Black Cleveland Gripped with Redefining Strained Relationship with Police

Black Cleveland Gripped with Redefining Strained Relationship with Police

Facing increasing violence in the community, residents find themselves at the intersection of a need for law enforcement and an erosion of trust in it

by Afi Scruggs, September 29, 2015

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Black Cleveland Gripped with Redefining Strained Relationship with Police

Photo Credit: Afi Scruggs

It's been almost a year since Cleveleand police fatally shot Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who had played with a replica gun in a city park.  But the recent rallies here aren't mentioning Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who shot the youngster, nor the investigation stalled at the county prosecutors office.

 Instead, the chants are directed at the shooters who killed Ramon Burnett, 5, who was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight as he played football Sept. 4; and Major Howard, 3, who was fatally wounded Sept. 15 as he sat in a parked car that was hit in a  drive-by.



The unrelated incidents were not anomalies.  On Sunday, Sept. 28, Sidney Smith died when bullets came flying into her living room about 2:30. Police believe her death was related to a shooting hours earlier at a nightclub in downtown Cleveland.

Although the deaths of drive-by victims seem diametrically opposed to the killing of Tamir Rice, the situations illustrate the dilemma many African American communities face when it comes to law enforcement: how to craft a relationship with an institution that protects in some instances and seemingly persecutes in others.

The community's reliance on the police protection against so-called "black on black crime" has become part of the national conversation over issues of police brutality. In a New York Times editorial, Michael Javen Fortner invoked Tamir Rice's name when arguing that blacks should focus on inter-community violence than police use of force.

"The number of black males killed by police officers continues to rise: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice," Fortner wrote. "But many more still die at the hands of black neighbors instead of the police. Yet today we rarely ask politicians to speak their names or recognize their dignity and worth."

Rev. Larry Harris, the pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Cleveland, says the question has long been a part of the Black experience in America.

"I'm 65 and I came up knowing that you're not always going to get a fair shake from the police," said Smith, who helped officiate at Ramon Burnett's funeral. "However, I would never want to live in a neighborhood that does not have police."

But Smith explained the Black community must hold police to a standard, while simultaneously standing against violence in the community.

"We need someone other than ourselves to police our neighborhoods, yet I have some responsibility in policing our neighborhoods,” he said.

In Cleveland, Rice's death soured an already difficult relationship.  The boy was shot just seconds after Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, answered a call about a person playing with a gun at a local park.  The findings of Department of Justice investigation into the police department's use of force in another case – the shootings of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in 2012, stoked anger after the DOJ found the department too often used "unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution," its report said.

But the antipathy toward police did not temper to outrage over the killings of Ramon Burnett and Major Howard.  Vigils were held for both youngsters and activists with long histories of fighting gang violence began to urge residents to share any information on the shooting with police.  Police arrested and charged two suspects in Ramon Burnett's death. They're still looking for another suspect in Major Howard's killing.

 Howard’s death moved Jacques Smith, Robert Mathis and Rev. David Guffey to organize community rallies just blocks from spot where the youngster died.

The trio came together as "fathers and men," Smith said. "We wanted to show that we care about our community and… we can't tolerate the gun violence anymore and the senseless killing of our babies."

Smith estimated 150 folks attended the second rally, which was held on Sept. 26. He said police assigned to the event provided protection, directed traffic – and chanted with participants who were calling for "#Peace4Cleveland. "

"The police were right there with us on Saturday," he said.

Smith believes residents' attitudes toward law enforcement have softened as well. "When we were thanking the police (at the rally), everyone was clapping," Smith said. "You could tell the residents appreciate the good police that we have."

But he also believes the community is not willing to let bygones be bygones; the death of Tamir Rice still hurts, he said.  If anything, Smith sees a similarity in the way the Rice and Howard were killed instantaneously.

"Before (police) knew who Tamir was, guns were drawn and shots were fired and they didn't take the time to look into the situation." Smith said. "What the police did was gun violence was well." 

Afi-Odelia Scruggs writes about social justice, race and identity issues. Follow her on Twitter at @aoscruggs and at www.aoscruggs.com.





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