Cleveland, Ohio, is infamously known for two cases of police homicides: the “Cleveland Atrocity/137 shots” on November 22, 2012, and the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on November 29, 2014.
The Cleveland Atrocity involved 61 police cars pursuing two Black Cleveland residents — Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — in Russell’s car, into a schoolyard of neighboring East Cleveland. When the car came to a halt, 13 Cleveland cops, 12 white and one Latino, shot 137 bullets into Mr. Russell’s car, brutally executing both passengers who were unarmed. National police policy restricts police pursuits to just two cars and forbids cops from shooting and killing out of their geographic jurisdiction.
The police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice shocked the nation when Cleveland police officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann drove their zone car a few feet from Tamir Rice and opened fire within seconds, killing the youth at the Cudell Rec Center on Cleveland’s west side.
The City of Cleveland has had a sordid history of police violence and racism. Racial violence and police oppression climaxed in the 1960s in the Hough and Glenville majority African American neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side. A “Jim Crow” sign excluding Blacks from a “white” establishment near Hough sparked six days of rebellion on July 18–24, 1966. Four people were killed, about 30 were injured, with hundreds of arrests. Hough borders what is known as “Little Italy” and University Circle, where racial tension was typically high. Then Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher called in the Ohio National Guard to suppress the violence.
The election of Carl B. Stokes, Cleveland’s first Black mayor in 1968, was a first step in representing the City of Cleveland’s demographics, but the city and county remained segregated and unequal — embroiled in poverty and police violence, racial profiling, and incarceration of Blacks.
Under the Stokes administration another July uprising broke out, almost to the day of the Hough rebellion two years earlier. What is known as the “Glenville Shootout” between Cleveland police and Black freedom fighters led by Fred (Ahmad) Evans on July 23, 1968, left seven people dead: three civilians, three police officers, and one bystander. This sparked the Glenville rebellion, which was again suppressed by Ohio’s state military police.
A high-profile case in 1992 involved Cleveland police officers Michael Tankersley and Jeffrey Gibson using a chokehold to subdue young Black male Michael Pipkins, claiming he stole a car. Pipkins went limp after the police assault and was pronounced dead hours later. Internal police review board findings determined that the officers caused Pipkins’ death by failing to take him to a hospital immediately. Hundreds protested for weeks after Pipkins’ murder. The Justice for Michael Pipkins Committee kept weekly pickets at City Hall going for over a year, while Pipkins’ parents took their petitions for justice for their son into the community every chance they had. The city eventually banned the common police practice of using the chokehold to subdue victims.
Systemic problems within the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) continued. There was no end to the abuse of force, deadly force and racism; lack of accountability and transparency; poor reporting practices and backlog of unanswered citizen complaints.
The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) investigated the CDP in 2002 and entered an agreement to correct these problems. It didn’t happen. Five police shootings, four fatal, occurred in the next few years. Most egregious was the 2005 police killing of 15-year-old Brandon McCloud when police faked a late-night search warrant (signed the next day by Judge Gaul). The cops accused the youth of a holdup and barged into his grandmother’s house and held her at gunpoint while detectives John Kraynik and Phil Habeeb went to the boy’s bedroom and shot 10 bullets into young Brandon. They said they feared for their life because the boy was holding a kitchen knife.
Frank Jackson became mayor in 2006, on the heels of five police shootings, four of them fatal. The day after he was sworn in, he announced at a news conference that “excessive force will not be tolerated and that officers will be held accountable for any violation of that standard.” He pledged to implement strict policies regarding use of force and retrain the police force. Deadly-use-of-force case investigations would require detectives to record witness interviews. The new administration found a backlog of hundreds of use-of-force cases that were unresolved and more than 40 use-of-deadly-force investigations that were still pending with the prosecutor’s office.
Mayor Jackson, now in his third term, fared no better than previous mayors in cleaning up the police violence and racial profiling. Jackson presided over the Cleveland Atrocity, “137 shots,” which brought the feds back to Cleveland. The USDOJ was summoned to Cleveland by dozens of organizations and citizens who called on the U.S. attorney general for a federal investigation. Mayor Jackson also called on the USDOJ after he saw the community’s flood of correspondence.
It was also under the Jackson administration that serial killer Anthony Sowell was discovered to have strangled 11 African American women and buried them in his yard in 2009 in the low-income Mount Pleasant neighborhood, a mile from affluent Shaker Heights. Such horrific crimes could continue because the system failed. Prejudicial judgment against a Black female who tried to report Sowell’s kidnapping her and raping her was ignored. Her report was stamped “Not Credible” by the department. Five more women fell into the killer’s hands after that.
Meanwhile, missing person and rape reports went unresolved. The arrest of Ariel Castro in 2013, who abducted and enslaved three girls since 2002 on the near west side of Cleveland, was a bitter victory because it took 11 years to find Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.
When the USDOJ finally answered the appeals from northeast Ohioans for a federal investigation of CDP in 2014, it was on the heels of the Tamir Rice killing and another brutal crime by Cleveland police — the killing of Tanisha Anderson in a domestic disturbance. The family of Tanisha Anderson called 911 for help when she was having a psychological episode. When police arrived, 38-year-old Anderson was fearful and resisted, a cop tackled and restrained her while handcuffing Ms. Anderson behind her back, killing her within minutes. These two cases proved to the USDOJ and lots of others that Cleveland Division of Police had some serious problems menacing Blacks and others in Cleveland.
The Cleveland Consent Decree of 2014 sighted hundreds of issues of negligence and unconstitutional policing within the CDP, but never mentioned race as a factor. Racial profiling and implicit bias are discussed as community groups like the Collaborative for a Safe, Fair and Just Cleveland push for the inclusion of these issues. The “Cleveland Eight” — a coalition of NAACP, CAIR-Cleveland, NLG, ACLU and others — challenged the Consent Decree when Judge Solomon Oliver signed the agreement without public input.
Protests were numerous and large after the police homicides of Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson, three months after Michael Brown’s murder-by-cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Black Lives Matter, a hashtag that created a movement, fostered a Cleveland chapter founded by the cousin of Tamir Rice, Latonya Goldsby. The Cleveland protests were diverse, bringing local social justice groups, community activists, and some clergy together under the direction of Black leadership. The Memorial Shoreway was shut down by hundreds of protestors a few days after the shooting of Tamir Rice and one day after the acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer in Missouri.
A few arrests occurred sporadically during many months of protests over police homicides. The acquittal of Michael Brelo who fired 49 shots of the “137 shots,” in the spring of 2015 brought the arrest of 71 protestors who were stalked by military grade police for hours until they were forced into an alley and arrested on Memorial Day weekend, causing a long weekend of incarceration for the protestors.
Keeping the Consent Decree on track and transparent is still an issue, especially when police union president and outspoken critic of police reform Steve Loomis sits on the Community Police Commission. Consent decrees nationally are under threat of dissolution by President Donald Trump, whom Steve Loomis met with before the election and pushed his union membership to endorse despite protest from the Black Shield, Cleveland Black officers’ union.
All Cleveland City Council seats and the mayor’s office are up for grabs in 2017. Most city council reps face election challenges by grassroots organizers this fall. As the neighborhoods sink further into poverty and violence, the city council and the mayor endorsed a taxpayer-funded refurbishing of the privately owned Quicken Loans Arena, ignoring 20,000 petition signatures denouncing the council vote and asking for the $88 million “Q” deal to go to a vote of the people.
In mid-June 2017, it was decided that five of the “137 shots” cops will be rehired after justice was reversed through arbitration. The main shooter, Michael Brelo, was not named for rehire but he has appealed his termination from the force. Two protests at Heritage Middle School on June 16 and Cleveland City Hall on June 19 called on Mayor Jackson to appeal the rehiring of these officers in “the worst atrocity in the history of the nation” as described by lifelong Glenville resident Don Freeman.
In the 50 years since the Hough rebellion, Cleveland has barely moved an inch away from police brutality, racial injustice, and government corruption. Anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment have been on the rise in Northeast Ohio, just as has occurred across the nation since the election of bigoted misogynist Donald Trump to the presidency. Social justice and labor activists will be tested in the coming months and years. All of our coalition building and political and community organizing can provide a basis for building a united labor-community fightback to roll back, once and for all, these attacks on Black people and on democratic rights as a whole.