Tamir Rice’s mother wants a ‘better America,’ but she can’t find it in politics

CLEVELAND—Strangers ask her for selfies all the time. At the grocery store, during her errands, on the street. Once, she politely declined a woman at Olive Garden so many times that a waiter had to intervene.

“Wait a minute,” the woman had said. “You the boy’s mother. You the boy’s mother.”

Yes, Samaria Rice had acknowledged. I’m just trying to have dinner.

“I always got sunglasses or a disguise on because I don’t want people to notice me,” she told me much later, but they keep asking, they keep noticing her, because she is Samaria Rice.

Because her son was Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in a city park.

Samaria Rice wants no part of celebrity. Not even in her hometown of Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention comes to town on Monday to nominate Donald Trump for president.

Not even at a time—yet another time—when the police killings of black men dominate the news.

Oh, she has opinions about politics. She thinks Trump “needs some help” and doesn’t give a damn about black people or correcting the system that let the officer who killed Tamir walk away with no charges filed.

But when she was asked to endorse Hillary Clinton, she said, she declined. (Clinton’s campaign says it did not ask.) She despises that this is the kind of decision that comes with being a black American mother whose child has been killed by a cop.

Clinton has called for expanded use of police body cameras and for national standards on use of force by the police. Trump has seldom addressed the issue but said recently that there could be problems with police training.

But Samaria said no candidate is “speaking my language about police reform.”

She wants “a lot on the table, not a little bit of talk, a lot of talk about police brutality, police accountability, making new policies, taking some away, and just reforming the whole system. I think that would make me feel better, and no candidate has did that for me yet.”

As for President Barack Obama, Samaria doesn’t have any love for him, either. As she sees it, he isn’t doing enough to challenge the state on its role in police brutality. Even his success as the first black president has not protected black people from racist cops.

“He may mention something about it, but he’s not really going to go into details about it and hold the government responsible for killing innocent people,” she said.

As Samaria was telling me all of this, we were standing in the park where the Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot and killed Tamir in November 2014. She is resolute but in clear pain.

“I will never forget that day,” she told me, feet from where Tamir was shot. “Them taking my baby away at 12 years old, I still had nourishment to do for my son. He was only 12. He had just been 12 for five months. I still had a lot of nurturing to do for him, a lot of holding and kissing on him, and stuff like that. I know just 12 years old for a boy is like a turning point. I was guiding him in the right direction. I really was. He was really not a bad kid.”

Samaria attends therapy sessions to help her deal with the trauma of losing her son. Some days are good. Others are pretty bad.

It’s quiet and calm on this Friday afternoon in early June. Families are walking by us with their small children and young boys resting on swings and chit-chatting. Under the gazebo where Tamir fell is a table filled with stuffed animals.

That day two years ago, there was nothing calm about this place. Someone called 911 to report “a guy with a pistol.” “It’s probably fake,” the caller said, “but he’s pointing it at everybody.”

It was a toy gun. Two officers—Loehmann, who was in the passenger seat, and Frank Garmback, the driver—responded and drove up to find Tamir outside a gazebo at a city park. It only took seconds for Loehmann to open fire. Tamir was hit in the torso and died the next morning.

A grand jury declined last year to charge Loehmann. The county prosecutor called the shooting a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications.”

Samaria Rice does not see it that way. “They was 5 feet away from him,” she said. “All you had to do was say: Hey, little dude, what are you doing?”

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The park where Tamir played is now his memorial. A butterfly garden was built to bring some semblance of peace to a place of horror. Written on the wooden tables are notes to Tamir.

“We miss you.”

“We love you.”

On a small, wooden pillar, the words “PEACE” and “JUSTICE” are painted.

Those two words strike a chord with Samaria. For her, peace would mean she could live the normal life she had lived before Tamir was killed. She was studying to be a real estate investor. But she hasn’t been to school since that November. Fighting the city in a series of lawsuits has taken up all her time.

Cleveland settled with Samaria for $6 million in April, half to be paid this year and the other half next year. The head of Cleveland’s police union, Steve Loomis, said Tamir’s family should use part of the settlement money to educate young kids on the dangers of playing with replica firearms.

Samaria doesn’t want to go into detail about Loomis. But she does want to set the record straight on the toy gun.

Tamir was never allowed to play with toy guns because of how black males are perceived. Perhaps he got the toy gun he was holding that day from another kid. But she wants the world to know there were no toy guns in her house.

“I always tried to put a basketball, a football, or video game in Tamir’s hand,” she told me.

She hates that she even has to explain this to me. The media attention, the video loops on social media and television of the cop shooting her son, and the politicians jockeying for her endorsement are too much to bear sometimes.

Samaria is no longer the person she was before Cleveland police killed her son. She is an anti-police brutality activist. She speaks around the country. And she is working on a foundation in honor of her son.

Her cause has only grown more urgent with the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

And because the Republican National Convention is coming to her backyard, people are wondering what role will she play in protesting it. People are waiting for her to say something.

Samaria is trying to keep a low profile but she realizes that her existence now is very much political. And newsworthy. Anything she says could have political (and, for her, legal) ramifications.

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Samaria had no idea how brutal police officers were against black people until a Cleveland police officer killed Tamir.

She had heard about Mike Brown, in Ferguson, only three months before her own son fell. But it really didn’t hit home. And she saw black mothers on television wailing after police officers shot and killed their children.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care. It was just that the day-to-day activities of life, which for Samaria included attending courses to obtain her real estate license and raising four children, distracted her.

Besides, none of those black people killed by cops were one of her babies. So, it didn’t fully registeruntil two little boys, two boys she didn’t know, knocked on her door on Nov. 22, 2014.

“The police just shot your son,” Samaria recalled the boys telling her.

Samaria lives a block from the park. She walked with me down the same concrete pathway she ran down that day to get to her son, who was lying on the ground, mortally wounded from a single gunshot to the torso from Officer Loehmann’s gun.

As we walked closer to the spot where Tamir’s body fell, she described the scene: Her daughter, Tajai, was sitting in the backseat of a police car and she didn’t know why. Police officers were everywhere. A cop stopped her from getting closer to Tamir and threatened arrest if she didn’t calm down.

But how could she be calm? Her baby was on the ground dying, and she didn’t know how it had happened. She was given the option of riding in the police car with her child or inside the ambulance taking Tamir to the hospital.

She chose the ambulance.

“I rode in the front seat like a daggone passenger, she said. “I don’t even know who was in the back with Tamir because I know I wasn’t allowed to be back there.”

Tamir went straight to surgery, so she never got to see him before he died. Her family comforted her at the hospital for the six hours or so as doctors labored to save him. He died of his wounds at 1 a.m., Nov. 23.

With a single shot to her son’s torso from an officer’s gun, Samaria became a movement mother, an activist.

She started her day with four children. Officer Loehmann’s drive-by shooting of Tamir left her with three.

“I consider myself normal, just raising my kids and just being a single parent. We seen Trayvon Martin on TV and seen Michael Brown, but when it hit us, it’s just like … I don’t know,” she said. “It’s like, ‘What happened?’ Now I’m thrown into the movement and into the struggle.”

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She feels comfortable now in the movement. Protesting on the streets and forcing local and state politicians to have uncomfortable conversations about police brutality are more powerful than endorsing them for office or showing up at their rallies.

As Samaria sees it, she is not one of them. She is a victim of police brutality; politicians, no matter their race or gender, represent the state, and the state protects bad cops from prosecution.

No matter which politician asks for her support, Samaria refuses to be an accessory for political ambition. Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton earned the endorsements of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown; and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner.

Samaria told me she has a very good relationship with them, but she doesn’t want to endorse anybody—especially not Clinton. The presumptive nominee is for big money, not people like her, she believes. She is hopeful that the mothers who have endorsed Clinton will have the former secretary of state’s ear.

“I hope they going to hold her accountable for whatever discussions they had behind closed doors,” she told me.

I asked Samaria if she plans on voting in November. She said she might. Then again, she might not. All she wants is for politicians to acknowledge that the institution of American policing is flawed and full of racist cops who have to be fired and punished.

But Samaria also knows that she can’t do it alone. When I asked her what she wants from a politician she may vote for, she told me she’s really hoping to hear more people running for office to propose bills that would challenge police departments to serve their communities better. Some legislation that would make bad cops accountable to the people. That is her hope in 2016: to see politicians take on police brutality at all levels.

She spends much of her time these days trying to get the Tamir Rice Foundation off the ground. She hopes to provide scholarships to young black people in Cleveland, so they can attend college—just as she hoped for Tamir.

That’s a much more fruitful way of spending her time than protesting the Republican National Convention. During those four days, Samaria is avoiding downtown. The police presence and Trump supporters, she feels, will be hostile to black people.

Most likely, she’ll be here on the west side, at home. Not too far from where Tamir was killed, but light years away from where anyone at the RNC would want to risk being seen.

That’s just fine with Samaria. She just wants someone, she’s doesn’t care which party, to create an America in which a cop can’t kill her children, hide behind the law and go home to their families intact.

Police are out of control and politicians are leaving her to fend for herself. The political process has failed her. But she refuses to let them off the hook. As jaded a view as Samaria has of politicians and law enforcement, she knows she needs their help.

She wants the Department of Justice to indict the officers who were involved in death of her son. (A review of Tamir’s case is ongoing.) And if any politician wants to have a conversation with her about ending the epidemic of police brutality that took her son’s life, Samaria is more than willing to have it.

But she is devastated that Officer Loehmann’s actions put her in this situation in the first place.

“I consider myself a normal citizen in America, just raising my kids to be productive citizens out here,” she said. “Now I have been put in a place where I have to fight for human rights across this nation and to get some laws changed so we can have a better America.”