Brelo Decision Presents a Crucial Organizing Moment for Young Black Clevelanders

Many expected the city of Cleveland to erupt after watching Judge John O’Donnell pronounce Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo “not guilty” in the November 29, 2014, killing of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams with 137 gunshots.

Seeking to prevent Cleveland from becoming the next city to explode, Mayor Frank Jackson released a public letter in late April assuring residents that he and the police were prepared to address any scenario. Several days before O’Donnell’s May 23 decision from his Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court bench, The Washington Post published a story with a headline that asked, “Will Cleveland riot if a police officer is found not guilty?”

I wondered the same, so, I decided to drive from Ann Arbor to Cleveland to see how residents would protest the verdict. Once I arrived at the Justice Center, a young organizer from the local nationalist organization, Black Man Army (BMA), greeted me and enthusiastically started talking about the day’s actions. He told me a short history of racial strife in Cleveland since the 1960s and quickly segued into a discussion of Rodney King and other instances of police brutality throughout the United States. He made one comment that really struck me, “This is our Hough!”

The organizer symbolically referred to the 1966 Hough neighborhood uprising in response to violent conflicts between the city’s Black and white residents and racial inequality in Cleveland. I thought skeptically, “Is this really the next Hough?”

Racial tensions gripped the Hough neighborhood in the months preceding the July 1966 uprising. Historian Leonard Moore reports a series of incidents of violent conflicts between white and Black residents leading up to July in his book Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Political Power. The neighborhood’s Black population also suffered from the effects of racial segregation and inequality. Almost 90 percent of Hough’s residents were Black.

Black residents in Hough made almost $3,000 less than Clevelanders living outside of the neighborhood. African Americans living in Hough also suffered from greater unemployment and infant mortality. Whites owned many of the neighborhood’s businesses. Hough contained a majority of the Cleveland’s welfare cases, and its residents endured more crime. The neighborhood’s Black residents experienced heavy policing as a result.

Fever Pitch in 1966 Hough Neighborhood

The city’s racial tensions reached a fever pitch on July 18, 1966, when Black residents violently protested an instance of racism perpetrated by a local bar owner. The arrival of the police escalated the protests. Protestors looted and burned several stores. They also engaged in violent skirmishes with police officers. On the uprising’s second day, Mayor Ralph Locher called in 1,000 soldiers from the National Guard to suppress rioters. After six days, four people were killed, hundreds were arrested, and the city suffered over $1 million in property damage. The uprising signaled the end of Locher’s career, as the city’s business elite withdrew its support. Business leaders shifted their support behind State Representative Carl Stokes, the man Clevelanders elected as the city’s first Black mayor in 1967.

Mayor Jackson, Cleveland officials and The Washington Post had every right to concern themselves with the prospect of violence after O’Donnell’s verdict, especially after Baltimore’s rebellion. The BMA activist’s reference to the Brelo decision as “their Hough” could be prescient. Conditions for revolt – racial and class segregation, inequality, and oppression – are present in Cleveland.

According to a study conducted by scholars John Logan and Brian Stults, Cleveland ranked as the third most racially segregated city in the US. In last year’s State of Black America report, the National Urban League found that the Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor area was among the most unequal in income parity between African Americans and whites. According to the Center for Community Solutions, an Ohio-based nonpartisan think tank, whites earn over $12,000 a year more than African Americans. African Americans in Cleveland also tend to suffer more from joblessness and poverty – 26 percent of Cleveland’s Black population are jobless, and 42 percent live in poverty. Seventy-three percent of those incarcerated in Cuyahoga County are African American.

Historically, when uprisings occur, the impetus is often police incidents, or state violence. The recent killings of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson illustrate how Cleveland’s Black population is at risk. The Department of Justice’s scathing report on the city’s police practices supports this assumption. In December 2014, the DOJ concluded that “structural and systemic deficiencies – including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement with the community – contribute to the use of unreasonable force.” The DOJ found that Cleveland officers often resorted to unconstitutional acts of deadly force. They also engaged in unnecessary, less lethal forms of force, including excessive use of pistol whippings, tasers and chemical spray, even against those living with mental illness.

Is the Brelo decision Black Clevelanders’ Hough? Not yet. Hundreds of people responded to the verdict Saturday by marching, protesting downtown and the Justice Center and blocking a highway, but the mobilization remained mostly nonviolent. Members of the Greater Cleveland Congregation marched in downtown Cleveland on Tuesday. Saturday night’s mass arrests and the city of Cleveland’s and the Department of Justice’s announcement of their plan for police reform may have momentarily prevented the outbreak of collective violence.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Mayor Jackson and US Attorney Steven Dettelbach called the consent decree “historic,” as they tried to position Cleveland as a potential leader of reform. The package of reforms is more comprehensive than those of other cities ordered to change their police practices such as Los Angeles, Seattle and Detroit. The reforms focus on community policing, greater community input and civilian oversight, and mental health training and crisis intervention techniques. Some changes demanded in the decree, such as refraining from pistol whipping and employing verbal de-escalation techniques, appear painfully obvious to the nonexpert.

I engaged a couple of protestors in a conversation about how to proceed after the intense demonstration at the Justice Center on Saturday evening. One Black activist implored that others go into Black communities because that is where a potential movement against police brutality would find its power. He was not alone as other marchers demanded that the crowd take their protest to the neighborhoods.

The Brelo decision, and the recently announced consent decree, present a crucial opportunity for young Black Clevelanders to further organize. Pushing city government and the police department beyond the reforms contained in the consent decree could help create lasting structural change. Although the city’s religious community and civil rights establishment remain important in the struggle because they possess the human, organizational and financial resources to mobilize Clevelanders, it is important for populations more at risk with experiencing police brutality to leverage their own voices in the process.

The DOJ’s report and decree also underscore the need for Clevelanders to explore creating a citizen-based independent police monitoring group. With the CPD’s history of brutality, establishing a citizen’s cop watch may better serve Cleveland’s Black population. However, such a program would not be limited to watching cops and advocating for those brutalized by police. This organization could also monitor the city’s implementation of the consent decree. With enough organization and strength, an independent and external institution could help ensure community participation and police and municipal accountability.

While the Brelo verdict did not spark the next Hough, the BMA activist’s historical reference was symbolic and important. The 1966 Hough rebellion paved the way for the city’s election of Carl Stokes, its first African-American mayor. It also allowed Stokes to raise over $1 million dollars as part of a long-term economic plan – Cleveland: NOW! – for revitalizing the city. The Brelo decision could represent another car in the long train of police abuses against the city’s Black community that sparks another rebellion. It could also serve as a call to reform the city’s police practices and open up a conversation about redistributing the fruits of downtown development to the Cleveland’s Black neighborhoods. If young Clevelanders take the lead in forging an independent voice in the process, they could help to create a lasting impact that may surpass that of the 1966 Hough uprising.