In the summer of 2014, America looked on in horror as high-profile killings of Black men made headlines — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford III. And then, on Nov. 22, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio. Tamir, the youngest of four siblings, had been playing with a toy gun across the street from his home.
Samaria Rice, Tamir's mother, will never be able to forget that day and all that came after — a justice system that didn't hold anyone to account for her son's killing, the post-traumatic stress disorder that she says she and her other three children deal with on a daily basis. Now the founder and CEO of the Tamir Rice Foundation, which serves children through arts and culture after-school programming, Samaria works to better her community. If there was anything to come from what she considers the sacrifice of her baby boy, she says, it's this.
Ahead of Mother's Day, and just shy of what would've been Tamir's 21st birthday, Samaria told POPSUGAR, in her words, about her relationship with Tamir, what it's like to lose a child to a police shooting, and the role we all play in fixing a broken system.
Tamir was a very loving and affectionate baby. He was a mama's boy and a protector and a lover. That was my baby. My other kids used to say, "He's going to stay with you until he's 35!" and he'd say, "I'm going to be right in your basement, Mom."
He was an all-American boy. He did all of the sports — he was very talented. One of my favourite memories of him was that my mom went and bought him a bicycle, and he was 4 or 5 years old, and we never had to put training wheels on it because he rode it right out the store. I knew my child was going to be someone, I just didn't know who he was going to be. He went through different phases; he played football, he played football, he did swimming, he did skateboarding. I'm telling you, he did it all, and he did it very well. He could've been the next David Beckham, he could've been the next LeBron James. I'm going to be honest, that's just where he was at.
What I can remember about Nov. 22, 2014, is everything. I will never be able to forget that day, just being alerted that my son had been shot by the police and not really understanding what the people were saying. I had just sent my kids outside to play, so I was very confused and in denial.
I was saying, "I feel so sorry for his mama," and then it was me.
My older son, he was 16 at the time, and he ran out of the door right past me as I was gathering my shoes and jacket. It was around Thanksgiving, so as I gathered my shoes and jacket to go see what they were talking about, my 16-year-old was already over there. He just had a T-shirt and some tennis shoes on. There were like eight police officers surrounding him. And then my daughter was in the back of a police car, screaming at the top of her lungs. She was the third person on the scene after the two officers arrived.
I was told to calm down and relax and they were going to put me in the back of a police car, and they gave me an ultimatum: to stay with my two children at the scene of the crime or to go with Tamir in an ambulance. So I chose to go with Tamir in the ambulance as a passenger in the front seat. We were treated horrifically; police stayed around us the whole time we were at the hospital. It was a horrible, horrible experience, and I couldn't even address my two children who were hurt because I was focussed on my child who just got shot.
My kids, all of us suffer with PTSD, and it's just been really, really hard, even with therapy. It was just a horrible experience, and the system is so broken when it comes to getting the support that folks need after going through a trauma like this. Cleveland never supported us. I couldn't barely take care of my kids, but I did the best I could.
At that point, we had seen Eric Garner, we had seen Michael Brown, we had seen John Crawford, and then we saw Tamir Rice. All of them were killed in the same year. We were seeing these things, and then reality checked me. I was saying, "I feel so sorry for his mama," and then it was me. I was not really aware of all the police terrorism that's continuing to happen in America. We'd seen Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, but I was not really aware of what was happening in this country until my son got murdered. All of us in America, we all live in a bubble and we don't really know anything until it hits your doorstep, it hits your door.
Family members affected by violence, including Samaria Rice, gather in Washington, DC, for the "Justice For All" March in December 2014. Image Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla
I was just minding my business, raising my children. And I have invested in all of my children. I have four high school graduates — all four of them. They gave Tamir an honourary diploma, which I was happy about. He was an exceptional child, the glue to keep our family together. Very bright.
But America is a genocide of Black and Brown Americans. It's white supremacy, and this country has been broken for 400, 500 years, and the system is broken. I'm wide awoke now — I'm very woke. And I'm very resilient. When it comes to this country, it's built off of blood and murder. I've been through three administrations, and you're still telling me that my 12-year-old son can't get justice? Something is wrong with this country. We have a video; we've seen what happened to him. And you still have not given me any justice.
I just think they need to ban guns out of America, period. The policing in America needs to be re-done to serve everyone. We do have real rapists and murderers out here, and we do need to be protected from them. But we don't need anyone who's going to riddle our bodies with bullets or beat us up or lie on us.
I just think they need to ban guns out of America, period.
This country is going down and down and down the drain, and it's going to continue to go down the drain if things do not change. We need to get old people out of the Senate and the House, and we need people to vote them out. And some of these judges need to get off the bench — these old, racist, white judges, prejudiced judges that are sending innocent people to jail.
And when it comes to mass shootings, I think we need to ban assault weapons out of this country, and we also need to throw away qualified immunity. If no one can be responsible for killing innocent babies, then something is wrong with this country. Someone needs to be responsible, whether it's the NRA, whether it's these people that make the guns. There should be no way that anyone can get an assault rifle and shoot up a school. You cannot tell me that.
This June, we're going to celebrate Tamir's 21st birthday in Chicago at the Arts Bank with the Rebuild Foundation and Theaster Gates. Theaster Gates is a famous Black artist, and he actually preserved the gazebo for me — I asked Cleveland to remove it because my son was murdered under it, and they gave me ownership of it. So Theaster was gracious to come and get it and build a beautiful home for it in Chicago. I'm putting together a program with some inspirational words and maybe we'll have an artist come and perform. I'll be there with my children and my family and friends — just honouring my son and keeping his legacy alive.
I have three other children that look up to me daily, and I'm still their mother. I work hard for them, I work hard for the community. I didn't know my calling, but if it took my son's life, for him to be a sacrifice, then now I know my calling: I serve my community.
— As told to Lena Felton