Temple Emanu-El and the New Hope Baptist Church are joining forces to push the federal Justice Department to open an investigation into the death of a 12-year-old black Cleveland boy shot and killed by a white police officer.
A petition drive urging Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, to launch such an investigation will kick off Friday, March 4, during the Edison synagogue’s gospel Shabbat service. At the annual event, choirs from both institutions will perform, and Rabbi David Vaisberg and the Rev. Dr. Ronald Owens will deliver addresses. Emanu-El and the Metuchen church also hold an annual joint Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemoration.
Asked what moved them to focus on this issue, Emanu-El social action committee chair Mike Likier said, “We looked at the great history and path of Jews and black people working on great and important issues and then looked at some of the issues of today. We didn’t want to get too political, but we felt the death of a 12-year-old boy deserves further attention.”
Likier said allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the case were deeply troubling and warrant a federal investigation.
Tamir was shot in October 2014 outside a recreation center by Officer Timothy Loehmann, an officer-in-training. He was with Officer Frank Garmback, who was training him, but an Ohio grand jury decided not to return indictments against either one.
Tamir had a pellet gun, and prosecutor Tim McGinty said while the boy may have been about to hand it over to the officers or put it down, they had no way of knowing that, and it was “reasonable” for them to assume he posed a threat.
The Rice family released a statement in which they said they believe McGinty “mishandled” and “sabotaged” the case.
“We as Jews have an obligation to fight for justice that is equally and fairly handed out,” said Vaisberg. “We have to remember all folks are created in God’s image. To allow one person because of his color to be mistreated in this society is a shanda,” a shame.
Owens, who has been working with Jews on issues of racial justice since the civil rights movement of the ’60s, said his church annually plans a program around a civil rights issue. This year’s theme was “More Bridges to Cross,” alluding to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during which marchers were attacked by police with dogs and clubs.
“While there’s a movement called ‘black lives matter,’ the reality is we have so much injustice in our nation we have to be very careful to defend wherever prejudice comes,” said Owens. “Of course the black and Jewish communities have been so close over the years because we both know about prejudice and racial discrimination and have suffered quite a lot. We want to bring notice that if we don’t come together — and not just Jewish and black people — we will find ourselves 40 or 50 years back in time.”
Owens recalled that when he moved into his upscale neighborhood in South Plainfield 38 years ago a neighbor refused to shake his hand when introduced. A month later, a large cross was burned on his front lawn.
He recollected those incidents recently when “a white gentleman” came to him complaining about all the Indians moving into the area.
Owens told him, “Well, everybody’s got to live someplace,” and said he couldn’t help but think, “Forty, 45 years ago that would have been me and all the Negroes you would be complaining about.”
Likier said he was aware the subject was controversial, but noted, “There is no way to tackle a controversial issue without controversy.”
“The way we look at it is we’re following the call to justice from a Jewish perspective,” he explained. “We need to take into account of the cost of being silent. We were born into a world that is not as God wants it to be. To me our job as Jews is to do the mitzvot and make this a better world.”