NEW YORK — One minute the group of friends was walking down the street in Brooklyn, joking and roughhousing. The next thing Damian Thompson knew, New York Police Department officers were yelling at them to put their hands up and get down on the ground.
“And then we were scared,” said Thompson, 13, his youthful smile suddenly gone as he remembered the incident from earlier in the year.
Police later claimed they had mistaken the boys’ horseplay for a gang fight, he said, an assertion he now has a hard time believing.
But Thompson said he knows he was lucky. He and his friends all survived the frantic encounter with the police.
Tamir Rice was not so lucky.
On Sunday, Thompson was one of nearly a hundred protesters who marched to demand justice for Rice and an end to police brutality. Approximately 30 children, ranging from 2 to 17, led the group up Broadway a little more than a mile north.
The New York event was one of many around the country to mark one year since 12-year-old Rice was killed by Cleveland police. But to many here, the Manhattan march stood out because it was led by children.
Children’s marches are considered by many experts and historians to have created a turning point in the civil rights movement. In 1963, images of Alabama police officers brutalizing young marchers and attacking children and others with fire hoses and police dogs created a public outcry.
Organizers said they hoped Sunday’s march would also be a turning point in this latest movement against police abuse and brutality.
Surveillance video taken by the Cudell Recreation Center of Rice’s death shows a Cleveland police cruiser racing onto a grassy area near a gazebo where Rice was playing with a toy gun. Less than two seconds after arriving, the video shows Officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shooting Rice.
Another video shows Rice’s 14-year-old sister rushing to help her brother. Police tackle and handcuff her as her brother lies bleeding a few feet away.
Tensions have been steadily building since the release earlier this fall of two separate but equally controversial reports finding the officers were justified in the shooting. A report by Kimberly A. Crawford, former FBI agent, found that Loehmann could not have known Rice’s weapon was not real “given the speed with which the confrontation progressed.”
A second report, by Lamar Sims, a Denver senior chief deputy district attorney, came to a similar conclusion, claiming the shooting was justified given how close Rice was to the officers.
But both reports did not discuss whether or not driving the car into the park was necessary in the first place, saying attempts to do so would be to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking.
A Cuyahoga County, Ohio, grand jury is expected to decide soon whether or not Loehmann will face criminal charges for killing Rice.
At Sunday’s march, speaker Noche Diaz, 27, made sure adults participating in the march had the opportunity to meet the children and know something about them. It’s a less confrontational approach to children and teens, he said, that police officers don’t take often enough.
“Those cops didn’t’ take two seconds to find out anything about Tamir Rice,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Of course they didn’t know Tamir Rice — how could they? They killed him in less than two seconds.”
Diaz said he’s participated in many marches, but this is the first time he’s seen children leading one.
Hawa Bah, mother of Mohamed Bah, said police didn’t take the time to get to know her son either. In September 2012, Bah called an ambulance, desperate for help after becoming worried about her son’s mental health.
According to Bah, NYPD officers arrived before the ambulance and showed no interest in working with her to help Mohamed, who suffered from mental illness and had locked himself inside his apartment. Instead, she said, police broke down the apartment door and shot him, claiming he came at them with a knife.
“They shot my son like a criminal,” she said. “There are many, many people like Mohamed. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, none of them have justice.”
Like Bah, 13-year old Damian Thompson’s mother, Tyeisha Covington, can easily list a dozen people who have been killed by police. She’s the director of children’s ministries at Restoration Temple Ministries. She wants to be sure her son, his friends and other young people don’t give up hope, she said.
“Just because they are young doesn’t mean they can’t spark change,” she said.
Sasha Johns, a 5-year-old march leader, said she hoped her participation will spark that change. She has one simple goal: “I want to make the world a better place.”
Diaz said he was inspired by the leadership of young people like Johns and Thompson at the march. He said he hoped it emboldens other adults to stand up with young people and get them involved in what he sees as a crucial historical moment.
“We have to make a decision. What are our lives gonna be about? Because we’re not dead, we’re not the body on the ground,” he said. “So what are our lives gonna count for?”
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