Butthole Serfdom: Frank Jackson Will Not Reduce Police Budget, Feels No Extra Urgency

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SCREENSHOT: THE APPEAL / NOW THIS, "THE BRIEFING," 6/3/20
  • Screenshot: The Appeal / Now This, "The Briefing," 6/3/20
The fact that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson uttered the word "butthole" in a recorded national interview Wednesday should be newsworthy for no reason other than its hilarity. It is a measure of the mayor's discursive blandness that any colorful word or expression inserted into his rambling non-answers, in any venue, tend to overshadow more substantive takeaways. Who can forget when Jackson, during the Q&A of his 2016 State of the City address, (his 11th), told a CMSD high schooler: "When you put BS in, you get BS out."

(Jackson was hard selling a proposed income tax increase in 2016, incidentally, and vowed during his address that additional money from Cleveland's impoverished masses would transform the city. The substantive takeaway was that his message doubled as a threat. If Clevelanders didn't vote for an income tax increase, he suggested, they probably weren't all that committed to reform. When the income tax hike safely passed later that year, the city demonstrated its own commitment to reform by immediately authorizing a handout of nearly $100 million to Dan Gilbert for the Quicken Loans Arena upgrade.)



Make no mistake: The word butthole springing forth from the mouth of Cleveland's 74-year-old, four-term Mayor is a laugh riot. And like others, I've watched the seven-second clip repeatedly over the past 36 hours, finding myself chuckling in disbelief and something like warmth every time. Oh Frank, you old codger!

But Jackson was not calling Cleveland a "butthole city." He was correctly identifying a popular negative perception. Not that I've seen a whole lot of this online, but attempts to portray the Mayor's language as a representation of deficient leadership or a reflection of traitorous intent (lol) instead of what it was — a crass but effective way to characterize the city's image — should be ridiculed without mercy.



It is not the case, though, as the City of Cleveland argued desperately on its social channels, that "boiling down" Jackson's interview with The Appeal's Matthew Ferner to the butthole remark detracted from attention on issues of policing and the city budget. The truth is there were zero headlines on those topics after Jackson, in response to the very first question — Roughly: "Will you consider reducing the police budget and devoting additional funds to public health?" — said, and this is a direct quote, "No."

Much of the remainder of the conversation was Jackson laboring to explain why he would not reduce the police budget. This morphed seamlessly into an articulation of why Jackson would not alter the status quo in any way shape or form. And while it sounded like Jackson was rambling, saying nothing new or interesting for minutes on end in an effort to run out the clock on a difficult interview, he was actually communicating some of his strongest beliefs about leadership and Cleveland. And he was doing so, in my view, with astonishing candor and clarity. 

But the picture he painted was depressing beyond belief. A total quicksand nightmare. Civic nihilism to the nth. His deepest convictions, which he had no bones about relaying, described a reality where change isn't possible, where public leaders can't, and shouldn't, do much of anything to improve the social and economic conditions of those suffering in Cleveland. The problems are just too big, too hard, too systemic. 

"Everything that we have been successful at as a city has always been a community effort," he said. "And I find the biggest mistake a lot of people make is the assumption that government is the solution to all the problems. The reliance on government is the biggest mistake you can make.

"We would be willing to do our part," he said later, "in conjunction with a broader community effort. But we would not be willing to do something just to say we'd done something, when I know it's not going to produce any outcome."

Locals can be forgiven for tuning out. They might have chalked up the whole interview to Frank being Frank — "Noise-shaped air," one commenter wrote during the live feed — but the Mayor's remarks were met with befuddlement by the national reporter. And that's appropriate, because the Cleveland model of governance is befuddling. Locals are so inured to Jackson's shrugging fatalism and deference to the business community that they sometimes forget how absurd it is. 

"Aren't you mayor?" Ferner asked at one point, after Jackson described at length how attempts to take action on social justice issues would only be "symbolic" without contributions from the private sector and philanthropy. "Isn't that why you're elected?" "Do you not have power to adjust the city budget?"

Of course he does!

But Jackson does this finger-wagging thing where he claims that any attempt by the city to change things — anything at all! — would only be incremental without buy-in from the private sector. Jackson didn't seem entirely content with this dynamic — he referred to it as "the beast" — but the impression he conveyed was that he was hostage to it. In fact, we all are. There's nothing to be done except work within this system to chip away at injustice, at best to "leverage dollars."

This is defeatist drivel. Stockholm Syndrome shit. It's submission to a dynamic where the private sector calls the shots. And if the past 40 years have been any guide, the private sector's main preoccupation is securing millions of dollars in public money for tax abatements and other subsidies for real estate development. This is what's celebrated as "public-private partnerships."

Even if a publicly beneficial program emerges from this arrangement (lead abatement, to take a recent example), it's only because of momentum external to City Hall. Jackson's idea of "being willing to do our part," presupposes that someone else is asking them to. This is exactly backwards! Jackson decries the assumption that government is a solution to all problems, and to the extent that assumption exists, it may be misplaced. But it's a hell of a lot better than Jackson's own position, which is that government is a solution to waste collection.

During his latter terms in office, this has been one of the Mayor's favored leitmotifs. It's paralysis masquerading as pragmatism. It's a reflexively defensive position, and it's infuriating not only because he's passing the buck but because he assumes a position of moral superiority while doing so. All attempts to make change are doomed to fail without private money, he believes, therefore the attempts themselves can only be a kind of performance. Self-aggrandizement. This is insulting, of course, but also wrong.

The existence of larger problems does not invalidate attempts to find solutions to smaller ones. Executives sometimes call this "making perfect the enemy of good." The fact that super-polluting transnational corporations are most responsible for climate change does not mean we should throw up hands and stop reducing, reusing and recycling. The threat of nuclear war does not mean we shouldn't pursue better representation on the local school board. The fact that the criminal justice system is corrupt to the core does not mean we should continually work to improve policing. But Jackson seems to think that it does.

What is your role as Mayor, then? Ferner wanted to know.

Jackson said his job was to use the bully pulpit to communicate what we all should be doing as a city. (It's superfluous to note that none of us have any idea what he thinks we should be doing as a city because he has fully abdicated the bully pulpit. He's been a non-presence for years. When he does pop up, it's usually to restate his inability to do anything.) Take, for example, the current crucial moment of compounding national crises. Moments after he said his job was using the bully pulpit, Jackson declared, "I have no additional sense of urgency." 

Stunning. Simply stunning.

The mayor's disquisition on incremental vs. sustainable change had one interesting wrinkle: He now purports to embrace the Cleveland Division of Police's Consent Decree with the Department of Justice as a "blueprint" for effective systemic change. In fact, during the interview, Jackson told Ferner that the big reason he wouldn't reduce the police budget — he's increasing it by more than $10 million this year — is to pay for specialized training and other deliverables as mandated by the settlement agreement. 

"You need an overall blueprint," Jackson said, "a framework that holds you accountable for reform, and it has to change the culture of policing."

This was an example of actual, sustainable change, according to the Mayor. (Though for the record, it's not like philanthropic dollars contributed to the DOJ report which led to the Consent Decree.)

The reason why this is a wrinkle is because back in 2014 and 2015, Jackson was making the same sort of excuses and fatalistic commentary about police reform that he was making on Wednesday. The DOJ report which found a pattern and practice of unconstitutional police conduct was riddled with inaccuracies, he said, though he never elaborated on those. The Consent Decree itself didn't go far enough. It would not lead to real change because it failed to take on the police union arbitrators. The Consent Decree was an example, back then, of incremental, purely symbolic change.

And by the way there were no systemic issues in the Cleveland Division of Police, according to Jackson. The crosstown chase and gang murder of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams (#137shots)? The murders of Tanisha Anderson? Tamir Rice? These were merely individual errors. The system was just fine. That was literally Jackson's stance! 

It's clear that this is how he views his role: to argue that change is not possible; to expose omnipotent systems only to uphold them; to cede the designation and execution of Cleveland's priorities — that is, leadership — to the private sector.

The butthole frenzy can be partially explained in this context. The memes and the jabs and the videos are funhouse reflections of Jackson's own nihilism. Westlake residents may be sweating about Cleveland's "image" because the Mayor said a funny word, but Cleveland residents who have been emotionally pummeled and spiritually exhausted by 15 years of Frank Jackson can do little, anymore, but laugh and Tweet through it. 

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