Moth Studio (Building) / Adam Maida (Mural) / Courtesy: Serial
Serial's sixth episode
is framed as the beginning of the third season's second half, which will shift the spotlight from the Cuyahoga County Justice Center itself — its convolved mechanisms, protocols and persons of authority — to those who have "deep roots" in the system. Stories will now center on the victims; that is, those whom the system continues to chew up but never quite spits out.
Ep. 6 takes us away from downtown Cleveland and into the gnarly corruption and egregious incompetence of East Cleveland. Not like this will be surprising, but boy
does the city look bad under a microscope.
"It felt like East Cleveland had given up on basic governance," says reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi early on. "It felt like something out of I Am Legend.
Dzotsi leads the reporting efforts in Ep. 6, following a man named Jesse Nickerson after he appears
to have successfully won a case against two East Cleveland police officers. After an arrest in 2016, the officers took Nickerson to Forest Hills Park and beat him up before taking him to jail. As Sarah Koenig says, the case seemed like a victory: The officers were promptly fired and they later plead guilty to charges
in 2017. One, Denayne Dickson, a former linebacker in the Arena Football League, was sentenced to two years in prison.
But as Dzotsi discovers, Nickerson's life becomes one of (legitimate) paranoia and fear. Dickson has friends on the force and throughout East Cleveland, and they make Nickerson continually aware that he is unwelcome. He is trailed by cop cars — one in particular, who menacingly circles Nickerson and Dzotsi during
an interview — and is frequently harassed. Dzotsi plays the audio of dash cam footage when cops come to break up a 4th of July street party and zero in on Nickerson.
"You in the red shirt," one officer says, (in a quote that became the Episode's title), "get the fuck out of E.C."
Nickerson's harassment ultimately bears a striking resemblance to another East Cleveland case of officer misconduct, one that Sarah Koenig walks us through. She seems baffled to report the hideous details of the treatment of a man named Arnold Black. "It's crazy," she says, "and it just gets crazier."
Black was driving on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland when he was stopped by two officers — a uniformed cop and a plainclothes detective — who cuffed him, aggressively searched his vehicle for drugs and then beat him up when they realized he wasn't the guy they were looking for. (His head was injured so badly that to this day, he has to get his skull drained of excess fluids. His memory is poor and his personality has changed, his relatives say.)
After his beating, Black is taken to the East Cleveland jail and shoved in a storage locker — basically a cleaning closet — where he is held for four days
without a bathroom and only a single carton of milk for sustenance.
When he gets a Civil Rights lawyer and seeks a major settlement after his ordeal, additional horrors are revealed: The use of force by E.C. officers to "compel information from witnesses" and to "instill fear and submission" is just standard operating procedure. "Nothing that happened to Arnold Black was unusual."
Worse still, the Mayor (Brandon King, presumably) and the Police Chief know all about it. They routinely edit dash cam footage. And in keeping with the city's (sometimes strategic) incompetence, they keep no documentation of anything. Basic crime stats, disciplinary reports, arrest reports: none of it appears to exist. And after major civil rights violations of the Arnold Black variety, the city's practice is to plead poverty and try to settle for minor sums. Twenty-five thousand dollars, say, or $50,000 in Black's case.
"We're in fiscal emergency," East Cleveland's lawyers would say, "you know we can't pay [a major settlement]."
Black's lawyer is regarded as crazy by his peers for taking on the case. Serial polled 11 attorneys, Koenig says, and 10 said they never bother with cases out of East Cleveland because they're just not worth it. "It's a bitch," one says. "There's no reward," says another. But Black's lawyer maintains that if you play for peanuts — minor settlements — you'll only get peanuts. You'll never get change. (Black was awarded $22 million in a jury trial, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and the case is still up in the air.)
We return to Nickerson's case. Dzotsi is alarmed one day when he goes to report on a hearing, and Nickerson disappears from the courtroom. He tries to track him down and learns that Nickerson has been arrested for some bogus previous charge. It is four days
before he hears from him again. Over the phone, Dzotsi tries to get to the bottom of why he was arrested, but Nickerson is trying to tell him something else: He was held in a broom closet, he says. "I had to use my sock to wipe my ass. I had to piss and shit in a locker."
The misadventures of Jesse Nickerson will continue in next week's episode.