Ellison’s Elegy for Innocent Police Victims

12-year-old Tamir Rice

12-year-old Tamir Rice

Tuesday

Two outside experts have concluded that police officers acted reasonably in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, and the city of Cleveland is arguing that the 12-year-old was guilty of “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury.” I’m going to quote Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man about another racially motivated shooting but first let’s hear the outrage of Washington Post blogger Jonathan Capehart:

Right. It’s Tamir’s fault that the 911 caller’s admonition that the gun he was playing with was “probably fake” never made it to the officers.

It’s Tamir’s fault that he was shot and killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann just “1½ to 2 seconds” after his car arrived on the scene.

It’s Tamir’s fault that Loehmann quit his previous police job before he was dismissed for “deficiencies” only to be hired by a police department now under federal investigation for “allegations that CPD officers use excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force.”

It’s Tamir’s fault that first aid was administered, not by Loehmann or his partner, but by an FBI agent who happened to be in the area — four minutes after Tamir was shot.

And it’s Tamir’s fault that he was not seen as a child. “Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one of the officers said when calling in the shooting. Or as Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association president Steve Loomis told Politico magazine, “He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” Given everything we know now about his case, the rest of Loomis’s quote is literally and figuratively unbelievable.

I hear some of the same outrage in IM’s powerful funeral oration for his friend Tod Clifton, formerly a fellow organizer for “the Brotherhood.” As I wrote yesterday, Clifton is selling Sambo dolls on the street when he gets pushed by a policeman. Rather than simply accept the shove as he has accepted it many times in the past, he swings at the cop, who proceeds to shoot him.

As you read it, think about Tamir and about all those unarmed black men who have been shot in recent years—the New Orleans residents fleeing the flood, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and all the others. The dynamic tension in the speech lies in how much Clifton’s death means to IM and his fellow black citizens and how little it means to white America. IM is ironic in his use of matter-of-fact language, and a sense that black lives don’t matter is what has led to the current movement named after a contrary belief.

One other note. Americans may be less prone to use the n-word than they were in 1946 when Invisible Man was written, but the racism that IM detects in the cop is still very much with us. Unconscious racism shows up in that “peculiar disposition of the eyes” (IM’s phrase) that prompts whites to see a 12-year-old black boy as a 20-year old man, that prompts Ferguson cops to circulate racist e-mails, that sees people fleeing from Hurricane Katrina as marauders, and, while we’re at it, that sees the president of the United States as an alien from a different country and Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. Ellison wrote IM’s speech just under 70 years ago but it still resonates:

His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t belilve it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home to sleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He fell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled. So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

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