Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria, published a post on Medium on Tuesday, the same day that presidential primaries were held in five states, including her (and my) home state of Ohio. Its title was “Why I Have Not Endorsed Any Candidate.” Even on a busy election day, that was news; Eric Garner’s daughter endorsed Bernie Sanders in February, the same month five mothers of black Americans killed by police or in other racialized incidents hit the trail for Hillary Clinton.
Samaria Rice, whose 12-year-old son was shot to death by a white Cleveland police officer in November 2014, wrote that candidates weren’t offering substantive solutions to prevent future Tamirs. “Instead of plans for justice and accountability,” she wrote, “I have been shown several plans for criminal justice reform, none that address my experience of the entire system being guilty. Those plans don’t address the many ways elected officials become exempt to accountability and the legal flaws that allow them to extend that exemption to cops who kill.”
While Rice waits for those sorely needed plans that will comprehensively address police brutality and other similar public safety and health issues, Democratic voters in Cleveland took action on Tuesday night against one of the very elected officials Rice went on to mention in her piece. Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who botched the investigation of her son’s death and the subsequent grand jury prosecution, was defeated soundly in his party primary. At the same time, in Illinois, Chicago voters ousted Anita Alvarez, the Cook County prosecutor who made national headlines screwing up investigations into the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald.
This feels new, seeing the deaths of black folks at the hands of police manifest in direct accountability for someone involved. Neither McGinty nor Alvarez pulled the triggers that killed these young people. But since the resurgence of the black liberation movement after the death of Trayvon Martin four years ago, we settle for lesser versions of “justice” whenever the legal system fails our communities like this.
Does “justice” look like merely an indictment of an officer who kills? Typically, getting a grand jury to agree that there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to merit a trial is easy for prosecutors like McGinty to do, but he didn’t even seem to try to do so in the Tamir Rice case, opting instead to blame a child for playing with an unloaded airsoft BB gun in a public park. Say a prosecutor actually secures that indictment and gets a case to trial, is it “justice” then? With Rekia Boyd’s case, Alvarez presided over the first prosecution of a Chicago police officer for a civilian shooting death in nearly 20 years — but she fumbled the prosecution so badly that the charges were thrown out. And it took the release of a graphic video of McDonald being shot 16 times by a city cop for Alvarez, after more than a year since the incident, to suddenly decide to charge his killer. That’s a development that typically elicits vindication, or at least relief, from those pushing for that elusive “justice,” but the video exposed it as more of a cynical cover-your-ass move.
So given that convictions for police officers who kill are judicial unicorns, how can we ever really know what “justice” looks like? It might just look like what happened on Tuesday night. The defeats of McGinty and Alvarez signified not just victories for the many activist organizations who pushed their misdeeds into a wider spotlight, but also a message to all elected officials: Siding with or enabling cops who brutalize and kill can get you fired. Police brutality has been a campaign issue on the presidential level, folded into larger platforms addressing criminal justice. That’s why you’re seeing mothers being recruited to talk about how candidates feel their pain, and why her/his plan is the best to prevent the next Sandra, Dontre, or Eric. It’s why Tamir’s mother has a platform to make the kinds of demands that she did. But in terms of actual accountability for those who keep this structurally racist system running, neither the black liberation movement nor those it seeks to empower have scored a more significant set of triumphs than those calling for accountability from McGinty and Alvarez just did.
It is sobering to know that it took outrage over the deaths of three young citizens to get us to this point, but it is a relief to see black death used more as a catalyst for real change at the polls, rather than simply as a reason to get a mother on a stage talking about a candidate’s promises. These wins represent real, tangible steps for a movement that not long ago was criticized for not having any goals or just being “hashtag activism.”
And this, of course, is just the start. McGinty’s opponent, Michael O’Malley, didn’t exactly promise grand reforms, but a group of black Democratic lawmakers in Ohio announced last week that they’re working to keep police-involved lethal force cases out of the hands of county prosecutors (who work very closely with officers). And the Chicago-based Black Youth Project 100, in their celebratory statement, didn’t let Alvarez’s vanquisher, Kim Foxx, off the hook. Should she defeat her Republican challenger in the fall, BYP100 writes, “we’ll be looking for you to stay true to your platform and work for an elected civilian police accountability council. We expect the culture of police impunity to end with you.” If not, they’ll come for her, too. As well they should.