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The Six-Million-Dollar Black Boy

The settlement Cleveland gave to Tamir Rice’s family wasn't justice. It was the going rate for African-American life.

It took time for Tamir Rice to die, nearly a full day, and the bullet inside of him didn’t work alone. It had help, from folks like the two emergency dispatchers who fielded the 911 call about someone pointing a gun at a park on Cleveland’s West Side. They failed to tell police officers that the caller believed the gun was probably fake, and that it was a young boy doing the pointing. Police officer Timothy Loehmann helped; he fired that bullet at Tamir, less than two seconds after his partner, Frank Garmback, stopped their cruiser mere feet from where the boy stood. You could argue that the two cops who helped get Loehmann hired should share some blame, too; Loehmann had been deemed unfit to serve by the police department in neighboring Independence, Ohio, before he joined the force in Cleveland.

All of those folks, along with the city of Cleveland itself, were named in the Rice family’s civil lawsuit that was settled on Monday. The city will pay $6 million over two years, with $5.5 million going to Tamir’s estate and $500,000 split between Tamir’s mother Samaria and his older sister, who on that fateful November day pleaded with Loehmann and Garmback to help her brother as he lay dying. Six million dollars sounds like a lot, especially in Cleveland, which paid out a total of $10.5 million for police misconduct settlements in the 10 years before Tamir’s death.

As the Washington Post reminded us on Monday, cities agreed to pay the families of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott anywhere between $5.9 million and $6.5 million in similar civil suits. By that reckoning, $6 million is about the going rate for a black life ended by the police. And as is custom, no one who was sued for these deaths will actually have to say that they did anything wrong. That’s true of the Rice family’s case, too: The settlement requires neither Loehmann, Garmback, the dispatchers, nor the City of Cleveland to admit to any wrongdoing in Tamir’s death.

That’s one reason why it would be a mistake to call these settlements “justice.” Black folks in particular may do this out of cynicism and weariness, grasping for small victories wherever we can find them. Maybe if it hurts cops financially, we think, they’ll finally stop killing us. But the truth is, money awarded in these settlements doesn’t come out of police department budgets or pensions. The city picks up the tab, either through insurance or directly from the municipal budget. That’s what will happen in Cleveland. Settling a police-killing lawsuit without making the cops pay for it seems to ring hollow in a city that's supposedly trying to convince its cops to stop beating and killing people.

There have been at least 20 instances of unarmed civilian deaths so far this year, so it isn’t like the police just up and decided to stop killing people in America once we saw Ferguson on cable news. Yet we aren't talking about this kind of violence as much these days as we were even this time last year. Police brutality stories typically follow this script: There is a death at the hands of law enforcement, followed by protest and outrage, followed by a failure to prosecute those involved, and finally a civil lawsuit settlement. This is typically the end of the story, at least as we follow it in the news. Now that the settlement is over, don't expect to hear Tamir Rice’s name very often.

I feel compelled to resist that trend, for a very specific reason: But for my own good fortune, I could’ve been Tamir. I was once a 12-year-old black boy in Cleveland, too. I grew up in an East Side suburb, and though we were hardly wealthy, I didn’t want for much. But my circumstances didn’t somehow put Kevlar over my blackness, transforming me into a tiny bulletproof Luke Cage. It is chilling that we can now put a number on that chance, to know that by today’s standards had I, had a friend or a neighbor or a classmate, been given the de facto death penalty for horsing around in a park, our lives would have been worth $6 million. It’s not the dollar figure that makes the blood run cold, so much as the knowledge that there is a figure, that it exists, that it’s codified now: This is what it costs to kill an unarmed American, in the name of panic or misjudgment or nothing at all.

That’s what we’re worth. The city of Cleveland, my beloved hometown, has set the price. Perhaps it’ll go up in future judgments, or it might sink lower. As with our kidnapped African ancestors, the folks paying these sums for our bodies are not simply purchasing our lives or compensating for our deaths. Just like back in the antebellum days, those who put a price on black bodies still get to say that in the eyes of the law, they’ve done nothing wrong. Their money helps maintain a way of life that kills an inordinate number of black people, so much so that cities must now plan for it. They even have to budget for it.