How should Tamir Rice be remembered?
As Cleveland prepares to remove the gazebo where the boy was shot, historians argue for preservation
Perhaps the most recognizable gazebo in the world sits in a city park in Cleveland. It’s not an architectural marvel or a real-life postcard where bands play Sousa marches on the Fourth of July.
No, this gazebo is famous for another reason: It is where Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy carrying a toy gun, was shot and killed by Cleveland police almost two years ago. Security camera video of the boy’s killing went viral, and the world saw a police car pull up to the gazebo and officers fire at him within two seconds. His body lay beneath it for more than three minutes while the police officer that killed him stood over him and did not offer medical assistance.
That image of Rice lying on the ground is seen by many as an important part of today’s civil rights struggle. But the gazebo will likely be gone from that park in the next month, as the city plans to disassemble it and put it in storage. Cleveland Councilman Matt Zone, who represents the neighborhood around the park, said the removal is part of “a holistic resolution to the matters of the gazebo.”
There have been discussions about sending the structure to a museum, but historians are perplexed as to why Cleveland is rushing to remove a part of the physical landscape that many connect with Rice’s killing. And some wonder about the role Rice’s family should have in a decision about historic preservation.
Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, has said she wants the gazebo removed and the city has cited her position as its primary explanation for proceeding. “It needs to be torn down. It’s a bad thing,” Samaria Rice said in a TV interview last year. “I’m hoping the city will allow me to tear it down and redo the park area.”
Her attorney in Cleveland, Subodh Chandra, who negotiated the settlement of her lawsuit against the city, said both sides wanted it taken down. “Ms. Rice wanted the gazebo gone,” Chandra wrote in an email. “The city, we learned, had the same interest and was going to demolish it on its own.”
The city has agreed to put a memorial stone close to the area where the gazebo is now to recognize her son’s death, and has installed a flower garden near the gazebo in his remembrance.
But some say that installing a small garden and removing the gazebo is akin to rewriting history. “We need to learn more about black history, and the sense of place is always important when preserving history in general,” said Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“We are seeing movements across the country by African-Americans to preserve their history that has always been removed from view by the local and national leadership,” Muhammad said. “And at the same time, a major symbol involved in a major episode in today’s racial justice movement is being removed right before our eyes.”
Muhammad said Samaria Rice’s desire for the gazebo to be removed, “is not a good enough reason to remove it. Families do matter in the discussion of memorialization, but they are usually on the other side about keeping the memory intact, not removing vital components of that memory. That is what is very odd about this.”
Cudell Commons Park covers about 10 acres on Cleveland’s west side, which historically has been more white than black. There is a baseball diamond and indoor recreational center there that hosts youth basketball leagues. It is across the street from one of the city’s rapid transit train stations, so the park is well-used and has lots of foot traffic.
The gazebo has been there about 50 years, one of two on the property. It is a simple structure, with six metal poles anchored in concrete, holding up a wooden hexagonal roof that shelters three precast concrete picnic tables. Part of the problem in finding a new home for the gazebo — especially an indoor display in a museum — is its size: It is about 30 feet in diameter and the apex of the roof is about 20 feet high.
Historians interviewed for this story argued that moving the gazebo somewhere else makes the structure less important, and the park with a memorial stone less meaningful, as well. “When you remove the gazebo from that place, it becomes sanitized to people who might see it in a museum or gallery, and it also makes the story of Tamir Rice more invisible to the people who visit the park,” said Rhonda Y. Williams, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Williams co-chairs the Cleveland Police Commission, which is overseeing changes to the police department mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice because of the city’s record of excessive force by its officers.
“As a historian who studies African-American history, which is full of tragedy, including police violence, as well as life and protest, the downside of removing it is that the gazebo will be physically and historically unmoored from the place that many see as hallowed and sacred ground, a place that has profound meaning still, a place laden with pain, yes, but also a place pregnant with calls for life, change and justice,” Williams wrote in an email.
The place has become a gathering spot for protestors in the 20 months since Rice was killed. A recent visit found signs taped to the metal poles saying, “Fight Racism. Organize the Revolution” and “Smash Racism.” The picnic tables still have several dozen stuffed animals and other items laid out in the boy’s memory. The words “Have Nothing to Lose But Our Chains” are painted on one of the 2-foot high wooden posts that separate the gazebo from the parking lot.
The Rice case has exacerbated racial tensions in Cleveland. Neither officer involved, including rookie police officer Timothy Loehmann, who fired the fatal shot, was indicted by the county grand jury after an investigation that lasted more than a year. And some in Cleveland blame Tamir and his mother for him carrying a toy gun in a park. Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, defended Loehmann a few months after the shooting saying, “Tamir Rice is in the wrong. He’s menacing. He’s 5-foot-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”
Mansfield Frazier, a local author, talk radio host and columnist (for The Daily Beast and CoolCleveland.com, among others) said, “Whites in the neighborhood don’t want to be reminded of what happened there and aren’t real pleased with it becoming a meeting place for protestors. But for that matter, a lot of blacks don’t want to look at it, either. People don’t want to confront pain.”
The neighborhood has undergone some racial change in recent years. According to the 2000 census, it was 60 percent white and 13 percent black. By 2010, the Cudell neighborhood was 40 percent white and 28 percent black. The average household income in the neighborhood dropped during that period from $46,000 to $35,000. The downturn in economic numbers is about on par with the rest of Cleveland, with higher poverty rates, fewer owner-occupied homes and more abandoned properties in the Cudell neighborhood.
Councilman Zone said that local residents — through block clubs and other neighborhood groups — said early on that the gazebo should be removed. Zone said Samaria Rice first expressed her interest in getting rid of the gazebo just a few months after her son was killed. “We are following through with a request from a grieving mother and the community supports that,” he said.
Zone, who is white and has been on the city council since 2001, says neither he nor the city consulted historians about what to do with the gazebo. There had been some discussion in the past, he said, about removing the structure because people were concerned that it had become a gathering place for drug gangs.
Council members have a great deal of control over local parks. The removal of the gazebo did not require a study by the parks department and was not included as part of any planning document. It just took a vote of the city council, which was taken on Aug. 10.
Cudell Commons Park is also home to two memorials to Cleveland police officers who died in the line of duty in the neighborhood. Plaques attached to large stones honor Detective Robert J. Clark (age 36, who died in 1998) and Officer Jonathan Schroeder (age 37, who died in 2006).
Harvard’s Muhammad said the presence of the police memorials make an even better case for a memorial to Rice that includes the gazebo. “The gazebo is the key to having these memorials live in the same space,” he said. “With it, the complexity of the truth is better revealed than the flattened version of having three memorial stone plaques, side by side: two for the police, one for Tamir, like some morbid box score of police vs. citizen victimization.”
Talk of removing the gazebo first surfaced publicly last April. Cleveland and Samaria Rice had just agreed to a $6 million settlement, and the city announced it would tear down the gazebo the following week. But some activists with the Black Lives Matter movement attempted to delay the demolition by trying to find organizations or museums to preserve it.
A curator at the Smithsonian Institution sent the Cleveland law director an email in early May that said the museum “is in talks with Black Lives Matter concerning options for preserving the gazebo, given its importance to African-American history.” The city announced the razing would be delayed pending the Smithsonian’s decision. But a few days later, the Smithsonian said the curator had misspoke and that “the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture is neither leading nor participating in any efforts to preserve the Cleveland gazebo.”
Sources said that one reason Cleveland wanted to move quickly on the removal was because it did not want TV news reporters doing standups in front of the gazebo during the Republican National Convention in July, which indeed happened.
Current plans call for the gazebo to be disassembled within 30 to 45 days, according to Zone, and the pieces put in storage until a place to reassemble and display it is found. The Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago, which describes itself as a “hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center” has expressed interest in exhibiting the gazebo. But Amy Schachman, a spokesman for the organization, said last week that “no decisions have been confirmed.”
Billy Joe Mills, a Chicago attorney who was part of the settlement negotiation team representing Samaria Rice and now represents her on the gazebo matter, says the reasoning behind putting it in a museum setting is that “if you take the gazebo and put it into an institution, and put it into the hands of experts who can set it into context, you will elevate it to a national symbol of this era of police violence and give it an opportunity to be a symbol of reconciliation.”
Why can’t that be done in Cleveland? Mills said there’s been discussion with Cleveland institutions but nothing is in the works.
“It seems very simple to me, that if Cleveland wants to grow this reputation of it being a renaissance city that comes back from all the problems it has had, why not rename the park after Tamir Rice, turn the gazebo into an area that celebrates black history and have Cleveland become the leader in the movement in restoring and focusing on black history,” said Herbert Ruffin, associate professor of African-American studies at Syracuse University. “I see it as a missed opportunity for Cleveland.”
Robert Patterson, director of the African-American studies program at Georgetown University, said the removal of the gazebo, “oppresses the conversation about how racism was operating at the time of his death, because people can see it in person and put themselves in the place and time, and seeing something in a museum doesn’t do that.”
Harvard’s Muhammad wondered why the city, which has had an African-American mayor for all but four years since 1990 (and had the first black mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes, in 1968), isn’t trying harder to preserve the gazebo. “What is missing here is that there is not a strong reason not to make that park an attractive place, and include the gazebo in that,” he said. “Why is there no one in Cleveland lying in front of the gazebo and saying there is no way you are going to take this important part of history away?”
To which attorney Chandra responds: “If critics want to step up and help secure alternative arrangements, including funding, we’re happy to hear about it. Months of effort have gone into finding local and national venues. No one locally seemed interested thus far.”
This story has been changed to correct the dimensions of the gazebo and to give the proper middle initial for Rhonda Y. Williams.