CLEVELAND -- The tire tracks were still there. Almost a month after a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun was shot and killed on a Saturday afternoon by police last November, the snow-covered indentations in the grass remain as a reminder of the day Tamir Rice died in Cudell Park.
Ten days before Tamir's shooting, Tanisha Anderson’s family called the Cleveland police to report that she was having a mental health episode. Officers arrived and Anderson wound up dying on the pavement, her sundress lifted above her waist and her brother’s coat covering her half-naked body.
While Ferguson, Missouri, has burned and New York City has boiled over with tensions between police officers and protesters, and Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and other cities around the nation have seen protest marches and rallies with attendance reaching into the tens of thousands, Cleveland has been almost placid. Aside from a smattering of marches and a series of so-called listening sessions, Cleveland feels like business as usual.
It’s hard to imagine that the deaths of a 12-year-old with a toy gun and an unarmed schizophrenic woman at the hands of police in a matter of weeks could pass with such little fanfare. But in many ways Cleveland is a disconcerting microcosm of "post-racial America," complete with the recalcitrance of racism and the slow cessation of hope many feel. It's a city with prominent black leaders, a storied history and an economic renaissance, but one in which black residents fear police and say they have no one to turn to for help.
It hasn’t always been this way. Cleveland was long known for its proud tradition of racial inclusion. The city was home to Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city, and his brother Louis Stokes who, along with Shirley Chisholm, Charlie Rangel and others, founded the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. Ohio was the first state to elect a black mayor when Robert Henry became mayor of Springfield in 1966.
“The difference between Ferguson and Cleveland,” Basheer Jones, a community activist who leads a group called the Cleveland Renaissance Movement, says, “is in Ferguson you have majority white police officers, majority white city council members, mayor is white, so it’s easy for people to say this is a racial thing. People have been upset and flustered about what’s going on here in Cleveland, but when you have black people in political positions, it’s easy for them to say, ‘Calm down. It’s not really about that. Let the political process do what it will do.’”
On the day Tamir died, he was sitting alone on a concrete bench, a few feet from a walkway that runs diagonally between the Cudell Recreation Center and Marion Champlin Seltzer Elementary School. Someone had called the police to report that he was pointing a gun at people, twice noting “it’s probably fake” and that he was “probably a juvenile” but that the boy was “scaring the s--- out of everybody.”
First-year Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann responded to the call. He had joined the force in March, a little more than a year after resigning from the police department in Independence, Ohio, where he had been deemed unfit for duty. According to his personnel file in Independence, he “could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.”
Loehmann was in the passenger seat of the police cruiser driven by Officer Frank Garmback, who had been with the force since February 2008. The city of Cleveland had just agreed to settle a $100,000 lawsuit brought by a woman who said that Garmback “placed her in a chokehold, tackled her to the ground, twisted her wrist and began hitting her body.”
A parking lot sits directly in front of the bench where Tamir was seated, but the officers approached from behind. They entered the park driving the wrong direction on a one-way street adjacent to Seltzer Elementary, then drove along the narrow sidewalk that borders the school and onto the grass. The cruiser went around a swing set and onto the park’s grass, then came to a stop about 10 feet from where the boy sat.
Cleveland Deputy Chief Edward Tomba said officers issued three commands from the car, telling the boy to put down what they thought was a real gun and show his hands. Tomba said the boy reached “into his waistband and pulled out a weapon.” Video from cameras at the recreation center shows the boy seated at the bench until the police cruiser pulled up in front of him. Tamir then gets up from the bench, walks slowly toward the police car, and 1.5 to 2 seconds after Loehmann opens his car door, he shoots Tamir in the stomach.
Neither Loehmann nor Garmback rendered first aid.
The boy died some 11 hours later as a “result of a gunshot wound to the abdomen which injured his inferior vena cava, intestines and pelvis,” Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas P. Gilson wrote. His death was ruled a homicide.
Thousands showed up to protest Tamir's killing and the boy’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the two policemen. But there has been little inquiry into law enforcement’s side of the story. Many Clevelanders, both black and white, have accepted the department’s version of events despite video evidence that doesn’t quite support it.
About a mile away from the park, at Second Round Knockouts Beauty Shop on the city’s west side, barber Terance Beachum, a black man in his 40s, is talking about the case while cutting a customer's hair. It’s a Wednesday, so business is a bit slow. He’s been closely watching the community’s reaction and protests in response to the shooting for nearly a month.
“I think it’s tricky because it’s a gun situation. [The officer] got put in a sticky situation,” Beachum says. “The driver should’ve never pulled up that close. He pulled up close enough that the officer had no choice but to shoot."
Beachum and others in the barbershop were discussing a rumor that Tamir was carrying the Airsoft Colt 1911 Target replica gun to scare kids who were members of various gangs in the area. “I don’t condone another black man dying at the hands of police,” Beachum says, “but I don’t condone that boy carrying a toy gun to scare other little boys, either.”
Cleveland residents and religious leaders have called for the mayor to be ousted, along with the chief of police, city and county prosecutors, and just about every other elected official in the city. But Tamir’s death has also prompted a flurry of community actions, such as toy gun buybacks. At the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland buyback event, families swapped guns for $25 gift cards to Dave's Supermarkets. Organizers handed out 78 cards and collected more than 120 toy guns.
On a recent evening inside Cleveland’s newly constructed Horseshoe Casino, Vyto Mekesa and his wife, Kathleen, a white couple, are discussing the state of Cleveland. Today, the city long known as the “mistake by the lake” is experiencing a cultural renaissance. Through an influx of cutting-edge architecture, casinos, high-end dining and the much-heralded return of basketball superstar LeBron James, Cleveland has become a “Rust Belt-chic town for art and culture vultures, basketball fans and stalwart foodies,” according to Fodor’s, which named the city a top 25 must-see international travel destination for 2015. It was named a global top 50 travel destination by Travel + Leisure this year and is set to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Inside the Horseshoe, where Vyto and Kathleen plan to hold their daughter’s upcoming wedding, talk turns to the 12-year-old boy. “The cop says ‘drop it,’ and somebody waves [a gun], the cop is protecting himself, number one. Number two, he’s protecting society,” Vyto, who was born and raised in Cleveland, says. “You don’t know if he’s 12 years old, you don’t know if he’s 24 years old. You don’t know how old he is.”
“But the riot didn’t happen the way they were anticipating,” Kathleen says. “For instance, the city was telling everybody, ‘Let all your employees go home today. Don’t make them stay here, because we don’t know what’s gonna happen.’ They were all prepared for a riot. Nothing happened, because really, seriously, people were smart enough to understand that while the young boy was killed, he was going around the school in the playground with a gun.... And when they said to him, ‘Stop, put your gun down,’ whatever, he didn’t.”
Eleven days after Tamir’s death, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came to the city to release the results of a Department of Justice investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police. The investigation, initiated in 2013, found that police in the city behaved more like a mercurial street gang than a government entity ordered to protect and serve.
The investigation uncovered multiple instances of officers assaulting children, mishandling their service weapons, abusing the mentally handicapped, and beating and Tasing unarmed civilians who had surrendered and been handcuffed.
In an extreme example of police aggression, a flood of officers chased down and fired a barrage of bullets at a car with an unarmed, black couple inside. The deadly incident has come to be known as “137 shots” around Cleveland, because that's the number of bullets found at the scene.
Of the more than 60 officers involved in the incident, only one, who allegedly emptied his weapon twice and then jumped onto the hood of the car to unload a third clip into the couple’s windshield, was indicted. The city paid $3 million to the families of the two people killed.
It also recently paid $600,000 to Edward Henderson, who filed suit against the Cleveland police, claiming he was attacked by several cops after a car crash on New Year’s Day in 2011. Henderson said after the crash he was handcuffed, held down, and then kicked and kneed in the head multiple times by officers. He suffered a detached retina and broken eye socket and spent three days in the hospital.
“They beat me, that is what they did, and I didn’t try to fight them,” Henderson said in a 2011 interview at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. “No one deserves to be beat like that. I can’t even see out of my right eye.”
The DOJ investigation of Cleveland, which is based on an examination of almost 600 use-of-force incidents from 2010 to 2013, thousands of related documents, hundreds of interviews by Justice Department lawyers and a number of independent policing experts, also found that Cleveland's police department was not constitutionally compliant regarding unlawful stops, searches, arrests, excessive force and the intentional concealment of such force.
The resulting report also pointed out the unfortunate record of the city’s civilian complaints board, which was initiated last year in response to a wave of grievances filed against officers, mostly for excessive force. As of Dec. 1, the board had received 441 complaints in 2014 and had ruled on 36. That was a marked improvement from 2013 when 663 complaints were lodged and the board ruled on less than 10 percent.
After the Henderson incident, no one in the department filed a use-of-force report, says Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio. “You see these things,” he says, “and you start to go, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a problem here.’”
And these aren’t new issues, Jones, who is also working with the DOJ to oversee possible changes called for in its report, says. “We didn’t need the Department of Justice to tell us that,” he says. “We’ve already been living that.”
Even with Cleveland's black mayor, black chief of police, multiple black city council members and a black congresswoman who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, black residents such as Calvin Kelly, who lives on the city’s majority-black east side, consistently say they feel they have no one to turn to in times of crisis.
“I don’t know if there’s any leaders here,” he says. “I feel like they’re doing stuff, but it’s not really improving nothing in my community. I see stuff go through my Facebook feed, but I just don’t, in reality, I don’t feel the impact.”
Kelly says he is regularly harassed by local police and even recalled an incident when he was 13 years old in which cops put a gun to his head.
“There’s supposed to be some leaders here, but I feel like none is really hitting the target or hitting the right area,” he says. “I feel like, with the Rice thing, because of that happening and getting that type of press, people are ... some people may be in danger because of that.”
In recent weeks, city politicians including Mayor Frank Jackson and various city council members have held a series of listening sessions with Rev. R.A. Vernon, pastor of one of Cleveland’s largest congregations at the Word Church. However, residents say that the listening sessions have so far centered on lots of talking with space reserved at the end for preapproved questions and canned answers. Thousands showed up angry and seeking answers; few left feeling any differently.
Delonte Marshall, a 22-year-old lifelong Cleveland resident, says the problem is that many of the city’s well-known reverends and community leaders are simply looking for money and attention. He calls it an epidemic.
“As far as leaders in the community who say this is right or this is wrong, period, they never do that. They only [speak out] when there’s color against color. It’s never, ‘Hey let me check myself and my village,’” Marshall says. “We don’t have anyone in our community to take initiative to show young black boys how it’s done. Everyone just has to learn on their own. And not everybody is good at learning by themselves. It’s an epidemic of being indifferent.”
That indifference permeates the city, says Wil Wynder, who was born and raised in Cleveland but now lives in Denver. “Cleveland has a ‘Lord of the Flies’ mentality,” he says. “The struggle is so real that you can’t really afford to look outside of yourself. Everybody there, for the most part, is concerned with their own individual struggle, and their struggle is so harsh that they can’t think about anybody else. There is no unity.”
The rallies that have popped up in Cleveland over the past month have often demonstrated that lack of unity. Many of the city’s older activists are calling for the mayor to step down and the police chief to be fired, while younger activists are demanding reforms within the police department such as body cameras and a moratorium on hiring. Still others want to pass legislation and hold a series of recall elections.
The result has been clusters of small protests around the city at different locations and different times that often conflict with one another. Often that’s because the protests are led by advocates for other causes. As Melissa Schute, a leader of the #CLEDemands Justice action campaign, an alliance formed by a number of groups associated with the Occupy movement, put it, “Lots of times there will be a protest going on, and we won’t know about it until after it’s happened.”
Cleveland’s leaders are also largely at odds with one another.
Eric Jonathan Brewer, the former mayor of East Cleveland, has been a vociferous critic of many of the city’s top voices. He says rather than joining protests, he is working with a group of legal experts to pass legislation that will change police department regulations, remove political officials from power and set up laws to protect citizens from police brutality and racial profiling. He says Cleveland’s more-visible leaders have been ineffective because most are “opportunists, not activists,” who are actually making things worse for the city’s black residents.
“We’ve been marching for years,” he says. “Right now it is within our grasp to take this report and put some legislative reforms in place. That’s what I’m working on with former judges, not a pastor who’s never held a public office, not an activist who’s out on the street doing prayer vigils, but people who have been involved in the process.”
As East Cleveland’s mayor from 2005 to 2009, Brewer was credited with helping to improve the city's finances and public safety. However, he lost the Democratic primary in 2009 to current East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton after photos of Brewer dressed in women’s lingerie were released to the media, he says by a political rival or a member of the police force.
Now a regular citizen, Brewer says he plans to roll out a series of reforms, including criminal complaints against Mayor Jackson and changes to the city’s charter, in time to have a special election by April or May.
"There are things that we need to be talking about," Brewer says, "but because people don’t have the inside knowledge to make sure these things don’t happen again, these marches aren’t going to do anything other than produce some quick fixes.”
Brewer said three weeks ago that his was a “72-hour” plan, but he has so far not submitted legislation or petitions seeking a ballot initiative to any Cleveland governmental bodies.
As Cleveland awaits a grand jury’s ruling on Loehmann and Garmback, actions around the city continue intermittently. The bench in Cudell Park where Tamir sat has since been covered with stuffed animals, flowers, a football jersey and a collection of toys, including a blue fire engine and a red and white hula-hoop. It has been ground zero for a number of protests.
Tamir's family parted ways with lawyer David Malik recently to be represented by Benjamin Crump, the traveling civil rights attorney best known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown after their deaths. Malik was hired by the family of Tanisha Anderson. Police say Anderson died after her body inexplicably went limp while she was struggling with officers who tried to put her in the back of a police car.
Anderson's brother, Joell, counters that his sister went limp after an officer threw her down on the pavement and left her there for 20 minutes, refusing to provide medical assistance while she lay unconscious. Before being taken to the ground, Joell said, his sister repeatedly cried out for him and her mother. Anderson was transported to Cleveland Clinic about two hours later where she was pronounced dead.
Last week, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's office ruled her death while in police custody a homicide, saying that Anderson died by "sudden death associated with physical restraint in a prone position." No protests were reported over the weekend.