, but to protect white bodies and what white bodies own. The justice system did not fail Tamir Rice on Monday. It succeeded for the officers. It’s that simple.
In the case of Jamar Clark, we can’t hope that if the video is released, that finally the jury and the cops and Twitter trolls and the news anchors and reporters and pundits might just give a shit. After all these years, after all these tapes, so many miles of tape spreading across America like a darkened highways, etched with frame after frame of murder, documenting the endless destruction of black and brown bodies by the enforcers of white supremacy, whether that be police, self appointed neighborhood watchmen, or a civilian with a gun at Florida gas station.
I’m not saying don’t demand the tapes, but we can’t hinge a movement on the justice system actually acting justly, even when it has documented evidence. Even when it’s all there, killers walk. The police were not indicted on Monday not because they were justified. No one believes that, not even them. They were exonerated because they could be, because the grand jury and the prosecutor and the defense team and the chief of police, and the police union, knew they could get away with it, because we trust white institutions, made to protect whiteness, more than we trust our own eyes. More than we trust our intuition, our guts, and our heads. Worst of all, we trust these institutions and their agents more than we trust the voices of those who disproportionately witness and experience the bodily harm and terror of the police in this country each day. “How many black voices does it take to convince a white person of anything?” America asks again and again, though it does not answer. It just continues to count. We will always believe a single white police officer, any officer, over an entire neighborhood of black witnesses.
Even when we know these words are hollow and weightless we let ourselves believe the lie, then we become it. The lie becomes intrinsic to our lives, how we view and move through the world. It becomes woven into our sense of reality, and to that extent we defend the lie. Actively and passively. By saying Tamir deserved it or by saying nothing at all. As white people, specifically, we defend the lie because we know, either consciously or somewhere deep within us, that this lie shields us. It allows us to believe the world is as fair as we need to believe it is in order to sleep. It allows us to believe we are responsible for nothing. This lie is a fortress in which we sleep, and the sleep grows deeper each non indictment. It grows deeper as malls and roads are shut down and whole city grids swell with a tide of hoodies and iced tea and tears and teargas, and still so many of us don’t stop to wonder, or ask, or question, what is really going on, why is this happening again, in another city? Rather, we demand the protests take on a different tone, that they take up less space, that they shake us a little less from our terrible sleep and the little white picket fences by which it is encased.
We accept these murders, these executions (not tragedies for “tragedies” are not preventable and these deaths always are) despite what we know and what we see. I won’t demand any more tapes. Several witnesses all said the same thing about Jamar Clark. As many about Mike Brown. His hands were cuffed. His hands were up. I simply don’t believe in white people's ability to see the truth more than I believe in the ability of people of color to speak it.
Every time we demand the tape and that becomes our focus, we are reacting in a way which hinges justice on the moral compass of the institutions of whiteness. We are asking white juries dedicated to upholding white supremacy to feel more for Tamir Rice’s family than for the officers that killed him. We ask them to feel more for what was taken from Tamir than they feel for what the killers have left. The truth is always being spoken, and yet we do not listen. It comes from a local barbershop owner leaving the Elks Lodge across the street the moment Jamar Clark is killed, from the woman who held the party Jamar Clark was at, from a 10 year old boy who watched Clark die close enough he saw the smoke rise from the gun. Ze’Morian Dillon-Hokins said, “Clark was ‘face down when he was shot’ and the officers ‘flipped him over’ after the gun and been discharged.” I will always believe in Ze’Morian’s ability to see the world honestly more than I will believe in a white Jury’s ability to perceive it. Before anyone says anything about him being only ten, remember Tamir was twelve, which is apparently old enough for him to be twenty, and that is apparently old enough for him to die.
If Tamir was old enough to die, then this child is old enough to be a witness, to be believed, to be as much an arbiter of truth in the public eye as the cop who pulls the trigger. I don’t believe any movement in the world can, or has, hinged its liberation upon the systems designed to subdue it; demands must center on the humanity of marginalized peoples, not on the ability of the dominant culture or its institutions to acknowledge this humanity. I want a justice system which listens to its people, not silences them and their pain. I want a country whose citizens believe each other and their experiences, especially when those experiences are ones we ourselves have never or could never understand. Yes-give us the tapes, but first give us a police force and justice system more interested in the truth then they are in concealing it.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, and Intermedia Arts. He is an Ed.M candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can help support his writing HERE.