Why 'calls for calm' in Tamir Rice case strike black activists as condescending

Many black Americans perceive a greater concern for civil calm and the protection of property than for the lives of those who were killed, including Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Tony Dejak/AP
The Rev. Bruce Butcher, left, protests outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Cleveland. People marched peacefully in front of the center to protest a grand jury's decision not to indict two white Cleveland police officers in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun.

After a grand jury on Monday declined to indict the Cleveland police officers who gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year, Ohio authorities immediately urged those affected by the tragedy to remain calm.

Maintaining order is generally considered something that communities should strive for. But for many black residents in Cleveland as well as observers around the country, Monday's statements calling for calm felt like yet another condescending dismissal of their experiences with the US criminal justice system – and another example of how the system just doesn’t seem to work for them.

And while debates continue about the integrity of the grand jury system and the ways in which police tend to use force more quickly in black communities, many black Americans perceive a greater concern for civil calm and the protection of property than for the lives of those who were killed.

" '[P]lease don't tear nothin up.' that's the long of the short," read one oft-retweeted comment by @bomani_jones as officials issued their statements.

That's not to say the statements entirely ignored how some people might feel. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, spoke about "a heartbreaking tragedy" and how "many people [will ask] themselves if justice was served."

But as the country has wrestled with the high-profile deaths of multiple black men and women, from Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, many black citizens have expressed the feeling that white people simply do not understand the inequalities they face.

Indeed, the statements issued after Monday's grand jury action point up some of these differences in thinking, attitudes, and perceptions. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty alluded to as much when he said that the officers who shot Tamir – just a few seconds after arriving at the scene where he was holding a toy gun – “saw events rapidly unfolding in front of them from a very different perspective.”

One thing that the statements have brought out is that to many white people, black children appear older than they are. Mr. McGinty said that Tamir’s “size made him look much older” and cited this as one reason that police officers were so quick to open fire.

To many black observers, this hardly seems like a valid reason.

“Why do so many white people seem content to explain away or justify these kinds of events, or seem to not notice much at all?” wrote Issac Bailey, a columnist, on CNN.com. Citing a Department of Education study, Mr. Bailey noted that little black boys and some girls were being expelled from school as early as kindergarten because they were perceived as threats. “Others have found that little black boys and black girls are perceived to be older than they usually are, making it less likely that those who don't know them personally will have empathy for them,” he added.

Although Governor Kasich, also a presidential candidate, began his statement with a reference to heartbreak, the rest of it didn't work for some.

“We all lose ... if we give in to anger and frustration and let it divide us,” the statement read. “We have made progress to improve the way communities and police work together in our state, and we're beginning to see a path to positive change so everyone shares in the safety and success they deserve. When we are strong enough together to turn frustration into process we take another step up the higher path."

Many observers saw this as a slight toward what should be a righteous anger at yet another lost black life.

“It comes quite close to belittling the emotions and political concerns those in particular peril of deadly police contact might feel in the wake of the prosecutor's decision,” wrote Janell Ross at The Washington Post, referring to the statement. “[And it] demands yet more faith in an existing system, the existing leadership and its commitment to ‘share’ safety and success.”

The statements also contained allusions to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which might have been intended as a nod to a revered black leader.

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, who is white, invoked the words of Dr. King when he stated, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline” and “not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

But many saw this as condescending and as a dismissal of the rage that they feel as black men continue to lose their lives.

“And they are profiled in a way white boys never will be, no matter how many white boys and men shoot up high schools and elementary schools and shopping malls and movie theaters,” wrote Bailey at CNN. “Why can't more people see the cosmic horror of a 12-year-old black boy carrying a toy pellet gun in a park instantly becoming a threat in a state in which grown white men openly carry high-powered weapons?”

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