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Activist Says Tamir Rice Grand Jury Decision 'Devastating' For Family

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Audie Cornish speaks with Black Lives Matter activist Elle Hearns, after a grand jury declined to indict the two Cleveland police officers involved in the 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.



A grand jury in Cleveland has chosen not to indict two white police officers in the death of a 12-year-old African-American boy. Rookie officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice in 2014 after he and his partner responded to a 911 call. Loehmann mistook the boy's airgun for a real weapon. Today, in announcing the grand jury's decision, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said there was no way for Loehmann to know Tamir Rice's gun was not real.


TIM MCGINTY: Believing he was about to be shot was a mistaken yet reasonable belief given the high-stress circumstances and his police training. He had reason to fear for his life. It would be un-responsible and unreasonable if the law required a police officer to wait and see if the gun was real.

CORNISH: Rice's death is one of several that's propelled a national debate over racial bias and police use of force. It's also helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Elle Hearns is a coordinator for that campaign in Cleveland. She says the movement is currently keeping its plans for protests under wraps. Earlier today, Hearns says she was able to visit Tamir Rice's family after the news broke.

ELLE HEARNS: Today was extremely devastating for the family who have consistently made requests for support and also for accountability in the murder of Tamir. And it's a very somber day here in Cleveland, and it's also a really disappointing day for a family, for the city, for activists in a community throughout the country who have consistently advocated for children, for people to be safe in this country.

CORNISH: Now, in announcing the grand jury's decision, Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said he knew this decision would upset people and that he sympathized. Let's hear a little bit more of what he had to say.


MCGINTY: We, too, have heard the chants, and we, too, want justice for Tamir. But justice would not be achieved by bringing charges that would violate the ethical canons of our profession because we know these charges could not be sustained under the law in our Constitution.

CORNISH: Elle Hearns, this is a decision that comes from a grand jury that heard months of evidence, and it's not the first to decide that an officer in a shooting acted in a way that was not unconstitutional. Now, where does this leave people like yourself who see an injustice here?

HEARNS: Well, I think the injustice that is here starts, one, with the fact that the prosecutor actually didn't advocate for charges to the grand jury towards the officers that were responsible for the murder of Tamir. Prosecutors have oftentimes acted in defense of the officers as opposed to in defense of the families and of the lives that had been taken. So I think really analyzing the root of the issue is essential to understanding why we consistently have no accountability when officers are pulling the trigger.

CORNISH: And we understand your opinions about the prosecutor's behavior. We should note that he called this an absolute tragedy. He used words like horrible, unfortunate and regrettable. You know, moving forward, what happens next for the Black Lives Matter movement, right? For some time, there was a push to say, we want investigations; we want things handed over to independent prosecutors; we want things to go to grand juries. Some of that has happened in these cases - right? - and not with the desired outcome for activists. What happens next?

HEARNS: What happens next is there has to be a complete overhaul of the system that continues to let black lives be taken. And when our children - when our children's lives are taken and there's no accountability for anyone, that actually is something that will continue to fuel the movement. The reality is, nothing is more unfavorable than having to bury your child, a 12-year-old child because the police pulled the trigger...


HEARNS: ...Because the police murdered your child. There's nothing more unfavorable or unjust than that.

CORNISH: But to come back to, say, Cleveland for a minute, you know, the police department there, in the last few months, has agreed to reforms, agreed to federal monitoring to ensure those reforms get put into practice. To you, is that a sign of progress?

HEARNS: No, it's not a sign of progress because the officers that have been involved in multiple murders in this city are still employed. So what kind of precedent are you setting when the officers who are murdering children are still employed? There's no trust that the people could ever have for a city that is willing to stand behind officers who are killing their kids. The reality is, change isn't happening because this family today received no justice. They received no indictment, and they received basically a half apology from McGinty on why he didn't do better as a prosecutor.

CORNISH: Where can you turn to next? We know the family is filing for civil charges. But for the movement, does this mean street protests? Does this mean calling for someone's resignation?

HEARNS: I think that where we turn to next is where we have always turned to. What we've done in a black movement has always been to love and support each other and to corral around one another and provide us with whatever we need in order to make sure that this system is aware of where we stand. And none of the options are off of the table for what type of actions we'll take.

CORNISH: Elle Hearns is a regional coordinator with Black Lives Matter in Cleveland. Elle, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HEARNS: Thank you so much for having me.

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