On January 28, the Biden administration Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division (CRD) refused to press any criminal charges against the policeman who murdered Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy who was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio, park in 2014.
In April 2021, Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, contacted Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, through lawyers, and asked the new DOJ to reconsider pressing charges against Officer Timothy Loehmann, who fatally shot Tamir. Her letter pointed to “the election of President Biden, your [Garland’s] appointment, and your commitment to the rule of law, racial justice, and police reform,” and it argued that the previous refusal of the DOJ to prosecute Loehmann stemmed from “political interference” by Trump administration officials who were opposed to ever prosecuting police for racist crimes.
DOJ-CRD director Kristen Clarke finally sent Samaria Rice a letter saying that the federal government can’t prove that Loehmann, who shot her son about one second after driving up to him, violated his civil rights. Clarke endorsed the Trump DOJ’s 2020 decision not to prosecute Loehmann as unbiased, professional, and legally correct. Yet she also insisted this was not “an exoneration of Timothy Loehmann’s actions,” and promised that the Biden administration is “doing all we can to promote policing accountability and reform.”
In November 2014, Tamir Rice was playing outside at the Cudell Recreation Center park with a toy airsoft gun that shoots plastic pellets. A security camera recorded him waving and pointing the pellet gun, making snowballs, and then sitting down in an empty picnic gazebo.
The pellet gun looked like a real gun. A man in the park became worried and called 911 and said that there was “a guy there with a pistol, you know, it’s probably fake,” and that he was pointing it at people. Then he said the person was “probably a juvenile.” The 911 dispatcher asked three times, “Is he Black or white?” and then sent Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) officers Loehmann and Frank Garmback to the park on what CDP cops call a “gun run” without telling them that the caller had said the gun was probably fake and the person was probably a minor. This culpable negligence led to Tamir’s death, but the city did not fire the 911 dispatcher. Sixteen months after the event, CDP suspended her from her job for eight days for deleting that crucial information when she sent the cops.
When the cops arrived, Rice was alone in the gazebo with no one nearby. They pulled up less than 10 feet away, directly in front of him. Loehmann immediately exited through the passenger door and, about one second later, shot Rice.
Loehmann later made contradictory and implausible claims. Two witnesses heard his shots but said they did not hear prior orders. One witness said she heard “Freeze … show me your hands” only after the shooting began. Interviewed by police, Loehmann claimed he opened his passenger door while the car was still 30 yards away, brandished his gun, and screamed repeatedly, “Put your hands in the air!” Yet he also said he did this “through the window” — which he admitted was closed. Disturbingly, Loehmann said, “I was making sure my gun could be seen by the male so he knew that, you know, this was not a joke, that we were serious.” He said that as the squad car stopped, he was pointing his gun at Rice — at point-blank range. Loehmann claimed that he shot Rice in self-defense because Rice grabbed the pellet gun and had it in his hand “almost raised.” This is not visible in the low-quality video.
If the police believed they were confronting a dangerous armed person in an empty park area, speeding to place themselves very closely in front of him was stupid. The CDP later reprimanded and briefly suspended Garmback, the squad car driver, for doing this. The CDP also fired Loehmann in 2017, not for shooting Rice but because immediately after the shooting the department found out that he had previously resigned from a nearby suburban police department after a supervisor described him in writing as “emotionally immature,” undisciplined, dangerously incompetent, and unstable, including during handgun training. The Cleveland cop union nevertheless continued to push a court appeal for Loehmann to be reinstated in the police force until 2021, when that request was rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court.
But the cops’ goal was not to prevent harm to anyone. It was to intimidate and arrest a Black person whom they preemptively assumed guilty and whom they feared might get away.
The cops shot a young boy who was playing with a toy gun, just like millions of American boys are routinely encouraged to do. Tamir was treated very differently from millions of white boys with BB guns. Cleveland is about one-half Black and one-third white and incredibly residentially segregated.
A federal investigation of the CDP the same year Rice was murdered revealed that one Cleveland police station put up a sign saying “Forward Operating Base,” the name for a military garrison inside enemy territory in a U.S. occupation like that of Afghanistan. No one on the force objected to this sign, indicating that rank-and-file cops and commanders at that station viewed the population of low-income Black neighborhoods as the enemy and their job as conquering, pacifying, or controlling those people. This was evident in Rice’s shooting.
As Tamir lay wounded on the ground, his 14-year-old sister tried to run to him from elsewhere in the park. Garmback tackled her, and the two cops handcuffed her and locked her in their squad car for an hour. Loehmann had fired twice and hit Tamir once, in the gut. He and Garmback stood by for nearly four minutes as Rice lay wounded, doing nothing to slow the bleeding or give first aid, until an FBI agent arrived and did so. Rice died the next day at a hospital. Delaying medical aid may have caused his death.
The CDP and Mayor Frank Jackson quickly released the recording of the shooting, but they concealed the video of the egregious police actions afterward for more than a month until a journalists’ organization threatened them with a lawsuit. Six years later, police disciplinary hearings were completed dealing with four police supervisors who came to the scene after the shooting and approved Loehmann and Garmback’s holding Tamir’s sister in their cruiser. Police chief Calvin Williams fully defended all those supervisors, but the city’s No. 1 police “oversight” official, Karrie Howard, punished one of them with a two-day suspension. Howard, a former prosecutor, was appointed by Mayor Jackson as the new public safety director less than one month into the massive protests against the murder of George Floyd and took office promising to “hear all voices of the Cleveland community … calling out for change, reforms, and collaboration.”
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty took charge of the shooting case, presenting it to a grand jury to decide whether to charge Loehmann with murder. Grand juries are convened entirely behind closed doors by the government to seek indictments to put a person on trial for an alleged crime. Only the prosecutor, the anonymous grand jurors, individual witnesses brought in by the prosecutor, and a silent stenographer are in the room. McGinty thought that, for political reasons based on outrage at Tamir’s shooting, he had to impanel a grand jury and present the case for potential prosecution. But the prosecutor subsequently told the media that he had explicitly urged the grand jury not to indict. By his own account, McGinty argued to the grand jury that Officer Loehmann was justified in shooting Rice because at the time he “had reason to fear for his life,” and therefore the killing was not a crime.
The prosecutor succeeded in convincing the grand jury not to charge Loehmann with any crime. Under Ohio law, three pro-police grand jurors out of nine would have been enough to prevent indictment. McGinty then argued in the media that Rice’s death was caused by “human error … by all involved that day”; that is, he openly blamed Tamir for his own murder. While the population of Cleveland is 49 percent African American, there is no way to know how many Black jurors sat on the grand jury or its members’ occupations and social backgrounds. The Rice family said through their lawyer that McGinty “abus[ed] and manipulat[ed] the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment.”
Politics of the DOJ-CRD Inaction
Since Justice Stephen Breyer announced in late January that he will retire from the Supreme Court (in order to allow Biden to name his successor), Biden has promised that, as pledged during his campaign, he will appoint an (unspecified) Black woman to the Supreme Court.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ-CRD explained her decision not to press charges against Officer Loehmann by pointing to a Supreme Court opinion that a cop can be judged to have violated a person’s civil rights only if they “willfully” harmed them, that is, harmed them knowingly, and intentionally broke the law.
Both this Supreme Court precedent and Clarke’s refusal to prosecute insult the very concept of civil rights. In Tamir’s case, many different state institutions have acted for more than seven years to legalize the murder of a Black child. The refusal to charge Loehmann suggests that the Biden administration’s talk of police “accountability and reform” stops far short of real penalties and taking away the carte blanche cops have to maim and kill civilians.
Notably, Clarke herself is a Black woman appointed to a high-level position in the legal system, but her appointment did not ensure minimum human decency in the state decision on this case. Obama’s being in the White House did not lead to police accountability after the Ferguson uprising, and Black mayors’ being in office in Baltimore and Atlanta did not lead to accountability after police murders and massive protests by Black communities there. Capitalist politicians can use identity politics for their own political benefit while opposing substantive reforms and in practice working to shut down the popular BLM movement.
Biden spent 36 years in the Senate supporting the use of heavy-handed police force directed at Black and Brown communities. During the October 2020 presidential election debate, he agreed that there is anti-Black “systemic injustice” in law enforcement but then declared: “The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable, men and women. They risk their lives every day to take care of us. But there are some bad apples, and when they occur, when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable.”
Biden’s discussion of systemic racism was just pandering. He simultaneously lied to the public about what the police as an institution actually do. Years earlier, the Obama administration DOJ-CRD made official investigations of more than 20 police departments, including those of Ferguson, Cleveland, and Chicago, and reported that racist police crimes were common, involved collusion from large numbers of cops, and were treated as normal by top police officials. The dishonest excuse of “bad apple” exceptions is used to shield police forces from popular anger, and the promise of “accountability” is used to appease anti-racist criticism and mass action, while continuing to sweep police crimes under the rug through convenient legal rulings. The DOJ handling of the Tamir Rice case demonstrates that Biden opposes accountability in any practical application.
The strength of the movement against racism depends on full, direct clarity about how authorities and state institutions wield power. If Black Lives Matter is to come forward in full force after being watered down and largely dissolved by Democratic politicians, it has to be politically independent; it has to oppose both wings of the U.S. capitalist class.
Samaria Rice told the press after the latest DOJ decision, “I think they’re pitiful and pathetic, and at this point no one is going to get justice when it comes to police shootings in America. It’s disgusting [that] I don’t have an indictment for my 12-year-old son.” Late last year, Rice said something similar after the acquittal of anti-BLM murderer Kyle Rittenhouse (a verdict that Biden said he stood by). “At the end of the day,” she said, “this country needs to be overthrown. This is pitiful.” She’s right. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell,” as so many protesters have shouted. We must build the social power to fight for real accountability with a movement led by the working class and oppressed against the two parties of the capitalist class, both of which have blood on their hands.