Thirteen months ago in Cleveland, Ohio, a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice was playing with a BB gun in a park when he was ambushed by two Cleveland police officers who drove up to the gazebo where the boy was relaxing. One officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot Rice in the chest before their police cruiser arrived at a full stop. Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, declined to administer first aid, electing instead to his arrest the boy’s 14-year-old sister, who was rushing to his side. Rice died the next day.
Three days ago, a grand jury declined to indict either officer after they claimed that they thought Rice was older (though he was not) and that they thought the gun was real (though it was not). It was a complete failure, but Rice is dead and the officers are free because Rice was a black boy in America and American black boys are seen as so inherently dangerous and disposable that claiming to sense danger, even where there is none, can justify one’s murder.
That two agents of the state who executed an unarmed, innocent child on camera were allowed to walk free outraged millions. One man, Tariq Touré, tweeted this to his followers, tagging prominent Black Lives Matter activists like DeRay Mckesson, Erika Totten, and New York Daily News columnist Shaun King:
Touré thought a way to get justice for Rice’s execution would be for NBA superstar and native Ohioan LeBron James to refuse to play until Loehmann and Garmback are behind bars. Lots of people agreed with Touré’s plan, and it eventually picked up steam. It got to reporters who brought it to James, and yesterday he was asked about plans to sit out in support of Rice. James has supported Black Lives Matter before, donning a hoodie after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Fla. by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, and an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on video choking 43-year-old Eric Garner to death in Staten Island, N.Y. Yesterday, though, he said he couldn’t speak on Rice’s death, because he didn’t know enough about it:
“First of all, I think I’ve been very outspoken about what I believe in. What hits home for me, what I am [knowledgeable] about. There’s been so many more issues that’s gone on that I haven’t spoken about.
“There’s been the San Bernardino massacre, there’s been guys going in movie theaters, shooting up movie theaters, there’s been other issues. Those are not something that ... I don’t have much knowledge of so I don’t speak about it. So for me ... if I feel like it’s something that I have a lot of knowledge about [I’ll add my voice to the issue], because I don’t like to speak when I don’t know about it.
“But I think the most important thing that we all need to understand, the most important thing, this issue is bigger than LeBron. This issue is bigger than me; it’s about everyone. And gun violence and tragedies and kids losing lives at a young age, some way, somehow we need to understand that that matters more than just an individual.”
It seems unlikely that James doesn’t know much about a case in his own backyard that was accompanied by video and has garnered international attention, and the addition of shooting massacres in San Bernardino, Cal. and Aurora, Co. ring a bit disingenuous. But this was a Fine statement, because at bottom, it is James stating the rather obvious truth that one guy, even a really rich and famous Ohioan guy, can’t fix this. Still, it garnered outrage from some in Black Lives Matter. Yesterday, King wrote:
I had been hoping for months and months that LeBron was eventually going to say something strong about this case. I imagined he was just looking for that right time. What we’ve learned now is something as far short as that as humanly possible. He wasn’t speaking out about it because he doesn’t even know the basics.
It’s no wonder that police and prosecutors of Cleveland think they can do whatever they want to black folk in the city and get away with it. The most powerful man in town doesn’t even care enough to put even a smidgeon of fear in them.
Ignorance is bliss when it comes to our heroes sometimes. Learning the truth is a mighty huge letdown.
King’s response can be engaged from a few angles, but it should be noted first that there is nothing LeBron James, Steph Curry, Brian Scalabrine, Kobe Bryant, Bobby Jackson, Christian Laettner, or any current or former NBA player can do to influence the Department of Justice’s review of the case. LeBron James could wrap himself in dynamite and walk into Quicken Loans Arena with his thumb on the detonator and it wouldn’t move Tamir Rice’s killers one inch toward jail, and Touré and King know this as well as LeBron does. We do not live in a society in which a black basketball player can get killer cops sent to jail by taking a break from playing. Any gesture James made, then, would be empty performance, flattering Black Lives Matter activists for their ability to manipulate one of the most famous people in the world rather than recovering lost justice for Rice. It’s a waste of time.
By taking James’s refusal to engage in a performative boycott as a betrayal, King and others are challenging James’s loyalty to Black Lives Matter and to his race. This is nuts, because—aside from being wholly unrelated to one’s biological makeup—protest is risky. Protesters risk their reputations, freedom, livelihoods, and lives in the service of being heard, of advocating for themselves and others in the face of overwhelming, heartbreaking, immovable injustice. It’s tiresome; it’s dangerous; it requires fervent, clairvoyant optimism; and that’s why, in every corner of the world, as long as there have been protests, young, anonymous fighters who have little and even less to lose have filled out the front lines.
Few celebrities risk fame and money to align themselves with protesters in any way nearly as direct as what LeBron is being asked to do, because to do so requires something beyond just selflessness and empathy. LeBron James is the best basketball player of his generation, a working actor, a successful shoe salesman, and one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and he has been very clear about what his values are, what he believes, and who he stands with and for. To do more than that would require a combination of bravery, anger, and opportunity that’s unfair to expect or ask for. Some people don’t want to, or don’t have time. Some people don’t because they have to or would rather play basketball instead. If that could eliminate their blackness, we wouldn’t need protests.
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