Guest Editorial: A Political History of Cleveland's Travesty in the Wake of the Brelo Verdict

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Lewis
  • Lewis
By Leah C.K. Lewis

Last Thursday a friend called saying, “Did you see Roland Martin? They’re talking about Cleveland.” Busy woman that I am, I had not. 

Thankfully, my friend recorded the program during which Martin expressed to his guests how bewildered he was by the state of affairs in Cleveland. He could not understand why residents were not protesting, en masse, the deaths of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, and Tamir Rice (to name just a few) at the hands of Cleveland police officers.

Two days later, on Saturday, May 23, Judge John P. O’Donnell released his judgment of not guilty for Police Officer (yes, he remains on the force) Michael Brelo, who fired 49 of the 137 shots aimed at Russell and Williams in 2012.

Yet, the expression of mass outcry that Martin queried about still had not come. On the day the verdict was announced, protests occurred in Cleveland and 71 people were arrested. At the time of this writing protests continue and more are in the works. Even so, Cleveland did not and probably will not experience riots of the magnitude witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore.

I surmise that Martin was searching for answers as to why Clevelanders appeared apathetic or unorganized. First, let me convey that there are passionate, long-standing activists in this community. People like members of the Carl Stokes Brigade and Puncture The Silence CLE, and individuals including Julia Shearson of the Center for American-Islamic Relations and Bill Swain have been on the case along with a cadre of clergy, college students, particularly from nearby Oberlin College, and other groups and individuals.

Yet Cleveland appears very different from other cities devastated by blatant acts of police brutality. With Judge O’Donnell’s shady verdict, the question moved from why is Cleveland not aflame to “How did this happen?” The “this” is two-part: One, how did O’Donnell find Brelo “not guilty”? Two, why was Brelo the only officer tried? As tends to be the case, the answers are found in history.

Cleveland was the site of two notable “race” conflicts in the 1960s, and the police were involved in both. Substantial numbers of Cleveland’s population have not forgotten the Hough Riots or the Glenville Shootout. Having watched recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and even Los Angeles after the merciless beating of Rodney King, most Clevelanders have less than zero appetite for riot. While some have claimed the anthem “No Justice, No Peace” most Clevelanders hold an ideology that eschews destroying your own neighborhood in the quest for justice.

This is Cleveland’s version of “politics of respectability.” Trust me when I tell you, politics and respectability mean a great deal in this town. More to the point, politics and respectability are tools used to control the masses (hence, no rioting) and to establish social class and electoral politics.

Without question, politics is a tremendous part of the equation in analyzing the legal system that perverted justice for Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. We know that African Americans have been denied respect and partiality in the criminal justice system since our ancestors touched its shores in 1619. With respect to the present case, we need not look any further than the 2012 election for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor.

This race was contested on the Democratic side with a crowded field of five candidates including the winner, Timothy McGinty, an appointed incumbent, and runner-up Stephanie Hall, an African American attorney and member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. McGinty, a former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge, went on to beat Independent candidate Ed Wade, an African American Howard University School of Law-trained defense attorney (I too am an alumnus). Cuyahoga County is overwhelmingly Democratic. Republicans are seldom relevant here.

For African Americans in the know, grave concern was had about McGinty. His judicial record of incarcerating African Americans, Latinos, and Hispanics was legendary. Of all the candidates he was by far the worst potential outcome for people of color as captured in commentary by local activist Kathy Wray Coleman.

Nonetheless, McGinty won the 2012 Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s race for two reasons—money and “the Machine.” Money and the political machine that is the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party have proven to be lethal mechanisms in these recent times of trouble and attempts at progress for African Americans, who, by the way, vote overwhelmingly Democratic in this county, like so many others, too.

The Cuyahoga County Democratic Party also plays respectability politics. Without question, a hierarchy exists and foot soldiers—elected public officials and low-level operatives—are expected to toe-the-line, wait your turn, and keep your mouth shut unless you are telling lies to discredit an undesirable, non-compliant, or threateningly competent candidate.

(For full disclosure, I am a registered Democrat and an elected official. I, however, do not fit in well, as I am progressive and a critical thinker with an independent and activist spirit and curriculum vita. Perhaps that is obvious from this piece. I am most interested in serving “we the people” righteously regardless of the perceived “cost.” Forsaking my truth and integrity is the only dynamic that equates to “cost” by my personal definition. Unfortunately, mine is a rare profile in Cuyahoga County. It is the status quo, which I have described above, that allows oppressive political and social structures to persist in Cleveland. More often than not, residents willingly participate in these structures or, as the only perceived viable alternative, opt out (this is the de facto vote that I speak of). A staunch minority seeks to change the systems and they are the city’s small, persistent activists who are striving for holistic reform, justice, and recognition of everyone’s humanity and dignity.)

McGinty and O’Donnell, systems-keepers, are but two individuals who represent a close-knit Irish-American network that essentially controls Cleveland judicial system and police force. I must note that Cuyahoga County is larger than Cleveland. So while Cleveland is a city where the majority of its residents are of color, that is not the case with the County. Cleveland would be better off with a city prosecutor, like in Baltimore, allowing for a prosecutor and system to be more reflective of and attentive to its people.

For Cleveland’s majority population of color, Democratic candidate Stephanie Hall and Independent Ed Wade, presumably, would have been better prosecutors. With African Americans in high places, I always vet them through the filter of Zora Neale Hurston’s comment, “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” I have encountered both candidates personally, to varying degrees, and doubt that Mother Zora’s adage applies to either Hall or Wade. Now, I cannot assert that either would be as stalwart in seeking justice for victims of police brutality as Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, but I can contend that McGinty is the Anti-Mosby. Indeed, McGinty is the antithesis of Mosby in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and legal and “racial” ideology.

So, at the end of the day, who is to blame for the verdict that allowed Michael Brelo to go free and the decision not to prosecute the twelve other officers involved in the wanton murders of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell? Those who voted for McGinty and O’Donnell by casting votes for them and those who “voted” by default by not voting at all.

Be mad if you want too. March and protest if you want too. But if you voted for McGinty or did not vote at all, the injustice dealt to Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell rest on your hands as well as the 13 officers involved in the shooting, the brass of the Cleveland Police Department, members of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office, Tim McGinty and John O’Donnell. With actual and de facto votes, the morally corrupt political systems of Cuyahoga County would not—could not exist.

Next time, get up on the candidates, attend the Democratic Club functions, witness the candidates for yourself, do not rely solely on endorsements from your Party or federal representatives. Support those who love and demand righteousness, justice, and decency. #StayWoke. #BlackLivesMatter. #HumanStriving.    

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min., (ABD), is a minister, councilwoman, author, animation producer, and literary activist. She recently completed her dissertation on sex and sexuality in the African American Baptist Church and a manuscript on legal, religious, and political rhetoric pertinent to “race.” Follow her @HumanStriving and on SoundCloud.com/Reverend-Leah-CK-Lewis.


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