Tag Archives: Ferguson

From Cleveland to Ferguson, with love

I am watching Twitter and TV, where rage spills onto the streets of Missouri like gasoline. But my heart is not in Ferguson tonight.

My heart (and my body) are in the town where I was born. As I prepare for a holiday dinner with my family, in downtown Cleveland people are using their bodies to block traffic on the freeway, and to stop business as usual on Public Square.

Cleveland is a hard-luck town. A depopulated, post-industrial, majority-black city, half of the families here make less than $25,000 a year. The kind of college-educated activism that has other communities taking to the streets is rare and thin in Cleveland: folk here are too busy trying to hold body and soul together though a long, grey winter of lake-effect snow to go protest about anything.

Peter Fong PDBut Tamir Rice died Sunday.  He was shot to death by a police officer who assumed a pellet gun was a real firearm, and that the 12 year old child holding it was a man. Rice died less than one week after a $3 million dollar settlement award was made for the 2013  wrongful deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the unarmed couple who were shot 137 times by Cleveland Police officers while they were still inside their car.

People in Cleveland are just as angry and weary of police violence as the people of Sanford, Florida or New York City or Ferguson, Missouri. But they did not riot.  They did not hold a press conference filled with back-up bodies from out of town holding poignant signs. Their focus was not the surrender of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

They did what Clevelanders know how to do best. They spoke aloud their anguish, and  then used their bodies and courage to bend the public will. They stood across the interstate and sang out clearly what they wanted: “No prisons. No cops. The violence must stop.”  Like a funeral cortege that blocks traffic for a mile, they required every driver to pause and acknowledge death’s presence. They insisted that the extrajudicial killings of black people be at least an hour of inconvenience, rather than just another momentary drive-by through other people’s pain as broadcast on the evening news. They physically claimed the public square to embody the powerful act of refusal, rather than simply speaking truth to some outside power.

People in Cleveland did not riot, although they have every reason to.  Like Ferguson, Cleveland is a city starkly segregated by race and class. When Clevelanders gathered at a forum at Cudell Community Center to ask questions about the death of Tamir Rice, they openly mourned and openly demanded accountability from their Mayor and local police.  They spoke with authority to the notion that black-on-black violence is the greatest threat to black lives:  “To us mothers who are losing children, it seems to me that the police are the biggest gang.”

But in Cleveland, there have been no riots because Cleveland is not Ferguson. This is true, in part, because what Cleveland wants is something more tangible than to raise a voice of protest.  Clevelanders know that the police officer who stood on the hood of Timothy Russell’s car and fired 15 shots into his already lifeless body was indicted on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, and they want to see his trial. Clevelanders know that the 63 other officers involved in Russell’s death have been suspended while a federal investigation takes place, and they want to see this process result in more than slaps on the wrist.

This is also true because Police Chief Calvin Williams listened to angry, grieving parents and released the film of the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice. He responded to calls for greater accountability with a public promise to the citizens of Cleveland that their police will be equipped with body cameras within the next 12 weeks. As a black man, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has admitted he knows how people are indeed treated differently by police based on what they look like and who they are; and he also described how hard he has worked to reform the way the police department operates in spite of repeated legal and institutional barriers.  He asked those who came to protest where were their voices for change when he was being rebuffed in this effort to make the police serve the citizens of this city.

No matter where I may live, I am forever made of this complicated town. My earliest memories are of the long, hot summer when the Hough neighborhood went up in flames over a history of segregation enforced by police violence.  Fifty years later, we watch that neighborhood still struggle to find rebirth; although segregation and police violence persist, we are not eager to repeat that history.

So, as I watch young people’s rage spills onto the streets of Missouri like gasoline, I do not look to my hometown for a spark.

Here, in the city that owns my heart, we will bury another black child. We will understand our place in the roll call of shame, adding names to the list of state sanctioned murders of black children and black young men.  But Cleveland is unlikely to join the youthful fires of protest.

This city of rust and unbreakable soul will use its grief and discipline to do what it has always done: to slowly and inexorably make change.  We are makers, we people from Cleveland. We once bent steel and the backs of men into the beating heart of industry. We will bring that same strength and persistence to the long work of building a new kind of community, using the heat of our sadness and anger to forge a different way forward.

This essay was published 11/28/14  in BELT Magazine.

#ResultsMatter

This  post of mine  originally appeared  on the blog of the Interaction Institute for Social  Change:

I struggle to find my place in this year of insurrection against the state sanctioned murders of young black men. My knees are too old to run from riot police, my lungs too scarred to survive teargas. I’m wrestling with what it means to be a 50-year-old black American woman who has inherited the benefits of civil rights advancement, and upon whose shoulders the next generations should safely and securely stand. And I am struggling with what it means to have failed.

I have failed to properly name the extrajudicial killings of Sean Bell in 2006 and Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Jonathan Ferrell in 2013 and Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown and Darrien Hunt in 2014, and I have failed to stop their deaths. I wasn’t there bravely sewing letters on a banner to be dropped in protest that stitched past and present together: “a man was lynched today.” I have failed the memory of 41 bullets striking the body of Amadou Diallo in 1999; failed the decapitated body of James Byrd, dragged to death behind a truck, in 1989. Most of all, I have failed to be watchful and articulate after the revenge killing of Michael Donald in 1981, that moment which destroyed the private club of the Ku Klux Klan and left its role to be taken up by the state.

I want to believe that I stand in solidarity with young activists in Ferguson, but their very existence indicts me.

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I am part of a generation that believed that black people needed “voice”. We invested in institutions that promised to advocate on our behalf and to win. Today, still receiving mail from these organizations, I wonder how can they claim success? Why aren’t they amplifying younger, more urgent, voices? Today’s young people need voice, but what they need more is power.

Meanwhile, the same old Jim Crow that reconstructed himself from the ashes of slavery has been uninterrupted in his work. He has brought back the vagrancy stop-and-frisk pipeline to the chain gang. He has dusted off his shoulders and dares to call himself “New.”

Results matter. They are not optional or aspirational. Without results, people I love will continue to die. We social justice workers often emphasize careful attention to process, because just ends can only be achieved by just means.  But just results also matter. We often emphasize cultivating relationships of solidarity and reciprocity, sometimes so emphatically it seems that “relationship” is all that matters. But results matter. Finishing the job of making it legal to be a young black man on a public street in the United States America, matters.

If you listen closely, you can hear our young in Ferguson reminding us: We have no time for voices and processes and relationships that do not yield meaningful change. Results always matter. Because black lives, our lives, matter.

 

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