The voice that keeps ringing in my head is Brian O’Halloran from "Clerks": “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”
I’d, of course, seen the initial Facebook announcement of a protest to take place this weekend in memory of Tamir Rice; it turned out also to be the day the verdict was announced in the trial of Michael Brelo for the shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. I’d also seen, and signal-boosted, the creepy counter-protest stacked with people promising to bring concealed weapons to “protect” their neighborhood.
But I’d told everyone I couldn’t be there in person. We’re starting tech rehearsals for the play I’m in, "Johanna: Facing Forward," which opens next week. My Memorial Day weekend is already spoken for.
And, if I’m honest, I was relieved it was. I’m not completely an armchair activist. I was there for the Tamir Rice protests at City Hall back in December. I put in my time hanging out in McPherson Square with Occupy D.C. in 2011, I marched with No on 8 in L.A. in 2008.
But I have to be honest. I’m tired. I’m old (I’m 31, which means I’m already overdue for the Carousel in "Logan’s Run"). I’m increasingly risk-averse. A friend recently assured me that I could do more good by writing impassioned articles from the safety of my home than by just being another anonymous body to be shoved by cops in the back of a van, which was a wonderful argument because it was exactly what I wanted to hear.
But then, around 5 p.m., as I’m leaving rehearsals for "Johanna" at Cleveland Public Theatre in Gordon Square, I find my way back to the freeway on Detroit Avenue blocked by a slow-moving cordon of police vehicles--every kind of police vehicle, squad cars, motorcycles and, yes, a row of cops mounted on horses.
My brain fried from a long rehearsal, my stomach empty, I very briefly wonder if this is an early Memorial Day parade. Then I remember.
I see spectators in front of bodegas, pharmacies, gas stations, smartphones in hand. An elderly white man shouts, “Thank you!” to the cops. His neighbor, a black man, glares and mutters under his breath, “What exactly are you thanking them for?” A lady--apparently totally out of the loop--pulls up to a squad car and shouts out the driver’s side window, “Is downtown closed today?”
The sharp reply, “No, but I wouldn’t go down there if I were you.” The same cop looks back at me, crawling along behind her squad car at five miles an hour, and angrily gestures for me to turn around.
I have no water, I haven’t eaten in hours, I have no idea what the plan for the protest is or who’s organizing it. I’m not even dressed for it--I put on nice slacks and a dress shirt this morning for a TV interview before going down to rehearsals for the afternoon. My phone is at a 4 percent charge.
I’d had friends send me messages warning me the mood downtown after Michael Brelo’s acquittal was really ugly, and the cops far more on edge after the riots in Baltimore than they had been last year. They said it was best to stay home, to vent on Twitter or Facebook--even friends who I knew cared deeply about this issue were counseling caution.
Intellectually, I agreed.
But I’d written all those articles about #BlackLivesMatter. Half the people who follow me on Twitter followed me because of those viral tweets I made. I have talked a very big talk about caring about police brutality against black Americans.
And it’s one thing to simply not intend to go to a protest because you don’t think you have time. It’s another to have the protest suddenly turn out to be a few hundred feet in front of you and to choose to physically turn your car around and drive away.
There’s an empty parking spot on the street at Detroit and 55th. I jump out, click the fob and start striding briskly past the cop cars, trying to catch up. They pay me no mind. It‘s around 5:30 p.m., and it turns out my day is only beginning.
* * *
When I catch up with the protesters I gather from snatches of conversation that they’re traveling back from the Cudell Recreation Center, where Tamir Rice was shot, to regroup at the Justice Center.
No one really sees me start walking with the others or acknowledged me once I did--people were already tired, focused on keeping one foot in front of the other. We’ve apparently reached the stage, after having already been walking for hours, when one of the leaders shouting out “NO JUSTICE?” only gets half the people responding with “NO PEACE!” (I shouted back “NO PEACE!” every time, if only to confirm to myself I was a protester, not a curious bystander.)
The most surreal thing about the whole situation is that the protesters as a whole are enough to stretch across a single city block--maybe a hundred people max--but are surrounded on all sides by a phalanx of police officers who easily outnumbered them. A double row of police cars in front, a double row of police cars behind, motorcycles and horses stationed on the lawn to either side. If I hadn’t known what was going on I’d’ve thought it was a presidential motorcade and the cops an honor guard.
The only sounds are the intermittent chants of “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” and the steady rumble of motorcycles and horses peeling around to keep up with us, like some twisted version of a relay race. A better metaphor than a presidential motorcade, I think, is that we’re being herded--like we were dangerous animals in a slowly moving cage.
There’d been police presence at the first Tamir Rice protest I attended, but not nearly so much--maybe a quarter as many cops watching more than twice as many people. This is insane, I think to myself, every single cop in Cleveland is here.
A wild thought comes to mind--this would be the perfect time to commit a crime on the other side of town, they wouldn’t even hear about it for hours. I wonder how many people on Facebook have already made that joke. I wonder, if there is a burglary or shooting somewhere on the East Side today, how many people will say it’s the protesters’ fault.
* * *
I’m the only Asian guy in the crowd, and the only person stupid enough to go on a long walk like this in dress shoes. The crowd shifts over time, people discreetly peeling away and joining up. There are a few faces that stick in my mind. The teenager with a T-shirt saying “The New Slavery” who’s wearing a rusty metal chain wrapped around his shoulders. (“Be careful,” his neighbor says to him. “They’ll call that chain a weapon, and then next thing they’ll be saying we all had knives and tire irons.”)
The crowd is mostly black, with a scattering of white allies. There are a few people with lime-green baseball caps marking them as observers from the National Lawyers Guild, taking notes on paper pads (how quaint, but I guess then there’s no issue of battery life). I find their presence disturbing--there hasn’t been a perceived need for them at past protests I’ve been to, but now there are three of them that I can see, and more will join us later in the day.
The cops’ steady staring at us is starting to spook me, and I find myself gravitating toward a knot of white girls--almost as incongruous as I am, in skirts and bright lipstick. I wonder if people will think I’m a “macktivist” here to get laid. Really, I just want to avoid getting shot. (A guy behind me somewhere in the crowd expresses a similar sentiment: “When shit gets hectic ain’t gonna be no little white girl’s body on the front page of the paper.”)
A few people are on bikes, circling around the pedestrians, concentrically mirroring the dance of the horses and motorcycles surrounding us. One of them sticks out, a white girl in a dark blue dress. She briefly steps down to chat with her friend, saying that as a trans woman she feels that different activist communities need to stick together, that she wishes the LGBT community in Cleveland--which is very outspoken--did a better job speaking up about this issue.
Later on I will read on Twitter that one of the people arrested tonight is trans and in need of extra support, and realize it’s probably her. I will think of all the horror stories I’ve heard from trans activist friends about how trans women are treated in lockup. I will try to put it out of my mind, to stop thinking about when the last time I saw her was, when it happened, to just get over it and get to sleep. I will fail.
* * *
People start to get their energy back as we cross over Veterans Memorial Bridge to downtown proper--there’s a much bigger group we anticipate meeting there.
As we begin to walk over the bridge, I hear a pessimistic voice—”I hate crossing this thing. It’s got a hump in the middle, they could set any kind of trap on the other side.” It’s true, a bridge is a perfect place to get trapped.
The sidewalks on either side of the bridge are much narrower--we’re getting up close and personal with our police observers. I see but don’t hear an interaction between a cop who’s edging pretty far into a protester’s personal space. The cop, looking down from his horse, is smiling. The protester is not. The protester jumps back suddenly, shouting, “We’re watching you! Everyone’s watching you!” The horse rears, snorts. The cop casually guides the horse back down the line toward the rear of the march, the two mounted cops next to him filling the gap.
“Fucking idiot,” a guy next to me mutters. I quicken my step, wanting to get away from this spot as quickly as possible.
I quicken my step so much, in fact, that before I know it I’ve gone ahead of the banner that serves as the protesters’ rally point--a photo montage of black victims of police violence over the past 20 years--and am now, so to speak, in the vanguard of the revolution. My shirt’s come untucked and I’ve rolled my sleeves up, but I still feel like I stick out like a sore thumb.
I look, I realize, like one of the members of the media walking along with us--distinguishable by slightly more professional dress than the protesters (though wearing more sensible shoes than I am) and the guys shouldering huge cameras shadowing their movements.
I realize that several of said media representatives are scurrying ahead of the banner along with us, filming the people walking ahead as though our position makes us important, as opposed to merely impatient.
One of the guys walking with me, who I think actually is a leader, shouts out, “Hey, turn your back from the cameras! No quotes, no interviews! We don’t need that shit!”
I’m happy to comply. The last thing I want is anyone recognizing me. The last thing I want is for people to say I was here for “PR” reasons, to lump me in with “media” as opposed to the “real” protesters.
Then I think about the fact that, one way or another, I probably am going to write something about this protest and I probably am going to get this published, for money. I actually am part of “the media.”
I stop thinking about it and just start shouting again. “NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!”
* * *
A loud cheer erupts as we make it past the library to the Justice Center. The transition from the weathered, dingy brick to shiny new facades the moment we cross the bridge is striking--I’ve frequently joked to my friends that “Cleveland wants to be Manhattan but can only keep it up for about twenty blocks.” One of the protesters shouts, “I pay my taxes for twenty years and they all spend it downtown! No one gives a shit about us except to shoot us!” and it’s hard to argue with the visual demonstration.
The last time I was at the Justice Center was to contest a speeding ticket. I never paid much attention to the exterior till now--even though our crowd has now doubled in size, we’re still dwarfed by the building itself--its doors blocked off by police tape, cops stationed permanently at the entrances.
When I was here in the middle of a busy business day, these steps were crowded with people shuffling in and out, in animated conversation with each other and their phones, a scene straight out of an Aaron Sorkin movie. Today everything is strangely static: I get the feeling the protesters we’ve just met up with have been here for hours, in an uneasy staring contest with the small army of cops who are our constant companions.
The sun’s shining, the birds are singing. The courtyard of the Justice Center, I think, with its wide steps and well-manicured lawn, would be a great place for a picnic.
A friend I follow on Twitter made a mildly tasteless joke—“Why ruin a beautiful day when Cleveland only gets four warm months a year? They should announce all verdicts in February.”
He’s probably right, I think. In February I wouldn’t have gotten out of my car.
A grizzled man, a veteran of protests, nudges me and points upward to a few tiny silhouettes on the roof, 26 stories up. “Snipers,” he mutters. “They were ready for this. They got eyes on us waiting. They want something to happen. Soon as it does it’ll be rubber bullets all up in here.”
I look back at the line of cops, shoulder-to-shoulder, making sure we’re penned into a tight square in front of the building. If rubber bullets start flying, there’ll be nowhere to take shelter but behind each other’s bodies.
The crowd is getting rowdy, now that the pilgrimage to the site of Tamir Rice’s death has returned. A megaphone is handed to a man who begins shouting, “Peaceful? Why do they always demand we be peaceful? We’ve been peaceful for four hundred years! Do we get peace in return?”
Things have changed. At the last protest I went to, there was a skinny white kid who started the chant “FTP - Fuck the Police!” only for an older black man--40-ish, bespectacled, a political veteran--to quietly tap him on the shoulder and cut him off, saying, “We don’t need that.”
He’s not here today. Today someone starts the “FTP” chant and the whole crowd takes it up, shouting it loudly and continuously for at least five minutes, in direct view of the cops. When someone starts the “Hands up - don’t shoot!” chant, another protester shouts, “No, no surrendering!” and changes it to “Fist up - fight back!”
I don’t shout “Fuck the police.” I do raise my fist when everyone else does, thinking of the 1968 Olympics.
Another speaker, a woman, grabs the megaphone and begins talking about how the Brelo acquittal “must be overturned.” I think about how, under the legal system as currently constituted, that’s basically impossible--it’d be double jeopardy.
I think about how charging Michael Brelo and Brelo alone, solely on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, when it was 13 different officers who collectively shot Tim Russell and Malissa Williams 137 times, already makes the trial a farce.
The woman shouts, to the cheers of the crowd, that the city will cave to economic pressure, “if we boycott all the businesses here for 137 days, one for each bullet.” I think about how that might’ve made sense if there were 15 shots, or 20, but 137 days is four and a half months. I could maybe stop buying things for 137 days with careful planning, by cheating and stocking up ahead of time. I can’t see how someone with limited space and a limited budget could do it.
I think about how we celebrated a huge victory when Cleveland agreed to order body cameras for police officers after the Tamir Rice protests--but the news said the mayor was dragging his feet on implementation, and none of the cops staring us down right now are wearing any cameras.
I think about how a man who stood on the hood of a car and fired straight down through the windshield--emptying his entire magazine, pausing to reload and emptying a second magazine--was acquitted, even called “heroic” by the media, all because he said he was deathly terrified of two unarmed people in a car with a backfiring engine.
There’s two older guys, gray-haired, soft, gravelly voices, one black, one white--who’ve been bringing up the rear this whole time. One says to the other, “Well, I can’t condone the violence--I absolutely don’t condone it--but you can’t place blame for it on the people rising up.”
The other sagely nods, and adds, “And you can’t deny that things only seem to change once it happens.”
The first shrugs. “Maybe if there were more people in the world like us.”
* * *
We leave the Justice Center to take the protest to Public Square, to the Horseshoe Casino, to places where people are spending money--to “hit them in their pocket,” as one protester puts it. We’re getting more spectators than we had in Near West, and of a different kind--more white faces, more unfriendly faces, more people smirking or joking or folding their arms.
Traffic around the Horseshoe Casino is a mess at the best of times--now the limos and taxis and hotel shuttles are stuck in the ultimate traffic jam, cop cars weaving back and forth to try to maintain a barrier between them and us.
I think about the casino sitting in the former Higbee’s Department Store building--the building we all remember from "A Christmas Story," from back when downtown Cleveland was a living, breathing community and not an appendage of a massive gambling destination. I think dark thoughts about the people being welcomed here every day to blow hundreds of dollars on booze and steak and slots while the rest of Cleveland struggles. I think about the tax revenue that Cleveland was promised for allowing gambling inside city limits and how downtown Cleveland gets ever ritzier while only a few miles east or west there are streets so badly maintained they’re undriveable 365 days out of the year.
And then some of us take it further than thinking. First one, then two, then several people make a break for the doors of the casino and burst inside.
I watch, mouth agape. Is this part of the plan? Are we supposed to get arrested for trespassing? Clearly it isn’t--people around me are gasping, whispering, freaking out. A guy ahead of me urges us to keep moving. “Let them take care of themselves,” he says. “Don’t get caught up in their bullshit.”
The cops make no move to follow the protesters into the casino. The casino, if it’s like any other casino I’ve been to, has more than enough security to take care of itself. It’s probably the only venue in Cleveland that does.
* * *
The people storming into the casino presumably had been brewing their plan for a while, hoping (probably incorrectly) for safety in numbers. Our group is noticeably shrunken in size once we leave.
An argument breaks out. A guy who’s been near the front of our group the whole time demands we go back to the Justice Center—”That’s where this all started, that’s where we know to regroup”--but a woman begins to shout, “We’ve been back there three times today! There’s nothing there!”
“We have to go to the game,” she says. “The game is headline news on CNN right now. That’s where everyone is, that’s where we need to be if we want to let the world know how we feel.”
She’s confused, I realize. The playoff series between the Cavaliers and the Hawks is indeed headline news, but it’s not tonight--the Cavaliers aren’t playing at Quicken Loans Arena until tomorrow night. There is a baseball game at Progressive Field tonight, but even though my baseball-loving friends are happy about the Indians’ recent winning streak it’s not being covered by CNN. There’s going to be big crowds at the baseball game, but not the massive media coverage this woman seems to expect--we’re going to increase our risk of exposure to an incident without the corresponding payoff.
I can’t be the only one having this thought, but the woman’s exhortation that we need to go to “the game” isn’t clear enough to make it immediately obvious she’s mistaken, and there isn’t time to discuss. We’re already moving.
* * *
We do, indeed, end up going to Quicken Loans Arena, where there indeed isn’t anyone around except the usual vendors selling Cavaliers gear. The cops realize our intentions quickly enough to re-form the cordon around us the whole way--they have to move fast enough to do so that one of the horses knocks a bike-riding protester to the ground. (He and his bike are unhurt, but a fellow protester quietly advises him on how to file a complaint with the city. “It won’t do anything,” he says, “but some people like to do it anyway.”)
Along the way we walk by a sports bar, the Harry Buffalo. They’ve got their windows open and patrons leaning out to take in the spectacle. One guy has his phone out, recording us, and a weird little smirk on his face.
“What are you smiling about?” a protester shouts. Several others around him try to shush him—”Don’t go near him,” “We’re not here for them,” “Don’t give these people what they want.”
Someone on the restaurant staff hears the outburst. An unseen signal is given and waitresses in ponytails suddenly appear, pulling down the shutters one by one.
The symbolism of slamming the shutters down to block out the protest, of course, only pisses more people off. People start pressing up to the shutters, shouting.
Later, I will read that a “rock was thrown through the window.” I didn’t see anyone with a rock the whole way we came up to the Q, and the groundskeepers do not leave rocks just lying around outside the Q or in the parking lot of Harry Buffalo.
I’ve seen other sources say that “a sign was thrown through the window.” What I do see happen is a sign fall in through the window and land with a loud thud. I’m not close enough to the action to say with absolute certainty it didn’t originally come from a protester, but the fact that I can read what’s on the sign and it says “Go Cavs!” makes me think it was on the windowsill the whole time and got knocked down accidentally.
But who knows, maybe a protester had a “Go Cavs!” sign mixed in among the “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Police Murder” signs. I don’t know.
When we get to the Q we are awaited by even more cops--apparently it actually wasn’t the entirety of the Cleveland PD at the Justice Center, or maybe they’ve gotten reinforcements from neighboring departments. There’s at least four cops for every single door into the Q--they’ve probably received instructions to make it absolutely impossible for anyone to rush their way into the building.
And then shit gets hectic.
The cops have decided the violent incident at Harry Buffalo merits reprisal. A cadre of policemen on foot, backed up by mounted officers, surges into our midst, grabs a young black man and wrestles him to the ground to be cuffed.
I don’t think he was one of the guys pressing up to the windows but I admit I have no way of knowing--that scene was too chaotic to see anything clearly. What I don’t get is how, if I don’t know, how the cops possibly could, when none of them were as close as I was--eyewitness testimony from someone sitting at the bar with a cellphone?
Without warning they grab another guy and cuff him too--this one a white man with a gray beard. (“Why are you arresting an old man?” someone shouts.)
I’m tense, waiting--surely if the crime they’re arresting people for is the crime of crowding up to the windows, then they’re looking for ten to twenty perps, none of whose faces were clearly visible to the people inside--but no, they’ve made their point for now. Two squad cars come to collect the two men, the younger guy screaming “I can’t breathe! These cuffs are too tight!” as he’s taken away.
At this point I want out. I curse myself for cowardice but I can see one of the mounted cops hover-handing his holster while looking us over. Today isn’t going to end well--and there isn’t even a game here, we came here for no reason.
But we can hear the baseball game going on next door. And the cops that aren’t shouting, “Back off!” are shouting, “Keep moving!” And so, without anyone giving any explicit order that I can hear, we move toward Progressive Field.
* * *
It takes a little while, again, for the cops to realize where we’re going, but once they do the whole group from the Q--which has upgraded from “small army” to “medium-sized army”--swarms over to separate us from the swirling throng of sports fans who’ve just watched the Tribe beat the Cincinnati Reds.
We’re once more crowded uncomfortably close to the cops, who’ve decided to set up a formation of motorcycles and horses four ranks deep between us and the gate to the stadium--this even though the outflowing fans outnumber us hundreds to one, and don’t seem particularly scared of us. Several of them, in fact, walk right past the cops and through our protest on the way to their cars, one guy nudging another and whispering, “Get a load of this,” by which he probably means the surreal irony of people chanting “HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT” in time with the stadium’s sound system blaring “Cleveland Rocks.”
I hear a series of loud banging noises as the cops assemble. I hope the sound is fireworks from the stadium, even though the sun is still high and fireworks would be invisible. I think, with some irony, that it might be a motorcycle’s engine backfiring (it was the sound of their car’s backfiring engine that got Tim Russell and Malissa Williams targeted by a police chase in the first place). I fear, despite knowing that it’s against police policy, that it might be someone firing warning shots.
I wish my phone hadn’t died hours ago. There’d be no better image to capture from today than this weird expanding cone of people, about 70 protesters facing down over a hundred cops in front of thousands of bemused bystanders in Indians gear.
I don’t know what the typical demographic makeup of an Indians audience is, but I do observe that nearly everyone who decided to see the Indians take on the Reds on this particular afternoon is white.
We hear the line once again as we start to shuffle away from the stadium—”It’s not about them. Let them laugh, let them joke. We’re not here to talk to them or change their minds.” Whose minds are we here to change? I wonder, as I hear a fellow protester shout at the dispersing crowd, “Fuck Chief Wahoo!”
* * *
The Indians game is over (they beat the Reds 2-1, by the way). People are looking visibly dispirited. We lost maybe 20 people at the Horseshoe Casino, who’ve probably been locked up. We lost another three at the Q--it turns out there was a third person arrested, a woman, who I didn’t see get taken in. People are passing around their names, saying we’ve got to bail them out--I memorize them, in case it ends up mattering. Julius Bell, Jeremy Berstein, Iris Rozmann.
A white girl with glasses suddenly says she’s having an anxiety attack. “What are you scared of?” a dude snorts at her dismissively. “The cops!” she says, voice cracking as she tries to stifle a shout, clearly afraid of drawing the cops’ attention.
I’m freaked out by how I’ve almost gotten used to seeing police officers circling us every time I look around--despite having just seen two guys get wrestled into squad cars. I watch as people roll their eyes and ignore the girl in mid-panic attack. I feel upset on her behalf--I’m freaked out, too. I think about how I’m used to cops being dismissive or unsympathetic to me but not actively hostile.
I think about how when I was younger I actually did lead a highway cop on a “high-speed chase” — because I was too zoned out from ADHD to realize the person the cop was trying to pull over was me--and got away with nothing more than a lecture and having to take traffic school, rather than being surrounded by squad cars and shot 137 times. I think about how careful the organizers of the last protest I attended were to avoid “antagonizing” police officers, and how from the moment I joined this protest the antagonism has been at 11. I think about how you can only swallow so much fear before it turns into rage.
I want to say something to the girl, but the next time I think to look for her, she’s gone.
* * *
We have no other destination but the Justice Center, exactly the place we didn’t go back to before because there was no one there but cops. The guy who was initially trying to rally us back to the Justice Center decides to take action, to build morale. A call goes out to link arms in the busy intersection of East 9th and Superior, to spread out and stop traffic.
I remember the headline news back in November 2014 when protesters over Tamir Rice’s death shut down the Detroit Shoreway at rush hour on a Friday--it was touted as one of the most successful protests of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in terms of impact.
Shutting down an intersection downtown on a Saturday night after 7:00 isn’t even close to the same level of disruption. But the cops are much, much more aggressive now than they were then. They anticipate our action and block off the intersection themselves with squad cars before we even get a chance to. Our linking up arms is symbolic--we’re only here as long as they choose not to arrest us.
A circle forms. The man who called for the action, a tall black man with a sign about his brother having been shot and killed by police two years ago, orders the media reps out of the circle and the cameras turned away.
No one’s there to photograph me as part of this human chain. I make a mental note for myself that I’m here, forming the southwest corner of the circle. I wonder if I might get away with total anonymity tonight--only to suddenly have the guy who just linked arms with me on my right turn to me and say, “By the way, I know this isn’t the time, but I’m a big fan.” I give him a forced smile.
Our leader speaks about serving in the U.S. Marine Corps--just as Michael Brelo did. He talks about the victims in Cleveland--Tanesha Anderson, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, Tamir Rice--as well as the victims who’ve made national news--Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray.
I’ve heard this speech before, or rather, speeches similar to it. I’ve heard this speech enough that I can give it myself, as can most of my friends who care about politics. I wish it weren’t so terribly familiar.
Our leader announces that he’s going to give up his space in the center of our circle for someone we really need to hear from, someone who was shot in the back and in the head by police but survived, who wants to share his story. My eyes dart around the crowd, wondering who it might be.
But then the speaker notices something--some movement, I think, from the cops--and shouts, “But there’ll be time for that at the Justice Center!”
* * *
There isn’t time for that at the Justice Center. We never do hear from the man who survived being shot by the cops.
As soon as we get back to the Justice Center--the place we earlier decided not to go because it was pointless--things begin to unravel.
An older man whom I haven’t heard speak up before suddenly begins to declaim on the need to “get our people out.” I think for a second he means they’re literally physically in the Correction Center next door, but no, they’re being held at Aviation High School--a school that’s been closed for years, repurposed tonight as a police command center.
“Millions of dollars for cops and jails while they shut down schools,” someone next to me mutters.
Our newly appointed leader states that our first priority has to be helping our fellow protesters, gathering money to bail them out— “How can we organize if we won’t stand up for each other?”
The crowd isn’t completely buying it. A bucket starts going around to collect cash--I only have $11 in my wallet, and throw in the 10. But a lot of people refuse--standing around collecting money is not what they signed up for. “How do we even know where this money is going?” I hear, and “Can’t they just call their parents?” (The gray-bearded white man who was arrested, I think, probably doesn’t have living parents.)
“I can’t believe they tricked us all into just standing around here.” One kid on a bike screams, “This is BULLSHIT! This guy’s an FBI infiltrator!” pointing to the man collecting money, and pedals away.
I see a guy in a Cavaliers jersey get in the face of the former Marine who led us back here. “What good does it do to get in these guys’ faces?” he shouts. “They don’t care! We can walk around this building all day and nothing will change! We’ve got to get into their pockets!”
“How?” the Marine snaps back.
The Cavs fan points back in the direction of the Horseshoe. “The casino. Tower City. Block the dollars coming in through there, I guarantee you people will listen.”
The Marine shakes his head. “I come from Ferguson,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for years. That doesn’t work. The next morning, we’re all in jail and for every dollar that didn’t come into the casino today, racists will be putting in $2 to spite us.”
(I nod, thinking about Memories Pizza. I think about the people who stormed the casino the last time we passed it, and wonder if they’re in jail right now.)
The Cavs fan is now screaming at the top of his lungs. “So what? What’s your plan?”
The Marine replies, “Organize. Build a movement. Build awareness. Build a network. Then when the time is right—”
“Fuck you,” and the Cavs fan storms off.
* * *
The rumbling intensifies. I keep hearing people say the same phrase over and over, “Movements move,” and I know that this position isn’t tenable.
A middle-aged hippie-ish looking dude with a huge knapsack proposes a sit-in. “Let’s all spend the night here.”
I really, really don’t want to spend the night in front of the Justice Center. But I don’t want to leave again without some kind of plan, and no one seems to have one. I spot two people wearing orange T-shirts from Puncture The Silence; one of them says hi to me, recognizing me from the last protest I attended. Neither makes any move to take charge of the proceedings.
I hear a voice saying, “I’ve been following you since Ferguson and I’m so glad you made it down here.” I look, and it takes a second for the face and blue vest I’ve so far only seen as a Twitter avatar when retweeting him--it’s DeRay McKesson.
I run up to join my fellow @deray follower and shake his hand. He tells us he’s only in Cleveland for a day or two. I’m itching to ask if he can see how bad this situation is, if he’s going to come up with a plan. If anyone can breathe new life into this protest surely he can.
Then another lady joins us and asks, “Excuse me, did he say you were from St. Louis?” She has no idea who he is. No one else seems to be taking any notice of him.
I tell myself this is a good thing. No divinely appointed leaders, no organizational bureaucracy, no one to take over and make it all about themselves, right? I try not to think about the collapse of Occupy, the infighting, the inertia, until I read about the mass arrests online and came back to McPherson Square a few days later to find it eerily deserted.
* * *
“Movements Move” wins out. The bulk of the protester trickles out of the Justice Center courtyard, now moving on East 4th Street--a trendy Cleveland spot for fine dining and entertainment. East 4th itself is no longer a through street, it’s a pedestrian mall where people stroll and eat at outdoor tables and peer through shop windows.
This is set up to be a direct collision with people drinking and partying on a Saturday night. People are shouting, “Hit them in the pocket!” and even though I don’t see Cavs fan among us it seems like he’s been successful at spreading his message.
I take stock of who’s in the crowd as we head out. DeRay isn’t with us. The orange-shirted Puncture the Silence reps aren’t with us. The Marine isn’t with us. The banner we were marching behind isn’t with us--its bearer wandered off somewhere unknown after we got back to the Justice Center.
The National Lawyers Guild reps are still with us, which isn’t all that reassuring--they’re primarily there, after all, to provide evidence in case people go to jail. Everyone I saw as a leader earlier in the day has apparently decided going down to East 4th Street is a bad idea. I’m probably a fool for choosing to do so--but I’m only here in the first place because of my urge to run toward trouble, not away from it.
As we walk down Prospect Avenue the chant becomes “Unity is Power! Power in Numbers!”, even though our numbers are now the smallest they’ve been all day.
I hear a voice behind me shout, in a mocking cadence, “We Don’t Know What We’re Doing! We’ve Never Led Anything!”
I turn and I’m surprised to see it’s a black dude who’s started walking in line behind us, not a heckler on the sidewalk. He’s tall, got hipster glasses and is clutching a Starbucks bag. He adds, “What other ignorant, offensive, unhelpful shit can you think of to chant?” to the girl walking with him. He seems to have a black belt in hipster irony--I would know.
“I’ve been in this movement for five minutes and I’m over it,” he adds. “Could do the same amount of yelling back home and accomplish as much, without getting shot.”
He turns his withering gaze on the cops surrounding us. “Look at this. How scary. Look at these terrifying rioters. They’re going to set the city on fire. Save us, save us.” The tone indicates the sheer absurdity of the police presence, the Blues-Brothers-level disproportionality. Destroy the city? This crowd? I wouldn’t be scared of us either.
I try to tune the hipster out. He’s pissing me off. He’s getting under my skin. He sounds too much like the voice in my head.
I hear him speculate on whether one might get a better caliber of protest using Facebook and Google Plus to organize an event only reliable, trusted people hear about. I wonder if he thinks a better-organized protest would accomplish anything if it consisted only of ten people you personally knew.
Then I look again, and he’s gone.
* * *
East 4th Street is packed. It is, I suppose, Memorial Day weekend, and people either didn’t get the memo about the Brelo acquittal or decided to defy the dire warnings of “riots” and enjoy a nice night out anyway.
People turn from their craft beers and $25 entrees to take in the sight of us. The smell of food makes my empty stomach rumble. I find myself getting irrationally mad--exactly what I was afraid would happen. My feet hurt, my throat and stomach are sore, a man who shot an unarmed couple was just acquitted and called a hero in the media, and these well-fed people have the temerity to be annoyed.
I’ve been one half of a couple dining at an overpriced East 4th Street restaurant before. I try to empathize, I remind myself I’m not any better than these people, that my first impulse when being interrupted eating would be irritation too. But I think of meeting Tim Russell’s father at the two-year-anniversary memorial service last year, held at the school parking lot where Tim and Malissa were shot. I think of all the times I went out for a nice meal after tsking about an atrocity in the paper. I think of my dad’s story about the helpless frustration he felt, traveling through China in late September 2001, seeing Chinese citizens happily oblivious while the United States was in mourning.
I want to be here. I want to see this play out. Just like my response to #BlackBrunch on Twitter — it might not be the most effective tactic but it’s a conversation that needs to happen. How do you make grief and pain real to people who have the wonderful privilege of ignoring it?
I see a skinny kid in a pink T-shirt get approached by a big guy in Indians gear. I worry for a second things will get ugly, but the guy smiles and shakes his hand. He tells the kid, “I saw that fat fuck give you a hard time at the Indians game and I was so impressed by how you handled it.”
I hadn’t even noticed that happening. I want to get to know this kid.
Suddenly I see someone pushing his way through the crowd--it’s the Marine, and he’s got a large woman in a green jacket with him, a woman I recognize as one of the leaders from the protests last year. She pulls out a megaphone and begins exhorting the crowd.
I doubt the Marine had a sudden change of heart. I think he’s here to salvage the situation. I think for a second it might be salvageable.
The kid in the pink shirt is talking to the white street musician parked near us. He’d stopped strumming his guitar when we came in, but now starts singing full-throatedly, “This Land Is Your Land.” God bless you, Woody Guthrie. That kid has a knack for developing rapport with people. Maybe with him, and the Marine, and the lady in the green jacket here, things will end all right.
Then I suddenly realize a girl who’s walking among the patio tables of the Greenhouse Tavern isn’t a waitress--she looks like one from a distance, with her black skirt and white shirt, but the shirt has a “Black Lives Matter” slogan from it.
Apparently the Greenhouse Tavern management also realized this too late, because she’s getting close to a customer, she’s getting in his face, she’s shouting and he’s shouting, and her friend is now there backing her up, and suddenly there’s the sound of a glass breaking.
* * *
Everyone who isn’t immediately drawn into the scuffle at the House of Blues is running for the mouth of East 4th Street. We realize the shit has well and truly hit the fan when we see a solid wall of cops in full riot gear — vests, masks, batons — blocking our escape.
We are fucked. Most of the protesters retreat back into a solid mass at the center of the alley, realizing they are fucked. One girl holds up her smartphone and films the advancing cops, walking backwards just two paces ahead of them. Christ, she’s brave.
I am not proud of what I do next. It ranks among one of the things I’ve done I’m least proud of in my life. Later, as I write this piece, I will go through it over and over again in my head, telling myself that adding my name to the list of 71 people arrested that night wouldn’t actually have helped anyone. That escaping to tell the story is more important, that telling the story from a jail cell would only harm, not help my credibility. (Later I will see a photo of one of the National Lawyers Guild observers being cuffed, his notebook abandoned on the ground.)
I will read the stories of people crammed into tiny rooms used to store rotting milk, given only piss-yellow water to drink, left to swelter without air conditioning, crawled upon by spiders.
I will read the newspapers saying “people were firing pepper spray into the crowd.” It’s possible, I guess. I didn’t see or smell any such thing, didn’t see anyone in the crowd of onlookers clutching their face. People were just standing, gawking, like they were watching TV. People in the crowd of onlookers certainly acted and felt like they were completely safe.
I know because I was one of them.
When I see the cops I jump up on the sidewalk. I want to say my next actions were “instinctive,” but they aren’t. I know what I’m doing. I tuck my shirt in, roll my sleeves down. I’m dressed up, in my nice pants and shirt, rumpled though they are. I look like I’m out for a drink.
I blend in. I go from protester to onlooker, just like that. Because of my clothes. Because of my facial features. Because of my skin.
The cops don’t witness this transition. (Not that my moving from the street to the sidewalk matters, there were onlookers walking across the street straight through the crowd while we were protesting anyway.)
Indeed, in a scene right out of "Run Lola Run," a cop taps me on the shoulder and motions for me to get back from the edge of the sidewalk, concerned for my safety.
The kid in the pink shirt is the first one they lead out in cuffs. The street musician just stands there, frozen, while he protests he didn’t do anything--his voices dies as the cuffs snap on. Another man comes out, shoved against the hood of a squad car, shouting “I was peacefully protesting! I told those girls not to step off the street--you can’t do this!”
I hear more cop cars come. The riot gear cops march shoulder to shoulder down the street with purpose. I realize they really are going to arrest everyone--and by “everyone” I mean everyone they identify as a protester, and by everyone they identify as a protester I mean everyone who looks too scruffy or too hippieish or too black to be on East 4th Street.
The crowd of curious onlookers splits into two groups--one that apparently just wants to get the hell away, and one that sees this mass arrest as a free piece of dinner theater. (I hear a guy start his own rhythmic clapping and chanting, “Thank you officers!”)
I slip behind a group of college kids--all white or Asian--strolling casually past the police cordon. We pass without them so much as looking at us. One of them remarks to the other, “Yeah, this happens every time there’s a shooting,” as though discussing the weather.
My heart is racing. I am, I realize now, honestly horrified by the thought of how close I came to being arrested. I’m thanking God for my good fortune and cursing myself for taking advantage of it. I feel like a coward, like a traitor, like a piece of shit. “Model minority privilege” has never been so real to me as the moment I walked past those cops right out of that alley.
Once we were out of sight of the cops I stop and collapse on a bench, trying to find my breath. I see more police vehicles pass me this time--vans, not cars, ready to collect a fresh harvest of detainees. The abandoned campus of Aviation High School will be crowded tonight.
My car is still parked near Cleveland Public Theatre, at 55th and Detroit, two miles away across the bridge. It’s gotten dark. It’s a long way to walk alone, and I’m already dead on my feet. My wife is out of town--there’s no one to pick me up.
I think about ducking into one of the downtown restaurants and bars, filling my stomach, emptying my bladder. The thought of joining the yuppie revelers who are even now discussing “the news from the protests” makes me dry heave.
Instead I start the long walk back.
* * *
Once I cross the bridge, it’s eerily quiet--no officers patrolling on foot, no cop cars barreling down to the scene of the “riot.” It’s like a different world.
I pass a small convenience store--by “small” I mean the whole store is smaller than the living room of my parents’ house. A Middle Eastern man is struggling with a heavy steel table next to his outdoor gas grill. An older man is watching him impassively.
“Hey, friend!” he shouts to me as I walk past. “Can you lend us a hand? I can’t carry anything.” He gestures to his back.
Why not. I walk over to the other end of the table, lift when the younger man tells me to, carry it the few feet back into the store. He thanks me profusely, I tell him not to mention it but ask if I can use his restroom.
The restroom is packed with boxes and the lights in it don’t work. I’m past caring. I pee in the dark.
As I’m about to leave it suddenly clicks for the older man that I’m a pedestrian. “Hey, where you walking?”
I gesture up the street. “My car’s just a few blocks that way.”
“You seem like a nice guy. You need a ride?”
I’m hesitant, but after today, having my luck run out finally by randomly getting mugged would almost be a relief. “Sure.”
He adjusts the seat in his car for me, asks me what kind of music I like. Introduces himself, tells me where he’s from (Cairo), asks me where I’m from (Broadview Heights). His remarks go in one ear and out the other, mostly. But he does make a comment about the kindness of strangers.
He, mercifully, does not ask me where I’m walking from. He doesn’t comment on the thickness of my voice, the way I keep wiping at my eyes.
The stupid marketing slogan runs through my head. “This Is Cleveland” (#ThisisCLE on Twitter).
That was Cleveland, today. The shooting. The acquittal. The frustrated, disorganized rage bashing itself senseless against the walls of the system. The people being herded into cramped smelly vans, charged with “unlawful assembly” for being in East 4th Street when two girls started a fight, based on their clothes and the color of their skin.
The man pulls up next to my car and shakes my hand, tells me to have a nice weekend, drives off.
This is Cleveland too.
I drive home.