Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Cleveland Magazine. The article has been republished in honor of the fifth anniversary of Tamir Rice's death on Nov. 22, 2014. For an update, read our 2019 article on Tamir Rice's fifth anniversary commemoration event and his mother's latest project in his memory.
Samaria Rice wrings her weathered hands as she sits silently on the edge of a concrete bench underneath the pavilion at Cudell Commons.
Her eyes fix on the table in front of her, where cardboard posters decorated with pictures of her 12-year-old son are tucked inside a mildewed mound of stuffed bears, Beanie Babies and children’s toys.
“I still feel weak coming over here,” she says, her palms stained orange from painting the small stone wall that encloses the butterfly garden just a few feet away. “Life was taken away from me right here in this very spot.”
Her 15-year-old daughter, Tajai, is on her hands and knees, painting sections of the wall blue that enclose an erratic arrangement of new plants.
“I’m sickened with it,” Samaria says, “that this is the last memory I have to have of my son.”
Yet, she comes anyway — a couple times a week.
At first, it was just for him. For Tamir.
For her youngest child, who on Nov. 22, 2014, was playing in the park with a toy gun that had the orange safety tip removed when a 911 caller alerted police to a black male who was “probably a juvenile” carrying a gun that was “probably fake.” But when the dispatcher failed to relay all of the information, officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann responded to the call, driving onto the grass within 5 feet of the boy and firing at him within two seconds of arrival.
She came for the first time on Christmas morning, a bright and cold winter day, to drop off the gifts he’d never open — a basketball, some toy cars and a few teddy bears — and discovered the remembrances the community had already left. There were candles, an old cellphone and a LeBron James jersey placed among a congregation of stuffed animals that included small elephants and a miniature Curious George — Tamir’s favorite cartoon.
The memorial has only grown since. Prayer flags and messages scrawled in permanent marker demand justice on the very spot where Tamir was slain. The butterfly garden, with walls shaped like wings and a path through the center, is being built as part of a community project to transform the setting of Tamir’s tragedy into a place of silent reflection.
Even the nearby wooden posts meant to stop people from driving onto the grass have been painted blue. One bares an orange crown, with a message written in white paint: “Young black king.” Tamir’s name is written underneath it in orange.
The orange, blue and white represent peace, purity and justice — the colors of the foundation Samaria intends to establish in honor of Tamir.
“My son was going to be important and he was going to make a change in the world one way or another,” says Samaria. “There’s a lot of wickedness going on in this world, and you can’t just be a dead cell wasting. I’m out here trying to create some change.”
Behind Samaria and Tajai, teachers guide single-file lines of children along a 50-yard walk from the Cudell Recreation Center back to their classes at Marion C. Seltzer School, where Tamir was a student. When the kids are dismissed at 4 p.m., they rush out of the building en masse, filling the park with laughter, jumping over the walls and into the garden to play.
“No, y’all! You can’t run and hop and jump over the flowers,” yells Samaria, trying to protect the not-yet-budding plants from being crushed. Several of the children give her a hug and ask how she’s doing. A 12-year-old boy rushes up, his eyes wide behind tiny black-rimmed glasses.
“You know I got jumped yesterday,” he says.
“By who?” asks Samaria, pulling on her gray shirt as she stands.
The boy names two kids, but Samaria doesn’t recognize them.
“They wanted to fight, so they jumped me over there,” he says, pointing to the playground behind the pavilion and lifting his head so she could see the scratches on the side of his neck.
“I know a lot of the kids, but I don’t know them by name,” she says. “I know them by their face, and I hope it ain’t who I think it is.”
In losing her son, she’s adopted the other kids of the community as her own.
“My son’s memory is here,” she says. “I don’t think anybody is going to be able to ever forget it.”
Parents and teachers alike greet her with open arms. Even strangers seem to know her and revere her as an important figure in their community.
But that’s not how her story has been painted by the media. The day after Tamir was pronounced dead, local and national media publicized Samaria’s criminal history in an effort to explain why her son was playing alone in a park with a toy gun less than a block from where he lived. Three months later Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, described Tamir as “menacing” and “in the wrong” in a Feb. 23, 2015, article published by Politico Magazine. Four days later, city lawyers issued a response to the family’s wrongful death lawsuit filed in December by claiming Tamir’s death was “caused by the conduct of individuals or entities other than [the] defendant.” Mayor Frank Jackson later apologized.
In the midst of terrible grief, Samaria was suddenly thrust into the spotlight — not as a mother who had made mistakes — but as someone marginally responsible for the death of her own son.
“I never would allow Tamir to play with no water guns, no nothing, because you know how young boys can be when it comes to a gun,” says Samaria, shaking her head.
It’s difficult for her to retell the story, but she does so in the hopes she can push past it and learn from it. In the months since her son’s death, she’s relocated three times with her daughter Tajai in an effort to rediscover stability and peace of mind. For Samaria, her fight is young. While she’s trying to raise her three other children and guide them through a difficult healing process, she’s navigating her own struggles. She’s working as an advocate for her son in the hopes she can introduce new policies that might shape how police interact with minors and implement laws that could potentially regulate the use of guns. Amid reports released by the prosecutor’s office last month that the shooting of Tamir was “objectively reasonable,” she’s also still waiting — almost a year later — on whether a grand jury will indict the officers responsible for her son’s death.
“He had numerous things to be exposed to, to make sure he stayed on the positive track,” she continues, the tone of her voice boiling as it grows louder. “I always put something in his hands — a basketball, a football, video games — something else besides a damn gun! But I can’t watch everything.”
She takes a deep breath and furls her brow as if trying to make out something far off in the distance. The day her son was shot remains fresh, like the new dirt of the butterfly garden.
“I can’t watch everything,” she says again, the tone of her voice falling flat. She slumps into her seat and lifts her head up, her eyes locked again on the spot where Tamir fell.
“I can’t watch everything.”
When Samaria was 12 years old, her mother, Darlett Rice, shot and killed her 31-year-old boyfriend, Elbert Burton, at their home in Garfield Heights — then picked up Samaria and her 11-year-old brother, Eugene, at Burton’s mother’s house.
Although her mother claimed the shooting was self-defense and Samaria testified on her behalf, Darlett was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for murder.
When Samaria and Eugene’s biological father couldn’t care for them, the siblings spent the next few years bouncing from place to place. “My dad was supposed to be there to pick up the pieces,” says Samaria, “but he couldn’t do it.”
She spent a year with an uncle on a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, but his lengthy deployments at sea meant that wasn’t a long-term solution. Another uncle tried to take her in for three months in Texas, but his relationship with his girlfriend was on the rocks. So Samaria traveled back to Cleveland and spent the next four years in and out of foster homes and crashing on friends’ couches whenever possible.
“I was exposed to a lot at an early age,” says Samaria, “drugs, guns, violence, fighting, arguments.”
Those things followed her into her early 20s. She never finished high school, had three children from three different fathers and was in a violent relationship with Tajai’s father, Leonard Warner.
In April 2001, she allegedly held Warner at gunpoint while three assailants beat and robbed him. She pleaded guilty to assault in connection with the incident that June. In December of that year, he allegedly attacked Samaria while wielding a knife and beating her in the head with his fist repeatedly while she was pregnant with their second child. He later pleaded guilty to domestic violence in the case.
“We were running off emotions and just young and wild,” she says.
Samaria moved into a shelter to seek counseling and assistance to take back her life. During her six-month stay, she gave birth to a baby boy: Tamir
“I was at rock bottom,” she says.
Her 8-year-old daughter, Tasheona, was in the care of her paternal grandparents, her 4-year-old son, Tavon, was living with his father on the East Side, her 2-year-old daughter, Tajai, was staying at a cousin’s house, and she was living in a homeless shelter with a newborn.
“Something popped on in my brain and said, ‘No, you can’t continue to do this,’ ” she says. “ ‘Your life is worth much more than what you’re going through now.’ ”
While she found stable housing downtown and regained custody of her children, Samaria couldn’t escape entirely. In 2012, she was attempting to move her family to California, where her kids could attend better schools. In what she says was a one-time mistake, she shipped more than 3 pounds of marijuana through the mail from Los Angeles to a residence in Cleveland to raise money to head out West. She got caught and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking.
“It was a bad decision,” she says. “I don’t know what I was thinking.
“I was living and learning at the same time,” Samaria continues. “I did the best I could as a single mother to not have a lot of that stuff around my children.”