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date: 27 July 2021

Tyisha Miller, Murder offree

Tyisha Miller, Murder offree

  • Jasmine Riley

On 9 March 1979 Tyisha Shenee Miller was born to Delmer Miller in the small town of Rubidoux, California, a formerly unincorporated part of Riverside County with fewer than forty thousand residents. Her mother suffered from epileptic seizures and was, therefore, limited in her abilities to care for Miller as a child, so she was raised by her grandmother and aunt, Minneola Butler and Gwendalena Butler, respectively. She was a free-spirited “tom-girl” who lived life wholly reflective of her youth and natural, unencumbered maturation. She opted for T-shirts and jeans as she mingled with slightly older neighborhood kids and played softball in school. In high school not much changed: Miller's regular attire consisted of flannel button-down shirts, fitted or baggy jeans, and tennis shoes as she socialized with her peers at parties on weekends, some of which included alcohol and marijuana.

While in Rubidoux, a neighborhood with few options for fun and jobs, she, like many other teens her age, attended school and fought through the boredom as a social requirement. Miller and her small group of close-knit friends got into fights but one incident in January 1998 resulted in Miller's arrest and an assignment of two years’ probation. Given the financial responsibilities that come along with such incidents, her desire to be independent, and hope to assist her family and friends, Miller dropped out of high school and sought minimum wage jobs at the local mall and amusement parks. She began attending night school in an effort to complete her education and to pave her way out of the small town, and even expressed the hope of joining the military, as a cousin she viewed as a father figure had done. However, Miller would never get the chance to fulfill any of these dreams. Miller's status of being just an average girl was revoked as she was killed in a haze of police fire in the late night hours of 28 December 1998.

The events unfolding that day are grim and revelatory as they reflect Miller's all-American girl nature. She borrowed her aunt's car and spent the day with girlfriends at the mall, drinking alcohol sporadically throughout the day. She did not return her aunt's repeated communication attempts because of her rebellious teen spirit. As the evening came to a close, a sobering Miller was taking friends home, save one friend, Taneisha Nicole Holley, one of the last people who had contact with Miller before she was killed. En route to Holley's home in Rubidoux, Miller noticed the car had a flat tire. A local passerby, Michael Ho-Ran, assisted the two young women in changing the tire with the spare in the trunk, which they soon discovered was also flat. He trailed the women to the nearest gas station anticipating filling the tire with air, only to discover the air machine did not work. Holley asked the gentleman, since she lived nearby, to take her home to get help. After ensuring Miller's safety in the car, the two took off. Holley returned shortly with a family member, both of whom tried to awaken Miller who was shivering while sleeping in the reclined driver's seat in an idling Nissan Sentra, with the radio on, windows up, doors locked, and a gun on her lap. Failing to awake her, Holley and the relative made the call to the police that initiated an unraveling of events that ultimately ended in Miller's death.

Friends and family told police that Miller was foaming at the mouth and had a gun. Expecting an ambulance and police to assist with opening the vehicle, the family noticed two police cars, four officers, and no ambulance arrive on what became Miller's crime scene. The officers’ arrangement outside the car has been speculative; however, the officers admit that they tasked one of their four personnel to break the car window while the other three officers stood guard—as in watching Miller's behaviors in the car. While one officer proceeded to break her car window, another fired a shot toward the car, initiating an onslaught of bullets from all four officers at Miller. The initial shot fired flew past the head of the officer who broke the window. As he fell to the ground, assuming he had been shot, he proceeded to withdraw his weapon—in motion—and fire as well. A total of twenty-four shots were fired while twelve bullets riddled Miller's nineteen-year-old girlish frame and rendered her lifeless. One officer approaching the vehicle claimed, as another was breaking the window while she was asleep, that she sat up and reached for the gun sitting in her lap, so he responded with fire and the other officers followed suit.

Miller's death sparked indignation from numerous people suggesting that race was a primary factor in the officers’ decisions. The officers were first placed on administrative leave pending a routine investigation from the Riverside Police Department. After finding that the officers committed no crime but did respond irresponsibly and haphazardly in terms of their ill-conceived plan to break Miller's car window, the officers were not fired. Later a federal investigation concerned with civil rights violations resulted in their termination, only to be rescinded by an appeal from the officers wherein two of them were terminated with lifelong salaries and financial settlements from the Riverside Police Department. These responses incited numerous riots and protests within the city of Riverside that solicited the likes of popular black activists such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III. The intended assertion articulated by protestors was that Miller's death was not taken so seriously enough as to elicit charges against the officers because she was black, that her race indicted her as a criminal before and during the officers’ hasty assessment of the situation, and that her race does not allow her death at the hands of the police to be characterized as criminal. Amid all four officers’ relief of duty with some variation of pay, Miller's family filed a civil suit against the police department and five officers, which they settled in 2003.

The circumstances surrounding Miller's death—an intangible fear surrounding a lonely young girl in the late night hours, her youth, a life that was cut short, and protests that intended to express the implications of these conditions—influenced local playwright, Rickerby Hinds to create a stage production about these particularities. Dreamscape (2007) depicts Miller's life in the face of lurking death. Through hip-hop, singing, and dancing he attempts to capture her life from her perspective after having been killed. It unfolds under the lead of an autopsy report wherein each wound provokes a joyous reflection on her life that is violently rescinded at the announcement of each gunshot wound. It is a narrative of a peculiar American experience marked by race, particularly blackness. Hinds considers how blackness impacts the legality of citizenship and its denial in the form of a violent, legal death at the hands of state authorities. He desired to say that Miller's death should not consume her legacy.

The timing of Miller's death makes it difficult to write about her life. Social media and the ready availability of cellphones and their capabilities was not yet a social marker, so her daily movements do not have a digital archive. Responses to her death were not initiated and provoked through the swift action of black social media communities in the manner that Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown's deaths were. Still, the wish and necessity to include her name amid those killed at the hands of the police and state is fulfilled in a particular way.

Hinds's production aligns Miller's name in a divisive stream of frustration animating other protests against police violence visited upon black people: she is a stand-in for the absent names of black women and black queer people from the list of victims. The stage play tells the story of life lived without concern for death despite its constant presence in the form of violence, which articulates the conditions of African Americans in general, meaning it is inclusive of black people despite gender and sexual orientation. However, its significant feat is featuring the life of a black girl when the dominant narrative associated with police violence is black men. Hinds's play inaugurated productions such as Fruitvale Station , a 2012 film that tells of the life and death of Oscar Grant at the hands of police. Hinds's work significantly and boldly says that police and state violence are an issue for black women as well. The play refuses a repetition of a historical, violent marginalization and omission of the experiences of black women and black queer folk from social movements concerned about black people while simultaneously highlighting it as problem in current movements. Indeed, Miller's life and death is emblematic of the layered issues of police and state violence against African Americans and, perhaps, a bridge that binds the intersectional concerns that permeate community responses.

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