Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cleveland Streets Are Calm, but Anger Lingers Day After Officer’s Acquittal
New York Times
MAY 24, 2015

CLEVELAND — The 10 a.m. service at Elizabeth Baptist Church should have been a joyous occasion. It was Pentecost Sunday. The weather was beautiful. Worshipers applauded schoolchildren who received A’s and B’s on their report cards.

But 24 hours before the congregants gathered to sing hymns and take communion, a judge had acquitted a Cleveland police officer of manslaughter for his role in a car pursuit that ended with two unarmed black people fatally shot. The not-guilty verdict sparked demonstrations Saturday that began in orderly fashion but ended with dozens of arrests and prompted conversations at Elizabeth and across Cleveland about the city’s racial disparities.

Cleveland’s streets had calmed by Sunday morning, but many at Elizabeth suggested that the verdict had only exacerbated tensions between the justice system and this city’s African-American population. The Rev. Richard M. Gibson, the church’s pastor, said from the pulpit that the acquittal had left him angry, and eager for systemic change to the police and the courts.

“We cannot allow what has happened to go forward on our watch,” Pastor Gibson told his mostly black congregation.

Elizabeth is among roughly 40 faith groups that are part of Greater Cleveland Congregations, an organization that has called for drastic changes in how the law is administered here. Many members of Elizabeth say they live in a city where the system is rigged against black people, a perspective that has received increased attention amid heightened scrutiny of the Cleveland police and officer-involved shootings.

The verdict came as the city awaits a decision from prosecutors on whether to charge the officer who last year shot and killed Tamir Rice, 12, who was playing with a replica gun near a playground, and the officer who restrained Tanisha Anderson, 37. Ms. Anderson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and heart disease, died after she was restrained face down on the pavement.

Those cases have also drawn national attention, and Tamir’s name was chanted repeatedly Saturday. Many critics of the police say they fear that the verdict bodes poorly for the chances of convictions in the other cases.

Cleveland is also in negotiations with the Justice Department for a consent decree that would mandate changes to the city’s police. A federal report found last year that Cleveland officers engaged in a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.”

Officer Michael Brelo, the patrolman acquitted on Saturday, was one of several officers who fired a combined 137 shots at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in a car chase on Nov. 29, 2012. Police said they believed gunfire was coming from Mr. Russell’s car during the pursuit, but he and Ms. Williams were later found to be unarmed. Officer Brelo was singled out for the manslaughter charges because he climbed onto the hood after the pursuit ended and fired at least 15 rounds into the car, which prosecutors claimed was unjustified. In his acquittal, a judge ruled that Officer Brelo had feared for his life and that his actions were protected by law.

Though Cleveland’s population has a black majority, and though the mayor and the police chief are black, many African-Americans here say racial tensions and mistrust of law enforcement are common. Some speak of “two Clevelands” — a mostly white city with a bustling downtown and increased commercial development, and a mostly black one where schools are struggling and crime rates are high, and the police are not trusted.

That dichotomy was on display Saturday night as more than 100 protesters, many of them black, blocked traffic and chanted downtown about the verdict and broader perceived injustices. As the police followed the march, the protesters passed group after group of patrons dining outside at fashionable restaurants. Most of the diners were white, and many had come downtown for a Cleveland Indians baseball game. The protesters walked past many such places without incident, but at one point, the police said, a protester threw a sign at a restaurant patron. At other times, baseball fans loudly suggested that the protesters go home.

As the evening progressed and tensions rose, officers ordered demonstrators to leave. Most did not do so, and the police said 71 were arrested, many on charges of aggravated rioting and obstruction of justice.

“We only moved in to make arrests when things got violent and protesters refused to disperse,” Police Chief Calvin D. Williams said. “We want people to understand we’re going to help you in this process, but if things turn violent in this situation, we will take action.”

Despite Saturday’s flare-ups, Cleveland has mostly avoided the violent unrest seen in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man last year, and Baltimore, where a black man died after being injured in a police van. Cleveland officials have worked with clergy members and other community leaders in hopes of staving off violence, and the efforts seem to have worked so far.

Greater Cleveland Congregations, the group Elizabeth belongs to, released a statement after the verdict, seeking broad changes to the region’s justice system. The statement mentioned high incarceration rates, racial disparities in arrests and felonies for nonviolent offenders. The congregations group, which is a local chapter of the national Industrial Areas Foundation, also seeks a consent decree between the Justice Department and the Cleveland police.

“I am certain that things are going to change in this community,” Pastor Gibson said from the pulpit Sunday. “I am certain that there will be leadership change in this city.”

But after the service, Pastor Gibson said he was unsure that the city’s leadership was truly committed to change. In news conferences over the weekend, Mayor Frank Jackson repeatedly said that the city welcomed peaceful protests, and that he believed demonstrations could lead to meaningful changes. Through a spokesman, he declined an interview request Sunday seeking further details. Some protesters have spoken in support of an effort to recall the mayor.

In the case involving Officer Brelo, the city has settled wrongful death lawsuits brought by the couple’s families for $3 million. Seventy-five officers have been disciplined for their roles in the chase and the shooting. An internal review that was paused during the trial was expected to resume after the verdict. Officer Brelo will remain on unpaid leave until the review is completed.

After church on Sunday, many at Elizabeth Baptist said they were disappointed in his acquittal, but far from shocked. That lack of surprise, they said, hinted at a deeper problem.

“Leading up to the verdict, there was already conversation about preventing rioting because the assumption was, in fact, that he was going to get off,” said Jacqueline Gillon, a church member and lifelong Cleveland resident. “That’s troubled me from the beginning, that there was never a general belief that justice would be done. It’s another smack in the face for our humanity.”

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