"The Real Cleveland" Cares More About Restaurants and T-Shirts Than Black Lives and That Sucks

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EMANUEL WALLACE / SCENE
  • Emanuel Wallace / Scene
A consensus about the Saturday demonstrations in Cleveland had hardened by Sunday morning: Those who came to protest the killing of George Floyd peacefully were to be commended, but the sinister faction who turned the protest into a "riot"—those who were characterized, without evidence, as outside agitators—were to be roundly condemned.

"While we support and appreciate the public's right to protest in the face of unjust and unfair situations and thank the vast majority of protesters who came out in Cleveland and have made their voices heard peacefully," wrote Cleveland City Council leadership, (Kevin Kelley, Phyllis Cleveland and Blaine Griffin), in a statement. "We love the city of Cleveland and that's why we have no tolerance for those using this tragedy to commit criminal acts. There is a difference between protesting and criminal activity."



Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, ever the servant of and spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce set, arrived online to say more or less the same thing.

"All across our country we have seen peaceful protests turn violent and ravage the communities we hold most dear," he wrote. "In our own downtown Cleveland many businesses, restaurants, and organizations were devastated by the riots last night. Some may not recover. We must remember that this is our community and that business owners of all races are being deeply affected by the destruction. I fully support a peaceful protest and encourage you to express your desire for change. I ask that you remain peaceful and remember that when we riot we harm our friends, families, and neighbors."



Setting the patronizing tone to the side—"when we riot," Lord give me strength—comments like these articulate a hierarchy of values that has chaperoned many Clevelanders to the very brink of their breaking points. Anyone waving a sign and chanting "No Justice, No Peace" on Lakeside Saturday might have been inclined to remind Budish that the communities they hold most dear have been ravaged, too: not by riots but by publicly funded police departments. They might have tapped Kevin Kelley on the shoulder, ahemmed, and told him the system which prioritizes the integrity of downtown windows over the lives of Black people is the same system that has provoked some of them to smash those windows with baseball bats.

Only in a city like Cleveland, where performative self-love is a cherished export—indeed, where public relations has become one of government's chief functions—would it be taken for granted that having no tolerance for Saturday's vandalism is the natural corollary of loving the city, (that is, loving its central business district).

For the people demonstrating in the streets, a much more logical formulation would be: "We love the city of Cleveland, and that's why we have no tolerance for our police department killing Black people and getting away with it."  

Windows were indeed broken at downtown Cleveland businesses Saturday night. Several stores were looted and vandalized. Business owners and residents alike took to social media to convey what scanned like real fear and anxiety. (That's not to be diminished.) 

But it's important to remember that the actions of these late-night looters occurred only after a large afternoon protest turned chaotic on the steps of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center when police began firing tear gas canisters and flash grenades into the crowd. The fear and anxiety at street level, with all due respect, was orders of magnitude more acute than that which may have afflicted second-floor apartment residents locking themselves in their bathrooms. (Again, that's not to discount their fear; only to put it in perspective.) 

The window-breaking sprees resulted in the arrest of 65 people, according to the county, many of whom were alleged to be from out-of-state and all of whom are now being held at the same county jail which has been a hotbed of COVID-19 and was the site of nine deaths over seven surreal months of government inaction in 2018 and 2019, grim realities that (while we're on the subject) have inspired peaceful, and largely ineffective, local protest. 

Still, according to the enlightened local takes, the Saturday evening vandalism undermined the legitimacy of the Saturday afternoon event. This is a familiar, in fact almost default, take because our society has bent over backwards to beat into our skulls that businesses have more rights than human beings do. Look at Budish's language. He talks about downtown businesses like they're relatives with cancer. Messages like these, incidentally, from Cleveland's so-called progressive leaders, are only a few shades shy of Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk's, a few days ago. 

“If you loot, riot, and destroy you lose all moral credibility, in my eyes, to protest injustice," he wrote

Again, I think that's more or less the standard take in Cleveland. And the response has been extreme. Such is the sanctity of downtown businesses, (and/or the strength of their lobby), that Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams have made certain there would be no sequel. They announced a curfew shortly after midnight Saturday which was scheduled to last through the night and then begin again at noon on Sunday. It has now been extended through Tuesday evening. Those spotted outdoors will be subject to arrest, and all vehicles downtown will be towed. State troopers promptly set up shop at highway exits downtown and points of ingress on the near east and near west sides. The city was thrust into a state of confusion and annoyance, set to the antic tune of howling sirens, circling helicopters and buzzing amber alert notifications.   

But there was joy Sunday morning, too, if you happened to hop on social media. The good news was that Clevelanders came together to clean up Saturday's mess. Saturday had been a "sad day," according to the consensus. But Sunday morning revealed the true nature of Cleveland.  


In a Facebook post, downtown restaurant owner Doug Petkovic expressed a version of the same sentiment: "Yesterday was a sad day for many downtown small businesses like ours, but when arriving downtown and seeing what Cleveland really is, brought tears to my eyes. This community is so awesome, I couldn’t believe what I saw. People from all over Greater Cleveland out cleaning up broken glass and putting the city back together. This is the Cleveland I know, this is the Cleveland that I fell in love with. Windows will be replaced. We will all open back up. Cleveland will be stronger.”

Speaking for myself, there was something extremely gross about the way this cleanup effort was being celebrated and taking center stage. (I don't mean to belittle the losses of the businesses or to disparage the neighborly folks who pitched in. I honestly think that's great.) But the exultant, tearful postings were a little too civic-pridey on the heels of an enormous demonstration which was suddenly taking a backseat. A new narrative was taking shape: Vandalism had invalidated the protest. The cleanup effort had redeemed it.

Except now, the central message was a generic broadside about the strength and pluck of Clevelanders and not a unified demand for racial justice. The city's "true colors" were not black and brown, as it turned out.

It's not that this joint cleanup effort shouldn't be praised on specific grounds. What's bothersome is that it immediately was trumpeted by leaders and social media tastemakers as evidence of a true or real Cleveland. This reinforced the idea, by implication, that the vandals of the night before were either "outside agitators" or else illegitimate residents. No true Cleveland-til-I-die homie would ever dream of looting Colossal Cupcakes! No sir! And in an echo of comments from public leaders, this commentary offered no introspection whatsoever about what might have caused the destruction in the first place. 

That introspection is required—POUR Cleveland has provided the closest thing to a PR roadmap—and might yield the realization that, agree with them or not, there are valid tactical and moral reasons for the destruction of private property. (Don't shoot the messenger!) 

Recall, for example, that Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, the guy who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nine straight minutes, even after Floyd protested that he couldn't breathe, indeed even after Floyd no longer had a pulse, was arrested only after a night of white-hot rage and destruction in the Twin Cities. It's impossible to know whether authorities would have taken the hint and charged Chauvin with murder if the city's residents had only peacefully and politely protested for a few hours. But residents' rage, which took the form of literal flames, achieved an outcome that is almost never granted in American cities: a gesture toward police accountability. 

In Cleveland, one sign I saw Saturday was inscribed with the reminder that "power concedes nothing without demand." And given the apathy of local political leadership, to say nothing of the culture at large, in the face of demands from Black people in recent years, it's perfectly natural that these demands have escalated, that they have asserted themselves in ever more striking ways to capture public attention. (Kneeling during the national anthem didn't seem to work, for example.) "You've got to hit them where it hurts," one protester told me during demonstrations after the acquittal of officer Michael Brelo in 2015. "The pocketbook."

Reading comments from local political leaders, you'd be forgiven for thinking that protesting was an end in itself. In their conception, protesters "make their voices heard peacefully" for an hour or two on a weekend afternoon and then drive home. (In truth, this is how it goes much of the time.) But no organizer or regular protester I know is doing that exhausting work for their health. They're certainly not doing it for fun. This is maybe overkill to specify, but these folks are protesting something in particular—police brutality, inhumanity at the county jail, school shootings—and are doing so to achieve certain ends. Sometimes, "making your voice heard peacefully" is enough to raise or sustain awareness about an issue, and that's a sufficient outcome. Other times, that's nowhere near enough. City Council leaders might be shocked to know that often, the difference between protesting and criminal activity is entirely a matter of perspective. In fact, there's a huge genre of protest action that constitutes a gray area they might be interested in revisiting. It's called civil disobedience. 

Looting Geigers' and Heinen's and breaking windows along Euclid Avenue may not, of course, have been a rigorously conceived tactical maneuver to achieve certain ends. It's probably more likely that this destruction was the result of both rage and impatience built up over many years, and knee-jerk hostility to the day's violence from police.

In that case, there's a moral question worth considering, though it's way too late to do so cogently here. I'd only invite those clutching their pearls over the property destruction—which was extensive, there's no doubt—to consider the property destruction that occurs at the hands of largely white sports fans after championship victories or before Browns games. (As many others have noted, the concern for private property tends to correlate proportionally with its destruction by Black people. Destruction of Black private property was a national pasttime for decades, lest we forget, a popular tactic to ensure that they remained out of white neighborhoods.)

Whether the window-breaking and the looting was justified or appropriate can be talked about. But insinuating that this destruction was perpetrated by outside agitators, bused in from God knows which frothy imaginary anarchist farm system, minimizes the legitimate anguish that Black Clevelanders—real, flesh-and-blood Clevelanders—have experienced at the hands of local police for years.

Tanisha Anderson. Timothy Russell. Malissa Williams. Tamir Rice. Try to imagine watching all of them die at the hands of Cleveland police with such minimal accountability in the aftermath. With such slow and painstaking reform. Try to imagine living in Cleveland and watching the police mock and resist that reform to such a degree that they voted to endorse Donald Trump for president in the explicit hopes that he'd overturn the Consent Decree. Try to imagine living in that environment, and then losing your job during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then watching Derek Chauvin keep his knee on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes.

 "When the state so profoundly undermines its own legitimacy, the cost of responding in kind is defined by new calculations," wrote Zak Cheney-Rice, in New York Magazine, last week. "If a life means nothing, why should a store window or a TV? Indignation, economic desperation, and opportunism mingle in novel and combustible ways."

That combustion was evident in Cleveland Saturday, and failing to properly identify (and then work toward remediating) the various accelerants will have compounding negative effects. An eternal curfew simply will not do the trick.

I watched the protest transform from a huge spirited demonstration to a violent encounter Saturday. It's my belief that a number of factors contributed to the ultimate devolution. Among them: the size of the crowd, the weather, the anger, the momentum generated by Friday night protests elsewhere, the presence of individuals who were primed and prepared to engage with police. All of these factors were cocked and pulled by the economic precarity the pandemic has produced. I believe, therefore, that some measure of vandalism was inevitable. Maybe some banging and bashing on the Justice Center. Maybe some "ACAB" graffiti. Maybe even some broken windows in the Warehouse District. Maybe a lot more. 

But I firmly believe that the police were the final, most destructive element in this combustible mixture: the match. If not for their dramatic escalation, if not for their indiscriminate use of pepper spray, tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets, I believe the worst of Saturday night's destruction could have been avoided. 

Still, the damage was done. And it was good that downtown residents promptly assembled to clean up the glass and help the businesses board up their broken windows. A version of that same energy and urgency is required now: to curb the violence of police, to punish them for their transgressions, and to begin the long and arduous journey of admitting to and atoning for the wounds that police violence and white silence have conspired to tear open in Cleveland year after year after year after year.

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