Terror, Tennis Balls and Tamir Rice

ColumnJuly 21, 2016

CLEVELAND—Welcome to Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention (RNC) is underway. The RNC is a highly scripted, elaborately staged and lavishly publicly funded private party. Here, credentialed Republican delegates, most of them party activists from around the country, circulate within a militarized perimeter of what authorities have designated a “national special security event.” As such, the U.S. Secret Service is handed complete control of an area, in this case downtown Cleveland. The area is ringed with a temporary but imposing black steel fence, patrolled by the full spectrum of law enforcement, from local police to federal SWAT teams. Yet because Ohio has extremely lenient gun laws, people can “open carry” here. And they do. Scores of Trump supporters have proudly shown up with their guns at their sides, including semi-automatic AR-15s, walking the downtown streets.

It is not a total free-for-all, however. Many things are banned: tennis balls, sleeping bags, selfie sticks and canned goods. To highlight the absurdity of the situation, the women’s peace organization Code Pink staged a demonstration at the security checkpoint to enter the RNC. In their bags, the dozen or so pink-clad women carried 500 pink and green tennis balls with the phrase “Ban Guns, Not Balls” written on them. They began tossing them to each other.

A line of Cleveland police officers quickly formed and tried to encircle the protest. They started to confiscate the tennis balls. There was confusion, as one officer asked a superior, “What do we do with the balls?” “Put them in your pocket,” came the exasperated reply. The police aggressively expanded their line, pushing observers, and us journalists, farther away. We managed to dodge them and got in close to ask Code Pink member Chelsea Byers what was going on: “We’re here saying that it’s ridiculous that the RNC has banned tennis balls, and yet they continue to let open carry happen in these streets. If they’re concerned about safety, they should be taking the guns off of these streets, not banning toys.” To reinforce the Cleveland police, a large contingent of Indiana State Police showed up, then riot police were deployed. Finally, a phalanx of police on horseback arrived. All this for about 15 women and one man from Code Pink and their 500 tennis balls.

The second evening of the RNC was about to begin. Thousands were packing into the Quicken Loans Arena. For the first time ever, an official from the National Rifle Association was invited to address the convention.

Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin told us at the protest, “We think that the NRA has, unfortunately, been setting the agenda for this entire nation, especially the Republican Party. It’s unfortunate that the NRA has so much power in this country. That’s why we see guns on our streets and people being shot every single day, every single hour of every single day.” Eventually, with all the tennis balls safely confiscated, the police marched away.

Ninety blocks from the RNC, in the largely African-American Cudell neighborhood of Cleveland, a memorial of stuffed animals and crosses adorns a picnic area under a gazebo in a neighborhood playground. On Nov. 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in his hand. Someone called 911, reporting the gun, while noting on the call that it could be a fake. Two Cleveland police officers sped to the scene. They zoomed onto the grass and, within seconds, had flung open their doors and shot Tamir in the stomach. Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police fanned the flames of protest that had been raging since the police killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, just months earlier.

While covering the RNC, we took a side trip to the scene of Tamir’s fatal shooting. Our guide: former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner. As an African-American mother, she has had that all-too-familiar conversation with her son, about how to respond to police ... when he is out of uniform. Her son is a police officer, as was her husband, now retired. As she stood on the site of Tamir’s shooting, on the day that officers were killed in Baton Rouge, and the week after others were shot dead in Dallas, she offered her unique perspective: “The biggest gap that we have in this country is a value gap, the fact that African-American lives really are not as valued as the lives of our white sisters and brothers in this country,” she told us as we stood by Tamir’s memorial. “We really need to come to grips with this.”

In Cleveland, the Republican Party has nominated Donald Trump to be its presidential candidate. Outside, his supporters are free to parade with assault rifles. Tamir Rice would have turned 14 last month, if police had simply given him a chance to drop his toy gun. This fatal inequality will continue to terrorize this nation until we genuinely commit to confronting racism and gun violence.

NEXTPastor on Tamir Rice Shooting: Ohio is an Open-Carry State Except If You're an African-American Male
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