The scene this past week in my hometown of Cleveland was the same as it has been in countless other cities across the United States last year.
Protesters shouting, “No justice, no peace!” and holding photos of angelic-looking young black males. Mourners vacillating between righteous anger and deep-seated sadness. Politicians apologizing profusely at press conferences before slipping out the back door.
If 2015 will be remembered for anything, at least in my mind, it will be for the astonishing amount of attention given to police shootings of civilians, as well as the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a little more than a year, this nascent, angry mob of a grass-roots group has turned into a multicultural, multigenerational force with the ability to drive national conversation.
Drive it, in this case, toward Tamir Rice.
The 12-year-old was killed in 2014 when Cleveland police mistook the the toy gun he was holding for a real gun. He was killed in a matter of seconds outside Cudell Recreation Center.
The center, which is surrounded by grass, is on the city’s near Westside, close enough to Lake Erie that you can smell it on some days. People in Cleveland tend to stick to their side of town, and I was an Eastsider. But my mother had friends there so I remember playing at Cudell, probably in that same dreary grass that sits in the shadow of an elementary school.
The officer who pulled the trigger said he feared for his life when he confronted Tamir, who was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds. On Monday, a grand jury declined to indict either of the cops involved. The prosecutor cited a “perfect storm” of human errors.
The public anger over this case – like so many others – isn’t likely to end with 2015, though. In fact, it’s likely to intensify in 2016.
Thanks in large part to Black Lives Matter, police use of force is an issue in the presidential campaign.
The FBI has vowed to do a better job of collecting data on such incidents. And in cities where police shootings have become national news, the U.S. Justice Department has opened civil rights investigations, only to find that police often do use force too much, especially against minorities, the poor and mentally ill, and that training, particularly in de-escalation tactics, is insufficient.
While all of this exposure is certainly a victory for Black Lives Matter activists, in many ways, it is an empty one. How can it be otherwise when month after month, in city after city, grand juries decline to file criminal charges against cops involved in questionable shootings of civilians?
In too many cities in 2015, officers stood accused of the very behavior that city officials agree is rampant and must be weeded out of their police departments, and yet, for a variety of reasons, some of them legitimate, many of those officers weren’t charged.
Cleveland is the latest example. This is true even though the Justice Department found, among other scathing things, that officers fire “their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury… (and) too often escalate incidents with citizens instead of using effective and accepted tactics to de-escalate tension.”
Chicago, where a federal probe is just getting underway and the mayor is facing pressure to step down after officers killed a mentally ill man and a grandmother last weekend, could become another.
At some point, these parallel lines of thinking must cross to effect real change. I hope this will be the year.