Both the state and city where I was born and raised tend to garner the most national spotlight whenever we elect presidents. Having chosen the winner of the last 14 elections, for better or worse, Ohio remains the bellwether, even as the areas that aren’t as urban deepen into what pollsters and cable-news pundits might classify as a deep, cardinal red. I’m from Cuyahoga County, one of the little blue spots in the northeast.
Tamir Rice was, as well. We were both black boys, born in Cleveland, a generation apart. I was imagining him alive again on Monday, as I often do. But this time, young Tamir was behind the wheel of one of the 100 or so cars watching Joe Biden take the stage for a campaign stop less than 24 hours before Election Day in a hangar at Burke Lakefront Airport downtown. In this vision of mine, he was a voter. Because on the 25th of June, Tamir would have turned 18 years old.
Young Tamir couldn’t be there on Monday, of course, because he is forever 12. Six years ago this month, his life was destroyed by now-former Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, who was never charged by the county prosecutor under state law for the shooting. As Americans rush to purchase weapons to guard against (or perhaps to cause) anticipated post-election violence, it is worth remembering that playing with a toy gun somehow earned this child a death sentence from the state.
That is why something I heard from the Democratic nominee for president, brimming with confidence earned from state and national polling, hit me in a different way. “Tomorrow,” Biden said, “we have an opportunity to put an end to a presidency that’s divided this nation. Tomorrow we can put an end to a presidency that has failed to protect this nation. And tomorrow we can put an end to a presidency that has fanned the flames of hate all across this country.
“My message is simple,” added the former vice president, driving it home. “The power to change the country is in your hands.”
The most elementary messages can carry the most power, particularly at a point when hundreds of millions have already voted and what they need to hear from this candidate now is the confidence that their vote meant something. The notion that I and my fellow Ohioans back home had the power to change this country struck a nerve, though. I had already imagined Tamir in that car, having survived even this Covid-19 America that is expediting black death. But it was then that I recalled precisely why I was particularly driven to vote this year.
I already had all the motivation in the world. Don’t get me wrong. This president must be defeated. Re-electing him would be tantamount to America signing a death warrant for human civilization. With climate change and human rights and global migration at the tipping points at which they currently are, I do not speak in hyperbole here. Add in his unpatriotic exploitation of the office and broken promises to his own base, and we shouldn’t even be taking Donald Trump seriously as a candidate. Throw in his kidnapping of immigrant children and the simply villainous handling of the pandemic, and we should be talking about him being tried at the Hague.
There is one more recent sin from the Trump administration, though, that has gone more unnoticed. Like most of the things they do wrong, it seems that was on purpose.
Last week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice has let the civil-rights investigation into Tamir’s killing die on the vine. The inquiry isn’t closed, apparently. Not formally. But it is over.
Here is what that means. Two career prosecutors within the DOJ, Jared Fishman and Nick Reddick, took over the case in 2017 and began pursuing the case more aggressively, requesting the use of a grand jury to gather testimony for the investigation. They wanted to explore whether then-Officer Loehmann and Officer Frank Garmback, his partner who’d driven the police car to within feet of Tamir that frigid November day, had given false statements about Loehmann repeatedly warning Tamir to put his hands up before firing two shots at him, striking him once in the torso.
Anyone with decent vision can see from the parking-lot video of the shooting that the claim that Loehmann was able to repeatedly warn Tamir warrants incredulity. In less than two seconds, Garmback screeches to a halt in the cold mud, Loehmann pops out of the passenger door, and he fires the shot that eventually killed Tamir. He’d have had to be speaking like one of those speed readers dictating legal disclaimers on radio advertisements.
However, despite that common-sense view of things, Fishman and Reddick reportedly encountered tension within the DOJ. You see, they had to write a memo requesting a grand jury to subpoena documents and testimony from witnesses, and that memo needed approval from a deputy assistant attorney general who works alongside Trump political appointees within the DOJ. And no one responded. In the autumn of 2018, they sent a new memo, with additional evidence. Crickets. And the statute of limitations for the kinds of obstruction of justice charges they were seeking tends to run out after about five years, per the report. Quite simply, the DOJ let the clock run out on accountability for two cops involved in killing an unarmed black child.
The more cynical among us may note that Tamir died during the Obama administration, and that the DOJ refused to seek similar charges during his terms, as well. However, this kind of behavior is routine for the department under Trump, under both Jeff Sessions and William Barr. Under their leadership, it has regularly dismissed civil-rights charges in police-brutality cases and sought to undermine civic efforts, such as Cleveland’s existing consent decree, meant to hold law enforcement accountable for its abuses. But the Tamir Rice case was particularly malicious in its inconsideration. The department never told Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, that it had let the federal investigation into her son’s death — her last hope for accountability; $6 million wasn’t it — simply wither away quietly.
Devastated once already by the first denial of charges on the local level years ago, Ms. Rice had to deal with this again. “I think it’s another slap in the face,” she told the New York Daily News last Friday. “There goes any chance of me getting any type of justice for me and my son. It just doesn’t feel good.”
There is plenty of evil that this administration has committed on its own. However, the violations that it perpetuates and permits can also, at times, be the most pernicious.
And that is why I voted — in a sense, for Tamir. No, I didn’t “vote for Tamir,” in the vein of that tone-deaf turnout effort engineered last month by an advertising firm that placed makeshift campaign signs featuring the names of police-brutality victims in front of the White House. He isn’t a candidate whom I can endorse and support. He never had the chance to become one, and mere sloth and inaction was all this administration and government needed to do to help his killers escape legal liability. That alone attests to the inherent injustice of the system in which we live. So I voted in Tamir’s stead in hopes of reversing that damage, and with hope that all those who are killed and downtrodden by the very forces protected and celebrated by this administration might have a voice that they could not possibly have. Unfortunately, I know that so many of our neighbors will try to keep Trump in power, if only to assuage their own insecurities.
They do this, blind or uncaring to the fact that Trump himself is one of those deleterious forces that I speak of. He spread bigoted conspiracies to introduce himself to politics, then as president, committed all manner of injustices: banning Muslim travel from abroad and calling African nations “shithole countries;” mocking indigenous people to their faces, and attempting to block access to reproductive justice. He even insulted military veterans and the families of our war dead, particularly when they were people of color. And perhaps most horrifically, Trump metastasized a systematic incarceration and experimentation that has traumatized and cost the lives of Mexican and Central American immigrants.
So if you are on the fence as to whether or not to vote, I would say this to you: Don’t vote for yourself. This isn’t about you, anyway. Elections never are just about you. It’s perhaps the most selfless act you can commit as a citizen. Not only are you voting for mutual benefit, but in the place of those who do not have a voice, and in honor of those long gone.
Take into the voting booth the spirits and specters of those who were denied accountability. Take with you to the drop box the ghosts of those who didn’t survive Jim Crow — and those who managed to do so, but whose tired hearts gave out before they had a chance to vote this man out of office. Remember those children who are still in cages, and those migrating because of the changing climate. Keep in mind the brilliant foreign student who may have been denied a chance to study in America because she is Muslim and from the wrong nation, and could have eventually added to the greatness of this country, because this president wanted white voters to feel better about themselves. And remember all those black people protesting for their right to survive this country that has devised so many ways to kill them, including the fumbling of a pandemic that has killed one out of every 1,000 of them in this country.
Or just do it for the 12-year-old boy who this year would have been a man. I imagine Tamir Rice on Chester Avenue, standing much taller now, as one of these early voters, in a line that stretches far too long — thanks to the Ohio Secretary of State, on purpose. It doesn’t matter. He will wait in the 40-degree temperatures to get around the corner to the county Board of Elections and cast his ballot, because like so many of these young voters breaking turnout records in this election, it will be his first one ever for a president of the United States.
I can see him clear as day, through my tears. But young Tamir is gone, and we are still here. So this America and this world, from here on out, will be what we make of it.