By AARON GETTINGER
On Nov. 23, 2014, Cleveland policeman Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice, an African American 12-year-old, as he played with a pellet gun under a gazebo; police then tackled and handcuffed Rice’s sister. They did not help Rice for four minutes and threatened his mother with arrest. He died the following day.
Rice would have turned 17 on June 25. On Sunday, June 23, the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., dedicated the reconstructed gazebo with the original concrete picnic table where Rice sat in his memory.
Artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation received the gazebo in 2016, in coordination with the Tamir Rice Foundation — the City of Cleveland had wanted to destroy it — and it sat deconstructed in the Arts Bank until recently. He said the purpose of the memorial was to create a space where children could play, “trying to make space so that the commemoration of Tamir would be done with the right level of dignity.”
Gates said the gazebo was not an artwork; that “memorial,” “honor” and “commemoration” were not the right words. “We knew when Samaria called, that there was some work to do, and that this site of trauma needed a home.”
Prof. Adam Green with the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture observed that Loehmann did not take adequate time – he fired his weapon two seconds after emerging from his squad car – to see if Rice had a weapon or was a threat to public safety. He said seven officers refused to cooperate with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s 2015 investigation into Rice’s death, “enabling Loehmann to avoid indictment by a grand jury later that same year.”
Then he recounted 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri; 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis of Jacksonville, Florida; 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; 22-year-old Stephon Clark of Sacramento, California; 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, 21-year-old Fred Hampton and 22-year-old Mark Clark of Chicago; and 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi — all of whom were killed or murdered by gunshots fired by police officers or self-styled vigilantes.
“The arithmetic of devastating and unwarranted death that steals our youth away — Tamir and too many others — hounds our memory and our conscience, the wholeness of our love and the truth we hazzard in the very premise of justice,” Green said.
“What replaces the presence of those taken so wrongly? How to reckon with the demonizing of one son or daughter as a threatening, violent and therefore expendable presence in the eyes of too many in society? What manner of rebuilding inside the heart and without in the world could recall the beauty of those who lived as laughing boys and girls before? What must be done to prevent still more mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends, from undergoing this loss and trauma in the future?”
Green called the gazebo “a prospect from which to reckon with, argue over and jointly heal in the light of such questions” and urged commitment to truth telling, that “our boys and girls are not extended the same opportunities the same opportunities to grow, to dream or to make mistakes, like playing with a fake gun, that other children take for granted [and] calling out a society whose material and financial books too often are balanced by reducing resources that serve our children and concentrating them among others.”
“It means retraining that same society to not read introversion, resentment or even anger among our youth as probable cause for execution,” he said. He referenced the college graduation rate of Black boys enrolled in Chicago Public Schools (8%) and the life expectancy disparity between Englewood and Streeterville (60 and 90).
Loehmann’s actions against Rice are just part of the story, Green said; equally important are what factors led to American society where “Black people find their wellbeing, their contributions and their security discounted to the point of dehumanization.” He called not for piecemeal police reforms but for societal transformation, one “requiring truth, solidarity and courage as well as memory, creativity and love.”
Samaria Rice thanked the audience for attending the dedication and Gates for saving the Tamir Rice Memorial Gazebo: “It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so it’s very surreal. I can envision Tamir playing under the gazebo and other children, things like that. I can envision it right at this moment; I can always envision it, as a matter of fact.”
“It hasn’t been easy, this journey. I’ve been thrown into it like many others,” she continued, remembering a woman interviewed on TV news who said “you guys messed with the wrong kid now.”
“They’re absolutely right,” Rice said. “I’m just going to continue to fight the war on injustice in America, and I’ll support and do what I need to do to make a change in America.”
After singer Angel Bat Dawid concluded a closing performance, Gates and Rice walked together underneath the gazebo. The crowd followed them but stayed outside of the awning.
Then the overcast skies burst into a shower, and Gates bid them to get out of the rain.
The gazebo at the Stony Island Arts Bank is neither visceral nor abstract. “The gazebo allows us to be in the presence of Tamir’s last day,” said Chicago attorney Billy Joe Mills with the Tamir Rice Foundation. “For many people in this country, a gazebo is a place of play, sanctuary and gathering. In an instant, the two officers who murdered Tamir reconstructed the gazebo into a place of fear, bloodshed and division. Today, we take it back to its original purpose.
“We take it back to the purpose it served to Tamir: a place of play, sanctuary and gathering.”