A Tale of Two Boys: Emmett Till and Tamir Rice

The year that saw the public unravelling of the discriminate American policing and judicial system continues to the bitter end of 2015.

This week, just over a year after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead in Cleveland, Ohio whilst holding a toy gun, the police officer who shot him will not be indicted on any criminal charges. In fact, it’s not immediately apparent what consequences this officer will face.

The facts…in a nutshell

The official report from the county prosecutor’s office tells us this: Tamir, who was African-American, was playing with a toy gun in a park on November 22nd, 2014; a 911 call was made reporting a man waving and pointing a gun at people; the caller did state that the gun could have been fake and the person involved could have been a juvenile; two police officers subsequently arrived on the scene and drove within a few feet of Tamir; inside 2 seconds of getting out of the patrol car, one of these officers fired 2 shots at the 12-year old; one bullet struck his abdomen; the police officers stated that they ordered Tamir 3 times to raise his hands; none of the witnesses heard these commands; neither of the police officers administered first aid to Tamir after they realised he was indeed a juvenile; one officer instead tackled and handcuffed his 14-year old sister; when his mother arrived on the scene she was threatened with arrest; both officers refused to testify at the grand jury hearing; the office that shot Tamir was deemed not fit to handle firearms; the prosecutor at the same hearing blamed the emergency services despatcher for not relaying the information that it was possible that the individual in question was a boy with a toy gun.

Two subsequent reports, the Sims report and the Crawford1 report, both concluded that Tamir’s killing was reasonable. There is guidance from the United States Supreme Court that explains why the policemen who set up an ‘officer-created jeopardy’ situation will not face criminal charges. It’s flawed, because like most things American, it’s open to interpretation, but nevertheless this guidance, or rather, one interpretation of this guidance, was upheld2.

A deeply and profoundly sad state of affairs

The onslaught of public reports of deaths of African-American men and women at the hands of those whose duty is, and who are paid to serve and protect, has been relentless. The countless editorials, opinion pieces and commentaries on these events, in the main-stream and off-stream media, from the right-wing to the liberal leaning to the conspiracy theories, all raise ugly issues and rub salt in the deep wounds that afflict American society.

I could blog a self-righteous piece based on my own worldview which is here on the outside looking in, about what a mess America wallows in; sometimes though the clearest view is indeed from that vantage point. As much as a personal rant would feel good, it would a), not shed any light on the complexity of the dysfunction within that society, b),  require an anthology of American history and society which I am not in any way qualified to write about, c), serve no real purpose other than self-gratification on my part and d), not ease the deep and profound sadness I and many like me feel about the young lives that are being snuffed out like nuisance prey by a seemingly predatory system.

A predatory system that has changed little in the last 60 years.


Emmett Till: July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955

Image courtesy of: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/peopleevents/p_till.html


On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till was killed by two white men in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a 21-year-old married white woman. The only difference between the case of Emmett then and that of Tamir now is that the killers of now, wear uniforms.  I urge you to read the story yourself and I’m pretty sure you will find it incredible. I know that 3 years after I first came across it, I still find it to be so.

Both boys were perceived, by whites, to be older than they were on account of their physical appearances – Emmett weighed 68kg and stood 1.63m tall; Tamir was 79kg and stood 1.7m tall. So the fact that they were bigger than they should be warranted and even justified an aggressive response to childish behaviour. There is published work on how whites view and interpret the physique of black children3, and it’s very telling.

You would think it’s enough that black and brown-skinned adults are negatively stereotyped – not that we need studies to tell us that, though statistics and surveys are very useful in providing objective evidence to the naysayers. Does this deadly stereotyping really have to extend to black and brown-skinned children too? Can they not be allowed to be like all other children who sometimes do incredibly stupid things without paying for such stupidity with their lives? Even if Emmett had really made lewd comments to an adult woman, surely all that adult woman had to do was drag him by the ears to his family and allow them to deal with him. That’s how we know things to have been dealt with in the good ole’ days right? And, there is no doubt that Tamir was silly to have been brandishing any imitation weapon of any kind in public especially in the climate at that time; for generations, children have been fascinated with guns, because adults revere guns; for generations, children have played cops and robbers with fake guns, no questions asked. Are we now to accept that it’s open season on any child who engages in this past-time (though in my circles it is quite un-PC, and rightfully so, to give children toy guns)? Since when have law enforcement officers been intimidated by children playing with toy guns?

In the case of Emmett, media stories at the time even focussed on that fact that his father, an officer in the US army, had been executed in Italy during the 2nd World War for allegedly raping and murdering women, in an attempt to show that there must have been some genetic disposition in Emmett towards aggression against white women. I really urge you to read up on this case yourself – it boggles the mind. The holes in both stories are gapingly wide, yet even after the cases were bought before a judicial system and the American public, no one was found culpable in the violent death of a child.

Of course, in between Emmett and Tamir there have been others: some we hear about like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald, but most we don’t, like Kendrick Johnson4. In all cases it’s apparent that the deeply disturbed and flawed legacy of Emmett’s killers and their ancestors continues to thrive in modern day Americans. I can’t even use the word the term racist legacy because that word doesn’t really feel as if it fully encapsulates the forces at play here.

An ugly mind-set based on destructive principles

These forces appear to surmise that anyone of African origin is somehow not human, soul-less, devoid of emotion and feelings. It is this mind-set that shoots a child of colour first, then prevents that child’s loved ones from comforting him as he dies, then lies about the events that transpired, because that mind-set is confident in the fact that there is a system that will support your every devious move.

There’s no doubt that policemen see some ugly things in their line of duty; but is that justification to shoot first then lie later? Working in accident and emergency as a junior doctor some years back, I and my colleagues saw human beings at their ugliest too. But never at any time did we ever lose sight of the fact that we were dealing with human beings, fellow human beings, who no matter what, were to be treated as such. There is no reason why policemen shouldn’t have that same empathy…unless they are somehow not human, soul-less, devoid of emotion and feelings.

60 years forwards…or backwards?

Although Emmett Till’s death in 1955 turned out to be one of the catalysts for the American Civil Rights Movement, why is it that his story is repeated through Tamir Rice in 2015? The sad truth appears to be that the destructive principles that form the foundation of American society have never been dismantled. Now they are being exposed for what they are. But unless all Americans can fully and positively exploit the opportunities that are open to them to really uphold their revered Constitution, and start work on a new foundation, things will go back another 60 years.



Tamir Rice: June 25, 2002 – November 23, 2014

Image courtesy of: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/23/us/in-tamir-rice-shooting-in-cleveland-many-errors-by-police-then-a-fatal-one.html?_r=0



















One thought on “A Tale of Two Boys: Emmett Till and Tamir Rice

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two Boys: Emmett Till and Tamir Rice | The654

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