Tamir Rice grew up–and died–in the city that has adopted the movie A Christmas Story as its own, Cleveland, Ohio. But there is a vast gulf between Tamir Rice and Ralphie Parker that, even accounting for the gulf between real life and fiction, cannot be reconciled. At this holiday season, when the TNT network is about to indulge in its annual 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon, it seems a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the recent tragic shooting.
On Saturday, November 22, a man made a 911 call to the Cleveland police about “a guy with a pistol, and it’s probably fake. . . but he’s pointing it everybody.” You can hear the entire 911 call here. The police also released footage from a security camera that captured the shooting–I finally made my self watch it when I decided to write this post. The almost-eight minute clip shows a picnic shelter with 3 tables and one person sitting at a table. A second person–Tamir Rice, apparently, who was about five-and-a-half feet tall and almost 200 pounds–wanders in and out of camera range, alternately waving and pointing what must be the suspected gun, fiddling with his phone, and throwing snow. About halfway through the video, he goes to the picnic table and sits where the first person was (that person seems to have left at some point). Tamir got up from the picnic table at about 6:52 into the video. The police car drives rapidly into the frame from the right, across the lawn of the rec center and stops within a few feet of the picnic shelter and Tamir. The passenger door opens (at about 7:12 into the video), an officer emerges, and Tamir falls to the ground (at about 7:14 into the video). The remaining 38 seconds shows the officers circling around the car and the body and then the clip ends.
By now you probably know that the “gun” turned out to be a BB-gun that was made to look like a real handgun. It originally came with a bright orange plastic ring around the muzzle that would indicate it was a not a gun that fired real bullets. But the ring had been removed. Even if that ring were still there, the muzzle would have been the last thing to emerge from Tamir’s pants–so it’s not clear that the orange ring would have saved him. People have raised the question “Who gave Tamir the gun?” Some even suggested that his parents, both of whom have been convicted of various crimes, somehow bore at least some responsibility for his death
Almost immediately an Ohio legislator, Alicia Reece, from near Cincinnati, introduced legislation into the Ohio House to require toy and non-lethal guns to be more clearly marked with color bands. The head of Cleveland’s police union pointed out that the proposed law “could also result in criminals painting real guns to make them look less dangerous.” And in fact, on December 13, a man in Cincinnati was arrested with a red .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun. But the man did not paint it–it came from the manufacturer that way.
Guns can be purchased in a variety of colors and patterns. Women can buy pretty pink guns, because, after all, even lethal weapons should be pretty. And guns for children come in a rainbow of colors under the moniker “My First Rifle.”
Which brings me back to A Christmas Story. For those of you who have not memorized the plot (not to mention the dialogue), the movie revolves around 9-year-old Ralphie Parker’s quest for “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle.” Everyone, from his mother to Santa Claus, tells Ralphie, “No, you’ll shoot your eye out!”
The original story took place in Indiana sometime around WWII, but a lot of the filming was done in Cleveland. The department store where Ralphie first saw the air rifle and visited Santa was the old downtown Higbee’s (now the Horseshoe Casino). The house used for exterior shots of the Parker House is in the Tremont neighborhood. It has since been turned into A Christmas Story House & Museum, devoted to all things related to the movie. Leg lamps are ubiquitous in Cleveland.
But here’s the thing–despite so many people telling Ralphie “you’ll shoot you eye out” and warning him of the dangers of the BB-gun, no one seems to indicate that the gun is an inappropriate desire for a nine-year-old boy. And on Christmas morning, Ralphie’s wish is granted.
Will the movie be seen the same way this year, when the city is trying to come to grips with the death of a 12 year-old whose crime was playing with a BB-gun that looked like a realistic handgun? Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB-gun was not some brightly colored plastic-looking “first rifle.” It was a small version of a rifle from a western that shot only plastic pellets. No one ever mentioned that it could be dangerous because it could be mistaken for a real gun. Of course it is often pointed out that “things were different then”: kids played outside, the world was safer.
There’s one other thing. Ralphie was, of course, white. And, if anything, white privilege was even more pronounced in the first half of the twentieth century. It was natural for a little white boy to want, and be given, a BB-gun. We find him sweet and amusing. We don’t find him threatening. Ralphie could never have been portrayed as a young African-American. He still couldn’t.
In 21st century Cleveland, some of the issues we’re raising about Tamir Rice reveal the depth of the ongoing struggle over race and privilege. Those who implicated Tamir’s parents in his death for poor parenting have a variety of arguments. The parents had criminal records. They should never have given him a BB-gun (apparently they didn’t, a friend did). They should have told him to obey the police. Some people have argued that it was natural for the police to assume someone of Tamir’s size was an adult. This post will, if it gets noticed, almost undoubtedly attract a number of ugly racist comments–that has happened everywhere this story has been covered.
I hear a lot about African-American parents having The Talk with their sons: it involves instruction in how to behave when the young men are confronted by the police. I’m pretty sure Ralphie’s parents never dreamed of having The Talk with him. To him adults said, “Hey kid, you’ll shoot your eye out!” Not, “Hey kid, you’ll get shot and killed.”
And it’s sad that any parents would need to have that talk with their son.