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Bullets for You

“The Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last month resigned from a previous small-town police job when he was deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty, especially in his handling of firearms.”  -M. Alex Johnson, NBC News, Dec. 4, 2014

I know I said I didn’t want to write about the shootings, and I don’t. I live in Vermont now, an open carry state, but I grew up in a small town in Ohio, which, as you know, if you’ve read about John Crawford in Beavercreek and Tamir Rice in Cleveland both being killed by police, is also an open carry state (Both were carrying airguns; Crawford was holding an airgun in a Wal-Mart after picking it up from a shelf). I was once a brown boy; I had four airguns when I was twelve. The first gun was straight out of a movie, A Christmas Story, to be precise. It shot only bb’s, and wasn’t powerful enough for the bb to become invisible the way daytime bullets do, but it shot straight, as they say. The next was a bb/pellet gun I bought from a cousin, with a detachable stock so that when stockless it looked a like a long-barreled handgun. Then, there was the pneumatic pump rifle with a scope, and my favorite, the .357 magnum look-alike, powered by a carbon dioxide cartridge inside the handle, a six- or eight-shot pellet clip. It was heavy.

Two days ago, an Ohio grand jury decided the officers who killed Tamir Rice should not be charged with a crime, the same decision reached by an Ohio grand jury in the case of John Crawford. People are comparing the killing of Tamir with that of Emmett Till, the latter being the most famous of all children who have been tortured and arbitrarily executed in America. There have been many, all the way back to Christopher Columbus’ crew who, according to eyewitness Bartolomé de Las Casas, “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas, who was a young priest and plantation owner during the conquest of Cuba and later a critic of the Spanish empire, wrote of an incident where “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.” But in the long history of Americans killing children to maintain the social order and/or public safety, Tamir Rice could be more readily compared not to Till, but to George Stinney Jr., a 14 year-old black boy executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.

About a year ago, a circuit judge ruled that George was denied due process, and vacated the judgment of guilt against the him. Back in 1944, a jury convicted him, after a trial that lasted less than a day, of killing a 7 year-old girl and an 11 year-old girl. Deliberation–which occurred amongst jurors who were, decidedly, not his peers, for that would have required a jury of twelve black children, rather than a dozen white men–lasted all of ten minutes. His lawyer chose not to file for an appeal, even though police had questioned George in a room without his parents, a room where police heard his “confession.” In The Washington Post’s coverage of the story, Lindsey Bever writes about the actual execution, how the “electric chair’s straps were too big for his frail body,” that he “had to sit on books to reach the headpiece,” and that “when the switch was flipped, the convulsions knocked down the large mask, exposing his tearful face to the crowd.” George’s family maintains his innocence, his alibi, where he and his sister were in a field watching cows graze at the time of the killings; the arresting officer’s written report asserts George’s guilt, as does a 2003 statement by James Gamble, who was the son of the sheriff and supposedly rode in the back seat of a car with George after his arrest.

Unlike Tamir Rice, however, George Stinney, Jr. actually had a trial, albeit one that lasted only two hours. What is most similar between them, beyond their age, is the bend of violent force toward them, the desire to see them dead, the insatiable compulsion to exorcise the threat they represent. Whether we blame missed details from a 911 call or a criminally incompetent criminal defense or an airgun or reaching for a waistband or moving too quickly or moving too slowly or being too big or being too small or whistling or smiling or winking or looking in their eyes or not looking in their eyes—the state killed a child in both cases, and in both cases, the court system was bent toward imputing guilt to the child and not to the adults that killed them.

If George did not, indeed, bash the heads of those two young girls with a railroad spike, as he has now been cleared of doing, then who did? According to reporter David Stout, George’s family once asked why there was no investigation of a “bullying white man” who lived near the sawmill where the girls were killed. It is chilling to think that a community might rather kill a scapegoat than attempt to locate an actual monster in their midst. But this is the logic of racial monstrosity—a monster is a monster not essentially because of what he does but because of what he is; he is a monster whether or not he does anything at all, but is nonetheless monstrous because of what he could do (this logic also obtains in the justifications for the War on Terror—see Brian Massumi’s singular essay “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat”). On the other hand, if you do not fit the general description of monstrosity, you can commit all manner of sin, and the blame may ultimately fall on your parents, or your affluenza, or your fear—your fear—or the most monstrous of persons nearby, even children, even the gut-shot child you blasted to the ground with the gun a small-town police department declared you unfit to carry, the gun an urban police department filled with bullets for you.