Samaria Rice wants us to remember her son Tamir. I've watched her fight to make sure we do.
Her dream of a butterfly memorial for her son, a paved, quiet place with pollinating flowers and a plaque engraved with the face of her son, had finally come true. What a hard-earned moment of joy.
Tamir Rice’s mother was beaming.
Samaria Rice floated among the outdoor crowd, the hem of her light, gauzy dress billowing in the breeze like wings. Her face was aglow with pink sparkly eyeshadow and an easy smile as she greeted more than 200 guests who joined her last weekend near the same spot where, eight years earlier, a white Cleveland police officer had killed her beautiful Black, 12-year-old boy.
She hugged family and friends, including other mothers who have lost their sons to gun violence. She welcomed strangers, too, as young children ran around her chasing butterflies the Rice family had just released into the air. She kept reaching down to run her palm across the tops of tiny heads.
This was a Samaria Rice I have never known, until now. Her dream of a butterfly memorial for her son, a paved, quiet place with pollinating flowers and a plaque engraved with the face of her son, had finally come true. What a hard-earned moment of joy.
A child killed. A mother's pain.
A practiced activist now, she was at ease when she spoke at the lectern, urging unity and love – and calling for justice for Black families across America. “I am Tamir’s voice,” she told the crowd. “Tamir just turned 20 years old on the 25th of June.” Present tense. Her habit, I’ve noticed over the years.
She was happy, but she wanted everyone to know she will never heal. “I will be in pain for the rest of my life.”
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I first met Samaria Rice in the early days after police officer Timothy Loehmann had shot and killed her son. One minute, Tamir was playing with a friend’s pellet gun at a gazebo in the Cudell Recreation Center. A police car swooped up next to him, and seconds later he was on the ground. Tamir’s 14-year-old sister, who was nearby, saw that he had been shot and started to scream. The officers handcuffed her as Tamir lay alone on the ground for nearly four minutes, mortally wounded.
All of this was caught on a security camera on that cold day in November. The grainy black-and-white video was published around the world.
In those early days, Samaria Rice’s grief was visibly raw, her face an emblem of Black mothers in mourning. At news conferences, she stood mostly silent, surrounded by men speaking for her. Back then, she had mostly two gazes: looking downward, her eyelids at half-mast, or focused into the distance, over the shoulders of the journalists, TV cameras and activists closing in.
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Speaking to Samaria a year after the shooting
A month before the first anniversary of Tamir’s death, I sat down with Samaria for a long interview. It was a conversation that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Back then, she was consumed with self-blame for not knowing that Tamir had borrowed a friend’s toy gun. He knew she didn’t allow them.
“He and his sister came into the house for lunch,” she told me that day. “I made them turkey sandwiches. They ate for 15, 20 minutes, I don’t know. It was a regular day. They had their coats on. I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe he already had that gun. Maybe if I had made him take his coat off for lunch, I would have seen it.”
Throughout our interview, she weighed her words, checking with her lawyer in the room to make sure she wasn’t overstepping. “I’ve been thrown into politics,” she said. “I can’t say what I want to say. I’m not used to letting anyone have control over me. I’ve been trying to be in control of my own life for a long time.”
She took control of her son's legacy
That Samaria Rice is long gone.
She will not be used and is fiercely protective of Tamir’s legacy. She has rejected requests to use her or her son in political campaign ads. If you are a public figure claiming that Tamir’s death changed you in some way, Samaria wants to know why you never reached out to her. She has been outspoken in her criticism of activists who want to exploit her son’s name for attention and, sometimes, financial gain.
“You know, me and my children, we saw Trayvon (Martin); then we saw Eric Garner, then Michael Brown,” she told Essence magazine in 2019. “Then guess who we saw next? ... My son was murdered and that’s the bottom line. I’m not interested in a political side. I’m interested in the right side.”
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The two Cleveland officers involved in Tamir’s death were never charged or indicted. More than two years after the shooting, the city fired Loehmann, not for killing Tamir but for failing to disclose that he had been released for incompetence from a previous suburban police job. Twice, he has tried to be hired as a police officer in another town. Twice, his history has quickly caught up with him. Samaria makes sure of that.
After Cleveland settled with the Rice family for $6 million, Samaria founded The Tamir Rice Foundation to provide afterschool programs in arts and culture for the city’s children. The park gazebo where Tamir was shot is now a temporary art exhibit at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, a place for children to play.
Samaria no longer lives in Cleveland. Two years ago, she left Ohio. “It did help to get away,” she told me. “It helps some.”
'Thank you for still caring about what happened to my boy'
After the memorial dedication, I found her sitting on a bench with her four grandchildren. For a moment she got to be a doting grandmother, basking in the company of the babies of her babies. Then people started surrounding her and she rose to greet them.
Our paths have crossed numerous times over the years, including when she spoke in 2016 at Kent State University’s annual commemoration for the four students who were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970. Whenever she sees me, I am carrying a journalist’s notebook, a reminder that I am working.
For the memorial dedication, I was an invited guest, along with my husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown. I still carried a notebook and wore a camera, my signals that I am working. This time, she ignored them and pulled me into a hug.
“Thank you for being here,” she said repeatedly. “Thank you for still caring about what happened to my boy.” This is the mantra of families who’ve lost children to gun violence, I’ve learned. They expect to be forgotten.
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During our interview in 2015, Samaria told me she regularly watched that grainy video of Tamir. “I watch that video over and over,” she said. “I have to. It’s the last video I have of my child alive. I see that police car speed up to Tamir. There’s no time. There’s no time for my boy to understand what is happening. He didn’t have a lot of suspicions about people. I look at him in that video and I’m wondering: ‘What are you thinking right now? Do you know what’s about to happen to you?’ "
Eight years later, she still watches that video.
“Sometimes,” she said softly, after I asked. “Sometimes I do. It’s the last time I can see him playing.”
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USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz