This past July marked the 50th anniversary of Cleveland’s infamous Hough Riots, an event that shed light on the dire situation of local race relations. In 2016, Cleveland is still the most segregated city in the nation. In many bars and homes on Cleveland’s west side, the confederate flag flies proudly. Historically black and Latinx neighborhoods have been the victims of displacement through rapid gentrification. The same nepotism, systemic racism and patterns of police brutality are just as present in the Cleveland Police Department as they were in 1966.
Despite this, Cleveland is yet to experience protests or mass nonviolent demonstrations of the magnitude that Baltimore, Ferguson and many other cities across the United States have experienced. While I’m not supporting riots in Cleveland, it is still worth asking why Cleveland has not reacted as other major American cities have in these past three years, which have been marked by a rise in the visibility of police killings of unarmed black and brown people.
The anticipation of riots was especially high during the weekend of May 23, 2015, which marked the six-month death anniversary of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot by two Cleveland police officers outside Cudell Recreation Center. This day also marked the public release of the Brelo Verdict, in which Michael Brelo, a Cleveland police officer, was acquitted for the murders of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell at the end of a car chase in East Cleveland. Though tensions were high, ultimately resulting in the arrest of 71 protesters, no riots occurred. During the Republican National Convention, many people, Clevelanders included, believed that young people of color would not only take to the streets in protest, but would riot in the wake of the convention to voice their discontent.
As I stated before, I don’t want to see riots happen in Cleveland. Rather, I’d like to see a much more productive, proactive response to a system and a city that seems to stack its cards against minorities.
That being said, I was present at the Brelo Verdict protests, and what I saw that day struck a nerve deep inside me, leaving memories that I, much like the city of Cleveland, haven’t been able to shake. During the protests, I sustained an injury from a mounted police officer in the middle of a brawl between police and a few protesters. Later that night, I watched the news footage as 71 nonviolent protesters were trapped by police in an alleyway downtown, then taken into police custody in paddy wagons and prison buses.
I wanted to destroy something, but was terrified of the consequences. Not knowing what to do with that fear and rage, for months I just felt numb. I still have not been able to watch the video footage, taken on my phone, of what happened to me or many of my fellow protesters that day. I have not been back to protest in the same direct and active way since that day. I can’t help but wonder if this was the same sort of inability to digest the events of the Hough and Glenville Riots that has hindered massive participation in nonviolent actions and organizing efforts in Cleveland.
On Jul. 18, 1966, a black woman walked into the Seventy Niners’ Cafe on the corner of East 79th and Hough Avenue with a collection plate for recently orphaned children in the area. She was physically forced out of the bar by the owner. Later that day, a black man entered the bar requesting only a glass of water. The owner forced him out of the bar as well, and afterwards posted a sign in the window stating “No Water For N***ers.” Within hours, a crowd formed outside of the bar. Racial tensions had been escalating for years in Cleveland and especially in the Hough area, which housed a majority of black residents in buildings owned by white slumlords who lived outside of the city limits. Just one year before the city’s next mayoral race, the Hough neighborhood burned for an entire week, resulting in the deaths of four Hough residents and the implementation of martial law.
Fifty years passed. Marginalized communities like Glenville and Hough lived through waves of police brutality, entrapment, Reaganomics, mass incarceration and rampant state-supported drug abuse, all occurring within and around those smoked-out shells of what used to be a community. People demonstrated, but more and more as we entered the 21st century, it seems as if Cleveland’s invisible communities have had less and less incentive to resist. In many cases, it has not only felt pointless but dangerous.
In this way, Cleveland has become a sort of mystery for sociologists, historians, urban studies scholars, and, well, Clevelanders. This mystery deserves much more research than speculation, especially in the advent of a looming Trump presidency.
It begs the question: what have been the lasting effects of the riots in Cleveland? Yes, we can see it in the hollow shells of burned-down houses, banks and apartment units. Yes, systemic dis-investment only steeped these neighborhoods further in the memory of such a traumatic event. But it’s been almost 50 years since the last time Cleveland experienced a riot. In that half-century, other major cities such as Los Angeles and Baltimore have voiced their discontent in the only way that seems readily available.
In a meeting that took place after the Brelo Verdict, many who were present stated that on that day, they “witnessed true evil” at the hands of the police and the city’s administration. I remember in that meeting that all I wanted was for the city, which seemed to have turned its back to me, to burn. And still, we didn’t riot. Even trying to garner support for mass nonviolent demonstrations presents a special challenge for Cleveland residents. What happened 50 years ago that was so traumatic that public memory renders us immobile in the face of unrelenting violence and force? I’m not claiming to know the answer, but only that we as a community need do the work of understanding ourselves if we ever plan on healing from that trauma.