Retribution, Restitution, and Race in Ohio

 Five years ago, Tamir Rice is shot and killed. In the aftermath, several things happen. The two officers who responded to the call, who fired the shots, are temporarily reassigned to more menial positions. Tamir’s family files a wrongful death suit against the officers and the city of Cleveland. Almost a year and a half later, “in an effort to reduce taxpayer liabilities,” the city agrees to pay the Rice family a six million dollar settlement. 

This year, a thirty-minute drive away from Cleveland, Gibson’s Bakery wins damages for defamation. After a shoplifting incident ended in violence, student accusations of the shop owner’s racism negatively affected the business. In the judgement, the jury awards the bakery an initial $44 million in damages, an amount that is later capped at $25 million under Ohio law.

I don’t know how to phrase what went wrong here. I would hope that it doesn’t need explaining. But before either of these suits were filed, certain events unfolded. Certain people were harmed. The exact nature and order of these events are a matter of contention even now. So for incidents resulting in such grave consequences, why are the substantiating events so unclear? The story so uncertain? 

Let’s back up a bit. Oberlin College is a small liberal arts school in northeastern Ohio. Despite Ohio’s recent reputation as a swing state and its location in the northern U.S., only eight of the state’s 88 counties went blue in the 2016 election. Oberlin’s Lorain County had a close vote that ended up blue. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County was overwhelmingly blue. But right now, the geography and voting history of the state should remain mere context. 

In Oberlin, there is a family with a business, facing accusations of racial bias. There is a shoplifting incident, there is a violent altercation between the white shop owner and three Black students. In Cleveland, there is a 12 year old boy. There is a phone call, and there is a gap lasting a few seconds, between the moment the police arrive and the moment Tamir Rice is shot.

There remains a lot of debate about what “else” happened. What did the dispatcher relay or not relay to the officers? Did the student actually attempt to shoplift wine? Who instigated the physical violence between the student and the shop owner? Why did the dispatcher ask the 9-1-1 caller if the boy was Black or white, twice? When your son is dead, do any of these questions even matter? 

I’m not the right person to decide what questions to ask. Arguably, I have little qualification to pass judgment on legal minutiae such as “settlements,” “damages,” and “appropriate compensation.” But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we are the judge or the jury, the cop or the bystander. However we got to this point, the consequences remain the same. Whatever the context, there are certain losses that can never be restored.

Tamir Rice should not have died. But there is the fact that he did. There is the fact that a white police officer killed a Black boy. There is the fact that a white shop owner scuffled with a Black college student, the fact that a college campus was outraged, the fact that the jury awarded a shop $44 million in damages to the reputation of their business. 

There is the fact that no amount of money can ever replace or undo or absolve the death of Tamir Rice. And there are those six million dollars.