Chicago artist Theaster Gates comforts Samaria Rice under the gazebo where her son Tamir was shot. Credit: Matt Ford

Samaria Rice initially wanted the gazebo where her 12-year-old son Tamir was shot to death by Cleveland police in 2014 destroyed. But she changed her mind when she considered the structure’s significance. 

“She was interested in preserving it so it could remain on display, so that what happened to her son wouldn’t be forgotten or buried away,” says Mallory McClaire, chief of staff for Stony Island Arts Bank on Chicago’s south side, where the gazebo is on display outdoors as a temporary memorial after two and a half years inside the temporary exhibition “Objects of Care: Material Memorial for Tamir Rice.”

Tamir would have turned 17 years old today, and on Sunday, his mother joined Chicago artists and activists for the outdoor memorial’s dedication. The ceremony opened with a performance by Chicago-based vocalist Avery R. Young, who sang, “No dwelling on the red from skin and bones / Just room for children to play.” 

Later performers included Chicago musicians Yaw Agyeman, who sang about the justice process that he wanted to see the officer who shot Tamir to undergo, and Angel Bat Dawid, who closed the ceremony by repeatedly singing, “What shall I tell my children who are Black what it is to be captive in this dark skin?”

Tamir was reported to be playing with a pellet gun when he was killed by 26-year-old Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann under the gazebo at the Cudell Recreation Center on November 22, 2014. 

The city of Cleveland was planning to demolish the gazebo, a process that was delayed by Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi, artist Hank Willis Thomas, journalist Zach Stafford, and activist Gregg L. Greer. Samaria Rice’s attorney, Billy Joe Mills, was then in communication with Cleveland lawyer Barbara Langhenry and councilman Matt Zone, who represents the area where the Cudell Recreation Center is located, to further delay the demolition. 

Mills’s team then began reaching out to institutions to preserve the gazebo. Though reports from May 2016 indicate that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture backed out of initial preservation efforts, the lapsed communication still allowed demolition to be delayed for 30 days.

Eventually, the Tamir Rice Foundation obtained ownership from the city of Cleveland. 

Deconstruction took place in September 2016 after the Stony Island Arts Bank proved to be “agile and bold enough to put forth the resources to get it done,” Mills said in a phone interview this week.

Ozanne Construction Company and Independence Excavating in Cleveland volunteered to deconstruct the gazebo. Then-Arts Bank director of programs and development Amy Schachman oversaw the deconstruction on the ground and the gazebo’s relocation to Chicago.

“There were all these moves that you have to make that feel very logistical, but there’s this underlying very powerful, mournful mission with it,” McClaire said this week by phone. “More than anything else, [Samaria Rice] wanted it to be visible and wanted us to have dialogue around it.”

The gazebo is on loan from the foundation and now stands behind two stones, one to make visitors “pause,” before another that welcomes them to “sit,” said Chicago artist Theaster Gates, whose Rebuild Foundation helped reconstruct the gazebo, in his closing remarks at the memorial dedication. 

The Tamir Rice Foundation’s next step is to establish other temporary memorials in Cleveland before securing a permanent home for the gazebo. 

Samaria Rice said at the dedication Sunday that she’d one day like to see a swing set installed under the structure where children can play.

“I can vision Tamir playing under the gazebo and other children playing under the gazebo,” Samaria said. “I can vision it right at this moment. I always have visions of it, matter of fact.” v