When twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in November of 2014, my thoughts went instinctively to my own children – whose school is less than ten minutes away from the park where his fourteen-year-old sister fought desperately to be at his side during his last moments of life. I had a visceral, motherly response, the kind that happens when something in your heart and brain connects with a specific detail in situation from which you would normally have safe and privileged emotional distance.
Twelve years old. The same age as my oldest son.
My silly and impulsive Aidan, who I could imagine grabbing quickly for his waistband, in a fast-thinking youthful attempt to show evidence that he was only playing. It was just a toy.
My second thought? Samaria Rice. Oh God. His mother. His poor mother.
Of course, I didn’t know her name then. As Rice said yesterday, when speaking at WISH Cleveland’s Let’s Talk About Race: Common Ground CLE event, back then she was just like the rest of us. “Doing my own thing. Minding my own business. Living my life.”
“I never used to believe in police brutality,” she told a room full of mostly white faces.
When the Cleveland Foundation asked for host sites for their city-wide conversation event, I knew instantly what we needed to talk about here in Euclid, and I am deeply grateful to Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer-Gail for agreeing to sponsor UNDEREXPOSED, a documentary film highlighting the experiences of Cleveland black and brown teens from the non-profit arts program, Shooting Without Bullets.
I didn’t know Ms. Rice was coming, so when Amanda King, the Director of Shooting Without Bullets, brought her to the front of the room, along with the mother and sister of Luke Stewart, whose death is still under investigation after he was shot and killed by a police officer, just 3 minutes away from my home earlier this year – I’ll be honest – my heart skipped a beat. My pulse quickened. My chest tightened. My thoughts raced. I looked around the room, quickly gauging the intentions of the unexpected speakers and the reactions of our audience.
For about 60 seconds, my discomfort consumed me. And then I reminded myself, this woman standing in front of me wakes up every day without her son. My son is standing next to me listening to her speak. Luke Stewart’s family is still trying to uncover the truth around his death – he died in the same Emergency Department at Euclid hospital where I used to sit as a social worker. If our paths had crossed in a different place and time, I could easily have been the social worker trying to comfort them at his bedside.
If they can stand up and do this – then the least I can do is turn off my ego and listen.
“That’s what we do, right?” said King, “We hold space for people who need to tell their stories,” as she introduced the unexpected but important guests. Yes, we can watch an inspiring movie about Cleveland kids who are using art to escape and combat the truths in which they live: racism, poverty, segregation, bias and violence. But if we really want to talk about race, how can we not include these mothers in the conversation?
Having a real conversation about racism is not an easy thing to do. As a white person, it can be difficult to move past the assumption that you either have to side with black people or side with the police, or that other people will perceive you have chosen one side or the other. Once we reconcile the fact that being supportive of people who speak up against racial profiling and injustice isn’t the same as being “anti-police” then we can push through our discomfort to a place where real conversations and meaningful change can begin.
One of the students featured in UNDEREXPOSED pointed out that as a society we are equally guilty of the “Y’all” narrative. “Y’all black kids” do this. “Y’all police” do that. The truth is, too many black people are dying at the hands of police weapons. Most police officers go to work to help people, not to kill them—both of these statements can be true.
So where do we go from here? Community members, city leaders and police officers all need to examine and confront our biases, because they subconsciously impact our thoughts and actions. And if you’re carrying a gun, unchallenged biases destroy lives.
For me, this means I will keep putting myself in uncomfortable situations and starting difficult conversations. Kareem Henton, a Cleveland organizer for the Black Lives Matter movement, also spoke at the event, telling us the value of just being there. “Sometimes people want to know what they can do,” he said looking over at the mothers next to him, “They just need people to stand with them.” People who are willing witness their pain, ask tough questions and genuinely listen to the answers.
Photo credits: Randy Blackford. Thank you again to our event sponsors and partners: The Cleveland Foundation, The City of Euclid, Shooting Without Bullets, Craft Beer & Conversations and the Euclid Brewing Company. Food provided by Chili Peppers.