This past summer, when I would visit my friend Monique after volunteering, I’d catch the 22 Bus going west on Detroit Ave—which passed Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Cudell was the recreation center where many people I knew worked and played. But to me, it was just part of the passing scenery.
But now, Cudell Recreation Center is nationally recognized because on Saturday a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed outside of the center. The person who was holding the gun was a Cleveland Police Officer. The story has made national headlines.
Although there was no confrontation between the 12-year-old boy and the police officer, according to most reports, the officer still shot him. The young boy had brought a fake “toy” gun to the playground of the recreation center, only for the officer to assume it was real and that the boy was dangerous. The police officer ordered the young boy to hold up his hands. The 12-year old boy reached down towards his pockets instead. Then, the police officer shot him in the stomach.
After struggling through intensive care, the young boy passed away earlier today.
This shooting comes after 7 other people in the Cleveland were killed in a 24 hour period. In what is Cleveland’s “deadliest murder this year,” 5 people, including an unborn child, were killed by an unknown attacker this past Friday. The same Saturday, two men were found in a car that had crashed into a fence, dead from gunshot wounds.
I was raised on the west side of Cleveland, about a 10 minute drive from where the 12 year-old-boy was shot. Throughout my time in the Cleveland public school system, I’ve seen two fake guns on school property: once when I was in 5th or 6th grade and again in high-school. In both cases, the boys went out of their way to show it to me, explaining it was simply to see if they could “get it past the metal detector.” To the best of my knowledge, neither of those boys, who are now either 18 or 19, killed anyone. They just wanted to test the system. In 6th grade, when smoking weed and cigarettes became in vogue, some students would bring cigarettes and lighters to school too.
I didn’t tell anyone – teachers or administrators – except for my fellow classmates, who would regale me with stories about other people they knew who had brought things onto school property that didn’t belong: kitchen knives, weed, vodka(mixed in a Sprite bottle of course).
After 12 years spent in public school education in Cleveland, I have seen a lot of people breaking the rules. Other people maybe saw only a 10th of the ‘rule breaking’ that I had. There were some people, who went to schools in poorer neighborhoods, who have probably seen 10 times more of what I have seen.
I didn’t tell them not because I was afraid of getting someone else in trouble, or because I was afraid of getting myself in trouble, but because I didn’t think it was a problem. Living in a city with one of the highest crime rates, hearing about gun violence was something that many became desensitized to.
So when I saw my classmates on school property with fake guns, kitchen knives, and other less threatening illegal property, it didn’t phase me.
I didn’t view these students as threats. I viewed them as people who were testing the system. They were testing the system in a way that was a manifestation of the environment that they were raised in; an environment where weapons were commonplace.
Eventually, in Cleveland, and in many other lower-income areas, children learn that the loud booms that they hear at night are not fireworks. Every so often, people would write statuses like “Just heard a big boom… not sure if it was a firework or a gunshot.” Sometimes these statuses were meant to be funny. Sometimes however, statuses like these were warnings.
Children growing up in Cleveland, especially youth of color, grow up in environments where weapons and violence are commonplace. When a local news station interviewed a teenager who knew the young boy, the teenager said that it “wasn’t unusual” and that many of the young people that the news crew interviewed around the rec center “had BB guns.”
Although it seems shocking to think that these very young kids had fake guns, in my experience it wasn’t that uncommon either.
On Saturday, when the police officer carelessly shot a 12 year old boy who had a gun on him, they did not see what I saw in my classmates: a desire to test the system, flaunt, and maybe even get some street cred in the process. They also didn’t stop to ponder whether the young boy even knew what he was doing with the gun. Although gang affiliation and street violence can begin at a young age in some neighborhoods, I hesitate to think that the young boy actually meant any harm.
What the police saw was a black dangerous male with something that looked like a gun, not a young 12-year-old boy. Although it is a worthy notion to proceed with caution when approaching anyone with a gun, the police did not proceed with caution. They just pulled the trigger.
Because of this assumption, a 12 year-old boy is dead. This 12 year old boy, who probably wanted to just test the system like the classmates and acquaintances that I had while growing up, was deemed a threat by the police and shot.
This young boy could have been one of my classmates, had 6 years and the distance of 10 minute drive not separated us.
I’m in New York now. But my feed on Facebook still reverberates with the emotional impact of the shootings that have happened, linking me back to Cleveland, living vicariously through the shock and grief of dozens of people that I know.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the police were thinking. And I wasn’t at the scene of the crime. But what I do know is that shooting down a young 12 year old boy who had a fake gun is not a solution.