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Let Us Be Clear: Tyre King Was Just a Kid

When my 8-year-old son came home from school yesterday, he immediately wanted to talk about something that his teacher had discussed with his class.

“Mom?” he asked. “Did you know that a kid right here in Columbus was shot and killed by the police last night?”

Tyre King, I thought to myself. The child who’d been on my mind all day.

“I did know that, honey,” I told my son. “How did you hear about him?”

“My teacher,” he said. “He talked about it first thing this morning.”

He described how his teacher had told the class about how “some kids thought it would be funny to rob someone.” How “one of them was carrying a BB gun, but it looked like a real gun.” How the one carrying the gun was “killed by a police officer.” How “it’s dangerous to carry toy guns that look like real guns.” How my son’s teacher—a white man—had “tried to go after some bullies with a BB gun back when he was a kid.” How one of those bullies had “fired back with a shot gun and broken a car window.” How “all of them had lived—even the ones who shot the guns.”

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There is a certain magic to the way third-grade teachers describe the world. They can present complexity simply without oversimplifying. They can teach a lesson without moralizing. And they can get even parents to think about the facts of the world in more nuanced ways.

The way my son's teacher told the story to his students reinforced this fact for me: Tyre King was just a kid.

The facts of Tyre King’s death are complex. And like any facts, they do not float freely in a world without context.

Tyre King was just a kid. But unlike my white sons, he was a black kid.

Tyre King died in Columbus, Ohio, where we live, just two night ago. Tyre King was fatally shot by a Columbus police officer named Bryan Mason. Tyre King was black. The police officer who killed Tyre King was white. Tyre King was a suspect in an armed robbery. Tyre King was carrying a BB gun when he was killed. Tyre King’s BB gun had a laser sight attachment. Tyre King’s BB gun looked nearly identical to the firearms that the Columbus Police carry with them. Tyre King’s gun didn’t look like a toy. Tyre King was "active in football, soccer, hockey, and gymnastics.” Tyre King’s former tutor described him in a Facebook post as a “very smart and very good kid with many friends,” someone who intervened when a new girl at school was being bullied, someone who made up raps about vocabulary words.

And Tyre King was a 13-year-old. A kid.

Tyre King was just a kid. A kid who made a series of bad decisions. But still: just a kid.

The research on kids King’s age is fairly clear about teenagers’ proclivities for bad decision-making.

Teenagers like Tyre King don’t yet have fully developed brains. Specifically, their prefrontal and frontal cortexes—the areas of the brain that help regulate impulse control and risk-taking behavior—are still works in progress. As explained by the University of Rochester Medical Center, “In teens' brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing. That's why when teens are under overwhelming emotional input, they can't explain later what they were thinking. They weren't thinking as much as they were feeling.” And so teenagers are impulsive. They go to great lengths to please and impress their friends. They make bad decisions—even when they are otherwise “good kids.”

The world he lived and died in is not a just world.

The research on racial disparities in the police force is a bit more complex. Police in the U.S. kill more white people than black people each year. But black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people are. Black Americans make up just 15 percent of the U.S. population but are charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders and 45 percent of assaults in the country’s 75 largest counties. At the same time, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested for the same crimes. And finally, according to a July 2016 report from the Center for Policing Equity, the police are more likely to target black residents than white residents for use of force. These disparities persist even when adjusting for past violent crime arrests.

Tyre King was just a kid. But unlike my white sons, he was a black kid.

And he was a black kid caught in a world where he was more likely to be on the receiving end of a police officer’s Taser or spray or baton—or a gun—than white kids.

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He was caught in a world where many will see him as another black super-predator instead of another teenage kid making a bad decision.

The world he lived and died in is not a just world.

A just world is one in which my son and Tyre King could both make bad decisions, as teenagers do, and neither one would face a greater chance of being killed for his bad choice because he was black.

A just world is one in which Tyre King would still be here on this earth, living his days out as any other kid.

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Photograph by: Walton and Brown, LLP