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White Racism

How a juicy scoop became a mayoral mess.

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The mayor confronts reporters eager for evidence of police racism. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The mayor confronts reporters eager for evidence of police racism.

A hot tip from the mayor's office is hard to ignore, even when it's hard to prove. Case in point: last Thursday's rousing Plain Dealer headline "White alleges police racism." According to the front-page story, white supremacists may have infiltrated the police force. But no one knew for sure, because no one had any proof.

Nonetheless, indeterminate racist rumblings in the police department quickly mushroomed into the most divisive news story of the year. The story actually began on Tuesday, when Mayor Michael White had his press secretary confidentially pass on information to a PD reporter about alleged white supremacist activity in the department. On Wednesday, the usually media-challenged White went on record with the newspaper he often battles, calling the situation the most serious crisis he has faced in office.

On Thursday, White conceded the newspaper story was factual. But it wasn't exactly what he had in mind.

So he summoned the media — all the media this time — to the Red Room to set The PD straight. As the noon hour approached, reporters scanned a press release with the latest version of what the mayor meant: He was responding to allegations of police racism that were brought to him by independent and news sources. He wasn't confirming them. That was the newspaper's job.

This, to White's great chagrin, was not how The PD played the story, instead casting him as the final authority on the matter. At the crowded press conference, White backpedaled on statements he made to the newspaper and pontificated on the atrocities of racism. The top brass standing at his side seemed just as blindsided by the allegations of racist graffiti and paraphernalia as their leader, the "embarrassed" and "disappointed" (though still employed) Chief Martin Flask.

Either from heat or humiliation, the command staff looked uncomfortable as the mayor implored them to remain true to their oaths in the coming days. With the reporters in the room, he was less gracious. The mayor's polite opening remarks about the PD story soon degenerated into criticism aimed directly at reporter Karin Scholz, whom White strongly insisted took his words out of context.

"I have never alleged I knew it," White said of the racist activity. "I never alleged I saw it."

Suddenly, the mayor had no proof. That burden now properly belonged to the FBI and the Justice Department, he said. And the alarming news about racists in the police department was becoming a question of whether the mayor's quotes had been taken out of context. White insisted he had been trying "for four hours" to get PD editors to review Scholz's tape-recorded interview with him. (Plain Dealer Editor Douglas Clifton did not return telephone calls Monday.)

After the mayor's harangue, reporters raised the obvious questions about his motives for bringing this to the public's attention now, in the wake of police criticism of his handling of a planned Ku Klux Klan rally. White's third-hand, unproduceable evidence hardly constituted a legitimate news story. Even more confounding was the notion that the mayor would ask a newspaper to confirm allegations of police racism before asking his own police chief.

"If the information was of substance, if it was of that serious a nature, why wouldn't they have immediately gone to the Justice Department and the FBI, and had the feds initiate an undercover investigation?" asks Councilman Michael Polensek. "Even if you had [officers engaged in subversive activities], you've now driven them underground. It seems to me you've compromised the investigation . . . You've cast a cloud over all Caucasian people in the police department."

Some of the alleged evidence also drew blanks at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across the country. Spokesman Mark Potok says no one there has ever heard of the word "Elvis" being used in conjunction with white supremacist activity, nor the seven- or eight-spoked star or "Khaos" symbol allegedly worn on police uniforms. Moreover, allegations of racism in the Cleveland Police Department are nothing new. Black Shield Association President Anthony Ruffin said black officers have been complaining about racism in the workplace for years, and some council members have been aware of it since 1997.

"Is it coincidental the Klan rally is coming up and he's taking a lot of heat over it?" asks one high-ranking cop. "This was pretty well-crafted."

One line of thought interprets White's actions as a political ploy to gain back support he may have lost in the black community as a result of his latest public feud with George Forbes over the Klan rally. Forbes, the local NAACP president, blasted the mayor after hearing that he was considering turning a police garage into a dressing room for the hate group.

At least two leaders in the black community disagree with that line of thinking. Rev. Marvin McMickle doesn't believe White's reputation has suffered because of the feud.

"I think he's doing what I would do," McMickle says. "I've not heard anybody anywhere discussing anything negative because of this. What people are distressed about is that the Klan is coming at all."

Jon Everett, publisher of the African American newspaper Cleveland Life, says the black community is not the unsophisticated monolith that many in the white community perceive. He has heard differing opinions regarding the mayor's motives, but he disagrees that White has picked this fight simply because he thinks it will be politically beneficial. Everett believes the contrary — that the mayor will suffer politically if no evidence is found.

"I don't think he would risk his political career based on one-upping George Forbes," Everett says.

Whatever the reasons for White's actions, the aftershocks have just begun.

White has ordered an internal police review and may yet draw the FBI and Justice Department into the fray. Meanwhile, the city has absorbed yet another crushing blow to race relations and police-mayor relations. It comes just weeks after Robert Beck, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, used the Klan rally to bash White. In fact, the union is currently exploring legal action to prevent the Klan from rallying here. Race relations have become a battleground: While the union is trying to keep racists out of the city, White is trying to ferret them out of the police department.

But even White has expressed doubt that investigators will find anything. Indeed, everyone seems to lose — the mayor has been exposed manipulating the media, the police department has been branded a haven for racists, and The PD has been criticized for publishing inflammatory accusations without proof.

No one has benefited — except perhaps the KKK. If its members believe Thursday's story, they might feel just a little safer next month in their robes.

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