Silence of the City: Why Isn’t Cleveland Speaking Out About Police Violence?

2015-03-30T08:32:44+00:00March 30th, 2015|

By Daniel J. McGraw

Hardly anyone noticed this last one.

There were a few articles in the Plain Dealer and the national press jumped in a bit, and some of his friends and relatives did put some foil balloons and prayer candles on a telephone pole in the sidewalk near where he was shot, but hardly anyone noticed Brandon Jones was shot by Cleveland police a little more than a week ago.

Jones, 18, by himself and unarmed, used a crowbar to break in to a little grocery story in the Glenville neighborhood at about 2 am on March 20, and police were waiting for him when he came out. He had a paper bag with some coins in it and few packs of cigarettes. We don’t know what happened next; the City of Cleveland is currently investigating. But this much is certain: Brandon Jones was shot by one of the two officers at the scene and is now dead.

[blocktext align=”right”]Mayor Frank Jackson didn’t say a word; but then again, he is not big on talking about anything really.[/blocktext]I went to the city council meeting on the Monday after the incident, and other than a half-dozen or so young people handing out some fliers, no one mentioned Jones’s death. Mayor Frank Jackson didn’t say a word; but then again, he is not big on talking about anything really. City council members pretty much stayed out as well, though Councilman Jeff Johnson did note that the city is spending too much time “patting itself on the back” about things like the Republican National Convention and a new grocery story downtown while the neighborhood streets are unsafe.

“We have a responsibility to the people who live here and not just those who visit,” Johnson said, and then added that “the law doesn’t say that someone breaking into a store and walking out with some coins and cigarettes should be killed.”

Over the weekend, some concerned citizens representing 25 religious and civil rights organizations decided to hold a protest rally at City Hall on Saturday afternoon in response to both the shooting of Brandon Jones and the December 2014 report by the U.S. Dept. of Justice that the city’s police force was violating citizen’s civil rights by their repeated use of unnecessary force. The protest organizers’ website said they were hoping that 1,000 might show up. About 30 people attended.

The spate of police shootings over the past year has led to a few Cleveland protests. But the only one that had any big numbers was when the grand jury in Ferguson no-billed Officer Darren Wilson last November and protests spilled out into the streets around the country. And many of the protestors in Cleveland were college students who’d come in from outlying small-town Ohio campuses.

As I looked around at the sparse crowd Saturday (and not one politician was there) — and hearing the usual “No Justice, No Peace” chant — I realized that one name was absent from this whole discussion. A discussion that has been going on years. And that would be the name of Mayor Frank Jackson.

Jackson has been mayor about ten years. According to a recent Plain Dealer report, in the past ten years, “in more than 60 lawsuits, citizens accused officers of needlessly shooting at them, beating them during routine traffic stops, shocking them with Tasers while face-down on the ground in handcuffs or arresting them when they had committed no crime.” Those lawsuits cost the city more than $8 million to resolve, according to the report.

The DOJ report alleges that Cleveland police routinely use force in ways that violate citizens’ rights. The report was based on more than 600 incidents between 2012 and 2013. That’s right, 600 incidents in just two years. Almost one a day.

During the past few years, the nation’s focus has been on police use of excessive force on minorities, young men mostly. Here in Cleveland, we had the car chase in November of 2012 that resulted in police shooting and killing an unarmed African-American man and woman with 137 bullets while their car was stopped in parking lot. In November of 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was walking with a toy pellet gun through a park and was fatally shot within two seconds of a police car pulling up next to him. Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old schizophrenic woman, died after police slammed her to the pavement outside her family’s home that same month.

[blocktext align=”left”]Why do the people of Cleveland seem to shrug their shoulders over deaths that seem to be even more gratuitous than the ones that have sparked national attention?[/blocktext]I’m left quite confused. Why do the people of Cleveland seem to shrug their shoulders over deaths that seem to be even more gratuitous than the ones that have sparked national attention? Michael Brown didn’t get 137 bullets fired into him in Ferguson when he died. Eric Garner of New York was not walking through a park with a toy gun when he was put in a chokehold by the NYPD. And Tony Robinson of Madison, Wisconsin, had attacked two people and was running in traffic when police shot and killed him. In Cleveland, Tanisha Anderson died mainly because she just didn’t want to get in the squad car.

Trying to figure out how Mayor Frank Jackson feels about all this is difficult. I’ve worked in the media for more than 25 years, and the Jackson administration has been the least friendly to the media of any government entity I’ve ever dealt with (by far, and I base that on conversations with other reporters as well). The only response one can usually ever get to a question (and it often takes weeks) is from a spokesperson who emails vague and worthless answers. A one-on-one interview with Jackson is out of the question.

The best clues to what he is thinking come from the “State of the City” address he gave about a month ago at the City Club Forum. The address was unusual in that Jackson had Beth Mooney, CEO of KeyCorp and chair of the Greater Cleveland Partnership (the city’s chamber of commerce), asking questions of the mayor and leading the discussion. She brought up about a half-dozen issues, in the sports-reporter style of, “Talk a little bit about …” instead of a real question.

“Yes this is difficult,” Jackson said when Mooney asked about the DOJ report. “But hard times is what I do and hard times is what you do. And we will mature and grow as a result of this. Our identity and who we are as a people and our character is what is called into question today with this thing … Who are we as a people? And if we do this right, we will be recognized beyond the challenges and images that are created today. We will be recognized as a great city because we will have done it for the people. But we have to put the work in.”

Of course, Mooney didn’t follow up with, “What the hell did you mean by that?” But Jackson did add, a bit later, that the DOJ report is important because “people in the business community are concerned about the image of Cleveland.” That tells us a lot about his thinking.

[blocktext align=”right”]The key question here is who is responsible for this problem.[/blocktext] The key question here is who is responsible for this problem. And yes, if you are a supporter of police and a supporter of citizen’s rights and want to see Cleveland improve its quality of life, you will recognize there is a problem. And the man who has been overseeing this city’s services for ten years has to bear some of the responsibility here. But hardly anyone wants to even mention his name.  (There has been some talk of a possible Jackson recall election over the DOJ report, but few expect anything to come of it).

Race is a part of this, and I’m not going to run from that. A federal DOJ investigation done by an African-American U.S. Attorney General at the behest of an African-American president has found that civil rights violations have occurred in city with a majority African-American population with an African-American elected mayor for the past ten years. And African-Americans in Cleveland are the ones most adversely affected by the findings of the DOJ report.

I am not so stupid politically to realize that a voter group is not going to turn on its own at the slightest allegation. But the head-in-the-sand attitude the majority of Cleveland residents are doing on this is hypocritical. You give your own guy a pass on the first few times things screw up under his watch. But that free pass goes away when a kid with a toy gun is killed in a park and 137 bullets are fired into two harmless dope fiends sitting in a car and when a guy is killed coming out of grocery store with a paper bag of coins and a couple packs of smokes.

Cool Hand Luke didn’t get shot and killed for using a screwdriver to get coins out of parking meters. He got arrested and sent to prison and spent a few nights in the box.

Mayor Jackson has said consistently that the city’s image is at the forefront right now, and as he said in his City Club address, “people in the business community are concerned.” He knows that the best way to keep that image going and to keep the business community pacified is to keep things quiet. And get the other politicians and the preachers to back you up on that.

So if you don’t feel that there are any problems with the way Cleveland law enforcement handles its affairs, stay home and be quiet. Because that’s what city leadership thinks is the best way to get things moving forward. But if you’re not OK with it, then do something. I’m not advocating riots and burning of building and snipers atop buildings. But to not demand answers and change means you are fine with the ways things have been and the way things are going.

I mean, future conventions of out-of-towners might not come here if they think we are a city that tends to shoot first and ask questions later. Sorry, I meant shoot first and ask no questions later.

For more on the problem of Cleveland police violence see our roundup of related stories published here at Belt and elsewhere.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt. 

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5 Comments

  1. Practice Man March 30, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Sounds like you’re sad that Cleveland isn’t a very important place anymore. It is sad.

    None of these recent incidents are clean or clear. Heck, the Brandon Jones shooting involved black police officers…no? That’s almost an automatic that it’s overlooked…right? Doesn’t fit the template (though I’d be willing to bet that CPD shoots are just as common per capita, perhaps moreso, from black officers, than white officers). The police claim Jones struggled with their gun…maybe he did.

    Tamir Rice…tragic, cluster F—. But I don’t think it’s a crime. A signpost for our degrading culture? Absolutely. I wandered around with toy guns and rifles as a kid…no orange cap either…and I was tall (a bit heavy maybe too)…and no one ever called the police on me. Probably had a gun up to my brother’s head lots of times.

    Should the masses rise up? Maybe they should. But, with a black mayor, it won’t happen.

  2. Steve March 30, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    FWIW, my cynical explanation:
    1. Racism: Many white Clevelanders aren’t too concerned about the deaths of black Clevelanders. Sad, but a plausible explanation.
    2. Lack of civic culture: Cleveland’s culture is marked by strong municipal identity (and correspondingly low regional identity), and low non-voting political engagement (civic groups, professional groups, etc.). The net result is low attendance/visibility in public demonstrations & forums.

    • Practice Man March 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      “Many white Clevelanders aren’t too concerned about the deaths of black Clevelanders. Sad, but a plausible explanation.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that, Steve, and not unique to Clevelanders. I also think that white people, in many different ways, are “told” by black people, that what goes on with them is no business of white people. That’s where people’s moral and (dare I say it) religious ethic weighs in. Are you going to care about your fellow man (and woman) or are you going to just look the other way because those people don’t really want me around or like me very much anyway?

    • Debi October 11, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      As someone who was raised in the area and still has great affection for Cleveland, I have to say you are absolutely right, especially regarding racism. I also believe that this racism and anti-intellectualism are the two key factors that hold Cleveland back. Until these two issues are dealt with honestly and justly, the city will never truly rebound.

  3. Dannyboy000 April 1, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    There were dozens of protests of police all over Cleveland in the last year. There were rallys in support of police, 1 drawing over 5000 cop supporters (more than every anti-cop protest combined). There were week, and month long running editorials on the situation with the police. There were hundreds of community meetings. Dozens of pastor and church leaders meetings. Nightly stories on every local news broadcast.

    This author doesn’t know what he is talking about. Silence? This has been the biggest single issue in the last year. This is a hack op-ed looking for views with sensationalism.

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