Tamir Rice and the Boys

You’re Tamir Rice. You’re lying on your side in a park by your house, a friend’s toy gun inches from your hands. You’re staring into gray skies as blood throbs from a hole in your chest, while two police officers poke around in the grass near you like cattle. Every pulse of your heart spurts a little more of what your life would have been out into the grass. Throb. Your high school locker. Throb. Kissing a pretty girl. Throb. Forking over the money for your first car. Throb.  College.  Throb.  Marriage. Throb. Being a fat old man, watching football on the television. Throb. Throb. Throb.

But you don’t think any of this. It’s not your future that passes before your eyes when you die, after all, but the life you’ve already lived. But how much life do you have pass before your eyes? You are Tamir Rice. You are 12 years old.

***

Next door and around the corner from me lives one long-suffering mother and a gaggle we’ve come to call “the boys.” There are anywhere between two and five of them, depending on how many are visiting their father across town, or their grandmother, who lives closer. They are black. The oldest is not yet 12, but he will be, soon enough.

When they first started dropping by, it was to ask after odd jobs around the house in exchange for a few dollars. They were eager. Insistent even. I daresay they would have built me a garage, if I’d asked. I had them rake some leaves and pull weeds. I gave them a few dollars, which they promptly spent on Cheetos. This would become a pattern in the coming months.

In time, they started dropping by just looking to see if we had any ice pops or apples we could spare. Then they started coming over for no reason at all. We were usually happy to have them—my wife, a former teacher, had taken it upon herself to get them all reading at a doctoral level. I admit, more than once, we’ve pretended not to be home when they knock—if it’s particularly early on a Saturday or something—but we’ve tried to be good neighbors.

Not everyone is. It’s hard to be, sometimes. They’re little kids, and little kids have a wildness to them. You know this, I’m sure. The almost pagan air your play used to take, and the way your boundless energy manifested in your knocking knees, and the slap of your skin and rebel yelps from your little mouth. The boys tumble through our neighborhood with all this and much more. On late summer nights when they race their bikes down the street until they come to long, whistling halts, I hear fellow neighbors shout at them to keep it down. “We’re trying to sleep!” is a pretty common refrain. “Go play in the park!” is another one—which is pretty sensible, until you remember how much fun it is to run in the street. “Do it again and I’ll call the police!” is one I have heard as well. An empty threat. I think.

***

If you watch the video of Tamir Rice before two police officers pulled up next to him and promptly shot him in his chest, you see him walking around the park with his toy gun and aiming it willy nilly. It must have looked threatening to at least one person, because they called the police, but it doesn’t look threatening to me. I know what Tamir was doing. He was crafting scenes in his head in which he could be the hero. The big shot. The one who shows up and puts everyone else in their place. His mind’s eye was full of imagined foes whose threats were suddenly vanquished by his toy. I did the same thing when I was 12.

Granted, I usually used an old trash can lid to be Captain America’s shield or a toy sword, so I suppose Tamir was cooler than I was, but I did have a toy gun I’d brandish on occasion. In any case, the idea was the same, except for a few key facts. I was in rural Nebraska, far from any nervy neighbors. And of course, the matter of my skin color.

That should not matter, of course. In a better world, it wouldn’t. But I was not Tamir Rice. You are Tamir Rice. The police car skids to a halt in front of you. Maybe you are told to drop the weapon, but you don’t have a weapon. You have a pretend gun, but now you are suddenly confronted with a real threat. What do you do? You don’t know what’s going on and you never will. You simply will not have time.

***

Last year, my wife and I took the boys to a skating rink. Their mother had been unable to drive them to a school event, so we packed them in the car and drove on out. As you might imagine, the place was a madhouse. I hadn’t been roller skating since junior high, and so I’d never really processed the fact that roller skating rinks are objectively bonkers.

But I see the appeal of it to a 10-year-old. The blinking, yap-dog lights and squees from the arcade machines. The music, which is often stuff your mom doesn’t let you listen to at home (for me, it was Nirvana. For the boys: Lil Wayne.) And of course, the first few, bumbling, jittery, head over heels (often literally, as roller skates are involved) attempts at love.

I’ll call the youngest of the boys Trey. He didn’t know how to skate, so I spent the most time with him, teaching him how. As it happened, he showed more interest in the Big Buck Hunter arcade game, so we took turns shooting a big plastic rifle while his older brothers feigned total disinterest in couple skating to Beyonce.

I’d be lying if I said I’d been looking forward to the evening, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, roller rink pizza and all. But I was distracted by the television screens, as were most of the adults there. It was late November. Thanksgiving was coming. Ferguson was in flames.

***

Tamir Rice was a boy with a wild body, like all boys have wild bodies. People say he was tall for his age, but what is tall when you’re 12? Some kids seem to shoot up to their full height adult height on the eve of their eleventh birthday. Some remain remain small, skinny, and almost avian thin until they’re 15.

You are Tamir Rice. You have a toy gun in a park, across from your house. You’re in a shoot-off with shadows. You’ve been told to be careful, but you’re 12. 12-year-olds are always told to be careful. Nobody actually expects you to take that advice. Nobody expects you to be shot in the chest.

Suddenly, a police car comes squealing towards you. You cannot fathom why.

***

We bought toys for the boys this Christmas. Nothing much—some toy footballs. They come over to meet our new dog, an old terrier named Willie. Willie’s nervous, and the boys are perfect gentlemen around him—approaching him slowly and scratching his ears. Willie’s eyes glaze over with delight.

“Welcome, Willie!” says Trey, as we walk Willie into the house. “Welcome to your new home!”

Trey. You’re a child in a country that doesn’t allow you the grace of childhood. You’re not allowed that wildness. Our country doesn’t want you to be young. It just wants you to behave, perfectly. It expects you to know what to do if a police car skids to a halt in front of you, and it expects you to not be daydreaming when this happens.

We are trying to make it a better world for you. I think? We didn’t try hard enough for Tamir Rice, and now it’s too late. Maybe we are not trying, if the lack of a grand jury indictment can be taken as any indication. So there will be more.

Oh, Trey. I will pray for you.

***

You are Tamir Rice. A friend gives you a toy gun to play with in the park.

It is going to be a beautiful day.

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