Tamir Rice is not a martyr.
He did not die, one year ago, as another noble name on a list of noble names. While the year after his death has featured sustained cries for justice in his name and while his name has become a part of the litany that we now recite like prayers to remind and invoke, the key difference is that a martyr chooses his death. His mother, Samaria Rice, did not choose to be an activist. She would rather be a mother, doing what mothers do; which is to say not burying her 12-year-old child and testifying in the moribund grand jury proceedings of his killer.
Martyrdom is a choice, a tragedy mitigated by the election of the ultimate rebellion. Tamir had no choice. Tamir was a child who suffered unimaginably through no fault of his own. The Rice family and the community directly impacted by his death are activists forged by the most unforgiving fires of necessity.
But Tamir Rice was also not the victim of a random tragedy. His fate was likely sealed the moment Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, two officers trained in delivering death to people just like Tamir, laid eyes on him. Although Loehmann fired the shots in that park that killed Tamir, both officers were but the metaphorical fingers on the trigger that day.
Individual racial bias and bias embedded in police training were the sinews. The policing complex whereby police become tyrants over communities of color was the hand. The iron and steel of guns, our country’s most enduring religion and the enabler of both the instruments that killed Tamir and the instrument used to justify his death, are the bones. The legal system that protects and enables police who choose to kill is the immune system, the mass of writhing tentacles of white privilege and supremacy are the brain and the nervous system, and racism, that most vital fluid, is the blood that nourishes everything else.
Racism and the body of America are coterminous. The same way that my body cannot live without blood, the same way that Tamir’s body ceased to live once his was spilled are the same way that America cannot live the way it lives without racism, and specifically without the blood of those it dominates as nourishment. The teleos; the ultimate end to which American society tends, perhaps even its purpose in the way that life lives and recreates; is the death of Tamir Rice.
We see the reflexes now, as prosecutor Tim McGinty, even as an individually rational actor, fulfills the role of protecting the police actors as is his role in the body. The grand jury, itself a choice that seeks to legitimize a bias to protect police, has been poisoned by prejudicing reports even before it began. The Rice family will seek justice in any way they can, by providing testimony and pursuing accountability for Loehmann, and by working as activists across the country protesting similar cases, but recent history suggests that their fight was destined to be a losing fight as soon as a 911 call was made to report a little boy playing with a gun. The finger acted as the finger was supposed to act, and now the rest of the body will continue.
Above all, Tamir Rice was a child. A boy with hopes and dreams. A kid who like so many of us, myself included, enjoyed the rebellion that sometimes clashes with a mother’s wishes. He played sports, he bragged and talked trash, he watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, he lived. He did not want to die. He was not aware of the beast that hunted him. Like so many children, he probably didn’t even know to be afraid of the police that killed him. They were supposed to keep him safe.
For his family, the year without Tamir has undoubtedly been hell, a time of shock, grief, and the pain of endless retellings and an uphill fight. For the rest of the folks in the streets who still try to convince the world that our lives matter, the year without Tamir has been a primer in anatomy. Not just in the dozens of bodies broken by police that have also become part of our lists of names, and not just in our own bodies, beaten and brutalized by police as we protest just by living. The primer has been in the anatomy of America, and a full stop realization that it does consume people like Tamir. Not by happenstance, but by design, form and feature.
Tamir Rice is not a martyr. Tamir Rice is not just a rallying cry. He is not a talking point or an inconvenient truth. He is a child-sized body and a universe-sized void and spirit. He is one of us. The year has not erased him.