by Kevin Tasker

The police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland on November 22 became an international story in less than 48 hours. Activist group Anonymous even shut down the Cleveland city government’s website Monday morning in protest.

IMG_1756I was confused by the online accounts of the shooting and overwhelmed by the issues at stake, and I thought things would be clearer from the ground level. So I rode my bike to Public Square on Monday afternoon for a rally staged by Puncture the Silence, a nascent grassroots movement organized to protest mass incarceration, inspired by the writings of The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander. I would quickly learn, however, that the view from the barricade can be just as vexing as the view from the screen.

Just hours before a St. Louis county grand jury issued its decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the nation in a limbo in the wake of Michael Brown’s death three months ago in Missouri, the atmosphere in Public Square was chilling. And I mean the literal atmosphere, as well as the figurative one. The sky beyond Terminal Tower was wrapped in a fuzzy shroud of cloud cover, and an incredible wind drove through the more than 50 protestors, many of whom hold signs bearing such slogans as: “STOP THE MADNESS,” “SUPPORT FERGUSON RESISTANCE,” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER ALL LIVES MATTER!”

IMG_1783You may not have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but today, the wind downtown was relentless, scattering the layering voices of the protestors such that it was sometimes extremely difficult to ferret out exactly what is being said. The outrage, though, was clear.

A heavily-stickered and well-worn microphone was passed among the protestors as reporters with cumbersome cameras hulked around the protest’s perimeter, and in one surreal instance, perched on a concrete ledge directly above its nucleus. The cameramen appeared vaguely vulture-like in their North Face and beanies, scowling as they brandished their cameras ever-lower for close-ups. Those who commandeered the microphones ranged from articulate to painfully boisterous. “We cannot continue our somewhat more comfortable lives,” one woman shouts. “This is genocide!” A greying white man introduced himself softly as Bill, before abruptly exploding into a chorus of “Murdering pigs!” Choruses of, “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police,” bounced off  the ancient statues and the gilded façade of the Horseshoe casino, which was decked out with a garish Christmas wreath roughly the size of a city bus.

IMG_1797Those in attendance mobilized seemingly at random through the square toward the police station, stopping once to sit in the center of an intersection, until a squad of grimacing police scuttled up to push them onward. All the while, the camera crews hounded behind, uniformly silent.

The most powerful moments of the afternoon occurred on the fringes, where everyone took a moment to breathe. A girl probably not much older than Tamir Rice stood smiling sadly at her feet and holding a yellow sign the size of a stop sign, upon which she’d drawn a stick-figure policeman shooting a child, the words “Danger: Police in the Area” descending through the barrage of hash-mark bullets. This is an image that will stay with me: a child too young to see and hear of such brutality standing amid a conflation of fiery rhetoric and wise historical reflection.

IMG_1760As the protest worked toward the police station, I stopped to speak to a bearded man named Dex, whose sign read, among other things, “The Whole Damn System is Guilty!” Dex’s opinion is sound, cutting, as the child did, through the generalized anger threatening to dominate the day.

For Dex, “[Tamir Rice’s death is] symptomatic of a larger problem. Mass incarceration of African Americans [is] modern-day slavery. We’re tired of that. We want change. We want to make people understand.” A moment later, another man, whose flappy sign reads ‘DON’T SHOOT PEOPLE’ shouts at a passing police car, “Oink, oink, fuck off!”

So it went in Cleveland this afternoon, online and on the street, the messages of violence and of compassion swerving perilously past one another.

Kevin Tasker is a Cleveland-based writer.

Support paywall free, independent Rust Belt journalism — and become part of a growing community — by becoming a member of Belt.