Today a grand jury refused to indict the police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Back in October, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “It should be increasingly clear that the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice will not be tried; and should he be tried, he will not be convicted.” Today, he tweeted: “Yeah. Knew this was coming. For me the saddest in the recent parade. City should be ashamed of itself.”
So should we all.
The grand jury action is entirely expected and predictable. Grand juries almost never indict police officers. Even apart from the structural bias inherent in grand jury proceedings, the legal presumptions all favor the police officer. If a police officer reasonably believes himself threatened by someone, he can use force. Facts don’t matter: only the officer’s reasonable belief. How to prove that he did not have such a belief at the time he fired the shots? As Coates succinctly puts it, “Convicting an officer of murder effectively requires an act of telepathy.”
Earlier this year, Coates wrote Between the World and Me, a passionate explanation and exposé of the country’s racism in the form of an extended letter to his 15-year-old son. Recalling the deaths of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and others, he wrote:
“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to trap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.”
That heritage and legacy are deadly, most deadly for black people, who are disproportionately the targets of police violence and killing. The deadly combination of racism and police power poisons the whole structure of society, sowing legitimate mistrust and fear, turning police into threats rather than protectors. The training and mindset of police officers is that of warriors, us against them, thin blue line against a world full of criminals. Especially black criminals.
“Police officers in the US shoot and kill hundreds of people each year, according to the FBI’s very limited data — far more than other developed countries like the UK, Japan, and Germany, where police officers might go an entire year without killing more than a dozen people or even anyone at all.”
Irresponsible headlines about “the Ferguson effect” and dangers to police only exacerbate fears and a siege mentality. In fact, according to an analysis of FBI data from January 1-October 1, 2015, “Crime overall in 2015 is expected to be largely unchanged from last year, decreasing 1.5 percent.” Gun-related police deaths are also down, as has been a consistent pattern since the 1970s.
None of that matters. Facts do not matter in a country where fear gives police a license to kill, and where structural and institutional racism so often point those guns toward black Americans.