CLEVELAND — Shingle by shingle, a crew of workers began the three-day process of taking apart the gazebo at the Cudell Recreation Center where sixth grader Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police within two seconds of their arrival. Tamir had been playing with a toy gun. Yet a grand jury declined last December to hold police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback accountable for their actions. In April, the City of Cleveland awarded the Rice family $6 million in the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit. An internal review of the shooting continues; meanwhile, a family, community, city, and country continue to mourn and seek justice for the taking of a little boy’s life.
Since the shooting on November 22, 2014, the gazebo has served as a community altar. For the past two years, people left stuffed animals, candles, cards, and flowers in memory of Tamir on the picnic table where the 12-year-old had previously taken refuge. On Wednesday, that picnic table and the two others beside it were removed from beneath the gazebo with a forklift. Workers unceremoniously removed the stuffed animals and placed them on the rock walls of the nearby butterfly garden, which was planted as a memorial to Tamir in the wake of his death. (The stuffed animals will eventually be donated to local community groups.) Rain started to fall, temporarily halting the deconstruction.
The gazebo is in fact being taken apart meticulously, so that it can be reassembled upon its arrival in Chicago at the Stony Island Arts Bank, “a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center” created by artist Theaster Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation. What happens when a site of death and a place of community grieving is moved into a gallery?
Initially, Tamir’s mother, Samaria, in agreement with the City of Cleveland, had requested the demolition of the gazebo because it served as a painful reminder of the killing of her son. But after considering the significance the structure has had in a larger, national conversation, Samaria agreed to a different proposal: the moving of it to the Stony Island Arts Bank, as a way to preserve it as an important symbol of what Rice family attorney Billy Joe Mills described as “one of the strongest national symbols of the current era of civil rights and police brutality.” Whether the gazebo will be installed permanently or for a temporary amount of time remains unclear. It’s also not evident whether moving the gazebo to an alternative space in Cleveland was considered as an option.
The police killing of Tamir Rice helped drive home the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement. Images of the gazebo have been televised and viewed all across the planet. And now, suddenly, it’s gone — taken apart, piece by piece, in order to be shipped to Chicago and rebuilt in a gallery. People looking to understand the brutality and injustice of the incident will be able to visit the gallery to see the gazebo up close. I can’t help but wonder: What happens when grief and police brutality are museumified? Can a gallery — even a noncommercial, non-white-walled one, as Stony Island is — become a place to reflect, analyze, and process the shooting of a little boy? Or is it inevitable that some piece of the raw, guttural experience of being present at the gazebo at the Cudell Recreation Center, where children still run around and play on the swings, will become objectified and alienated? What makes a place sacred? And what happens to sacred places when you put them in a museum, like the ruins of an ancient temple?
Even though Gates is deeply rooted in community and social practice work, it remains to be seen whether his institution in Chicago can display the gazebo in a way that honors the experience it carries from Cleveland. This is not the first time that an artifact and symbol of a death resulting from racism will be on display in a museum. The casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched because he whistled at a white woman, now rests in the soon-to-be-opened Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It will be telling to see how people interact with — and are permitted to interact with — these two artifacts. What role do cultural institutions have to play in telling these stories?
As for the land where the gazebo once stood, attorney Subodh Chandra, who also represents the Rice family, said “the city informally agreed to eventually accept … a ‘tasteful, modest’ memorial to Tamir.” What that memorial will be has yet to be determined and/or disclosed. A community meeting will be held later this month to discuss future plans for the park.
Many local residents remain conflicted over the removal of the gazebo; they’re unsure whether it’s an attempt to forget the police killing or the next step in healing a community. Over the past two years, the gazebo has been a gathering spot for activists and grieving residents — where will they meet now?