On May 4, 1970, Kent State University in Ohio became a flashpoint in American politics. On that day, four unarmed students were killed and nine others wounded when the state’s National Guard opened fire after a campus-wide protest ballooned into something else entirely. By no means the first instance of government-sanctioned violence against unarmed citizens in the U.S., it was also certainly not the last, and as today’s generation of politically and socially engaged Americans know all too well, it is an issue that continues to take place at a neck-breaking pace. Forty-six years after the Kent State shootings, most of us are not likely to think of campus shootings when discussing the issue of violence against Americans by the American authorities. Most of us would likely conjure up images of police brutality, such as the incidents involving Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice – to name only a very, very few. The parallels between the 1970 tragedy and those which continue to threaten the lives of unarmed people of color are many, and so it is no surprise that earlier this week, Kent University invited a woman directly affected by police violence to speak at the commemoration ceremony – the mother of Tamir, Samaria Rice.
Readers will likely remember the harrowing story of Rice’s murder. The then 12-year-old Cleveland, Ohio boy was shot and killed by police officers after allegedly brandishing a weapon which later turned out to be a fake. His death was captured on film and in a painfully repetitive story line, neither officer was indicted and Tamir’s name joined Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and countless others whose cases did not receive the justice the families and much of the American public demanded. And so, like the parents of the Kent State shootings, Ms. Rice’s story is one of unending grief, for her child was taken from her by the very authority powers whose duty it was to protect the innocent. Her May 4 speech at the university, while heart-wrenching in parts, served as a rousing call for solidarity in which she argued for unification in the movement for a happier and more just future. Flanked by a Black Lives Matter banner, her strong and steadfast presence at the podium marking a day laced with painful gravity for not only the university but also for an entire generation of Americans is awe-inspiring, but her words are even more enduring, and she never hesitates to place blame where it is due.
“The city of Cleveland has failed me and many more,” she begins before calling for those “White-privilege Americans to stand and unify with us. Also, all of us standing together and unifying would set an example for the government to say ‘listen, look. We’re not gonna take this anymore. You can’t just keep killing unarmed Americans, period.'” She then goes on to share some candid details about her son’s death, saying “[the officers] were five feet away from my son when they shot him in his chest. You’re law enforcement. You’re supposed to assess the situation,” she says to those involved. “I don’t have a son anymore. And it’s just okay to go on with your life in America? No it’s not. You can see clearly that Tamir was just playing in the park that day. Just playing. He wasn’t bothering anybody. There wasn’t nobody scared. It was a fully functioning recreation center that day. You had people getting on and off the Rapid station, walking through the park with their groceries. You had a mailman there. You have kids actually running in and out of the rec, so he could have never been a threat to anybody, ’cause everyone knows who I am over there. All they had to do was call me.”
Her nearly 20-minute speech is unforgiving in its straightforwardness. From calling racism a disease to remembering her son’s greatest passions in life, Ms. Rice’s words are sometimes difficult to hear but necessary listening for those seeking motivation to continue fighting for the cause.