Henry Gomez, May 23, 2015
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Peaceful protests gave way to skirmishes and arrests Saturday, following the acquittal of a Cleveland police officer involved in a deadly 2012 shootout that presented the latest test to a city navigating unprecedented tensions between its citizens and law enforcement.
Mayor Frank Jackson and other city leaders had for weeks prepared for the worst – the possibility of dangerous and damaging riots like those that broke out after other police-community conflicts in Ferguson, Missouri, and, more recently, Baltimore.
For the most part, they got the calm they had urged. Protesters were high on emotion. But in the hours after the verdict, as they moved from the Justice Center and folded into neighborhood demonstrations or resurfaced later in the evening downtown, they remained nonviolent if increasingly disruptive.
Police arrested roughly 40 — including a Northeast Ohio Media Group editor and two legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild.
Earlier in the day, during the second of two public briefings with Police Chief Calvin Williams Jackson had praised the protesters for being respectful.
“This is a moment that will define us as a city, define us as a people as we move forward and address not only the issues surrounding this verdict, but those things that come in the near future,” the mayor said during his first news conference at Public Auditorium.
The city and the U.S. Department of Justice are in the midst of negotiations aimed at reforming police practices. The community also awaits the results of an investigation into last year’s officer-involved shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“It is my expectation that we will show the nation that peaceful demonstration and dialogue is the right direction as we move forward as one Cleveland,” Jackson said. “We all understand and respect the fact that people have a right to protest and let their voice be heard. However, while we encourage and support peaceful protest, I want to make sure that those who are here that have a different agenda understand that actions that cross the line, whether by police officers or citizens, cannot and will not be tolerated.”
The officer, Michael Brelo, stood accused of two charges of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the Nov. 29, 2012 police chase and shooting that killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. After a month-long bench trial and nearly three weeks of deliberations, Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell found Brelo not guilty on both counts. O’Donnell also determined Brelo was not guilty of the lesser offense of felonious assault, ruling that he was legally justified in his use of deadly force.
Brelo, 31, was among more than 100 officers involved in the 22-minute chase and one of 13 who fired a total of 137 bullets at a 1979 Chevy Malibu. The shooting ended with the deaths of the driver, Russell, and his passenger, Williams. No gun was recovered from the car.
Prosecutors had argued that when other officers stopped firing, Brelo jumped onto the Malibu’s hood and shot straight down at Russell, 43, and Williams, 30. Those actions, they argued, were unreasonable and went well past his duties as a police officer.
Race – Brelo is white, Russell and Williams were black – became a flashpoint as Cleveland and other cities across the country face increased scrutiny for the relationship between their police departments and the minority community.
A careful reading and an emotional response
O’Donnell took his time Saturday while explaining his 34-page decision, slowly working his way up to the verdict. The judge said that while he had concluded Brelo fired lethal shots at Russell and Williams, other officers did, too. He found that it was impossible to know whose shots were responsible for the deaths. O’Donnell also accepted Brelo’s defense – that he fired the shots because he feared for his life.
Brelo’s attorney, Pat D’Angelo, lauded O’Donnell afterward for “the outstanding display of judicial decision-making that you’ve all witnessed in the case.”
Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty was “profoundly disappointed” by the verdict.
“The trial,” said McGinty, flanked by a dozen assistant prosecutors at a news conference, “forced us to examine how and why so many errors and flawed assumptions could have led to the deaths of two unarmed people – a totally innocent, trapped and essentially kidnapped mentally ill passenger and a panicked and disturbed petty criminal – after a chase of more than 20 minutes and 20 miles that involved more than 100 officers and was led by a group of supervisors who ignored their training and Division of Police rules.”
Russell’s surviving family members remain unhappy that Brelo was the only officer to face criminal charges directly related to the shooting deaths.
“It wasn’t all Brelo’s fault in my mind,” said Donald Russell, his brother. “They put it all on Brelo. They’re trying to stick everything on him and let all the other ones go.”
The city reached a $3 million settlement, split between Williams and Russell families and their attorneys. Five police supervisors have been charged with dereliction of duty in the case, but they have not yet gone to trial. Other officers involved face internal discipline, and that process will continue now that Brelo’s trial is over, city officials said Saturday.
O’Donnell’s ruling drew a number of politically charged responses.
U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Warrensville Heights and past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the verdict “another chilling reminder of the broken relationship between the Cleveland Police Department and the community it serves.” And at least two Cleveland City Council members called for Brelo’s firing.
“The last time I checked, this is Cleveland, Ohio,” said Councilman Zack Reed. “You don’t treat the citizens of Cleveland like you treat terrorists of Afghanistan.”
D’Angelo engaged with some heated words, too.
“I have never … witnessed such an unprofessional and vicious prosecution of a police officer,” said D’Angelo, blasting McGinty at a news conference. “This has been a blood fight, tooth and nail – day in, day out, sleepless nights, threats, intimidation and coercion. And we stood tall, we stood firm because we didn’t do anything illegal, we didn’t do anything wrong, and I’ll be damned if I was going to let any bully push us around.”
On the calmer end of the rhetoric scale, Gov. John Kasich and Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish joined the mayor in calling for peace.
“The court has spoken, and we must respect its decision,” the governor said in an emailed statement. “Everyone must have the right for their response to be heard – including when they are angry and hurt – and voicing that frustration in a peaceful way helps us all rise above those forces that would hold us back and tear us down.”
A no-rioting ‘guarantee’
The early moments following O’Donnell’s ruling brought tense moments outside the Justice Center. Dozens of protesters rushed up the steps toward the entrance, where about two-dozen Cuyahoga County Sheriff deputies in riot gear kept them at bay. The groups stood toe-to-toe for several minutes until deputies went inside the courthouse.
The protesters then walked down Lakeside Avenue, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” The demonstration never escalated to violence.
“The words ‘no justice, no peace’ have never meant violence,” activist Art McKoy told reporters, suggesting that media were overhyping the possibility of riots. “Why do you all completely talk about violence? I guarantee you right now – and I wish you all would stop this – there will be no rioting in the streets. There will be no violence.”
Some eventually moved on to join planned demonstrations on the city’s West Side, where about 200 protesters eager for criminal charges in the Tamir Rice case marched from Impett Park to McGinty’s home. The prosecutor won’t begin weighing that case until the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department completes its investigation.
The West Shoreway briefly shut down in both directions as a group of about 150 made its way toward the Cudell Recreation Center, where Tamir was killed last November and where protesters planned to meet up with those from the earlier Impett Park rally.
East Side neighborhoods were calm throughout the day. Residents enjoyed the clear, sunny weather. There were no signs of trouble at the Lee-Harvard Plaza, which city leaders had identified in their crisis preparations as a potential hot spot.
The relative order of the demonstrations was a source of pride at City Hall, on social media and among the protesters, who credited careful organization.
“I think it’s an effect caused by what people have seen across the nation,” said Turner Fair of Cleveland. “We’ve been able to learn from them, to take the good and the bad from other cities and do what’s best for Cleveland.”
Others credited timing. Judge John J. Russo, the court’s administrative and presiding judge, said there was agreement that a Saturday morning announcement would lessen “the potential for downtown traffic issues and the resulting impact on the community.”
“The decision to announce the verdict in this high-profile case on a holiday weekend was not made lightly,” Russo said. “It was done so following consultation between the Court administration, other court officials, and the local law enforcement community.”
But as a 4 p.m. baseball game between the Indians and Cincinnati Reds neared at Progressive Field, some protesters got rowdy. They debated whether to stay put, join the others at Cudell or march into the East Side neighborhoods and ultimately settled on a loop around the Horseshoe Casino, East 4th Street and Tower City Center.
The group stopped at Euclid Avenue – where some wrote “F— the police” and “revolution not a riot” in chalk – before heading west toward Cudell.
Stragglers remained. And as afternoon turned to evening and the end of the Indians-Reds game, several minor scuffles broke out near the ballpark and The Q arena. Northeast Ohio Media Group reporters and photographers witnessed police take at least three people into custody following a clash with officers. Police confirmed one arrest – of a man who threw something through a window, injuring a woman at a bar.
After dark, skirmishes broke out as protesters marched down East 4th Street and engaged with patrons on the city’s prime restaurant row. Police led at least three away in handcuffs and other officers in riot gear arrived on the scene.
The disruption resulted in a crackdown by police. From then on, demonstrators squared off with officers in riot gear for several hours in an around downtown’s entertainment districts. Police arrested more than a dozen people who they say refused to move or blocked sidewalks and alley ways.
At around 9:45 p.m., several dozen officers pushed through an alley in the Warehouse District between West Sixth and West Ninth streets, chanting, “move back, move back.”
After police blocked the alley at both ends, they arrested numerous demonstrators and others in and around the scene, including Northeast Ohio Media Group crime editor Kris Wernowsky, who was recording the demonstration for a live feed on Twitter’s Periscope video service.
The arresting officer said that if Wernowsky had a photo identification card to show he is a journalist, he would have been released, as was at least one other journalist with a card. Wernowsky did not have one. The reason for his arrest was not clear. Wernoswky was released around 11:30 p.m.
City officials and police will keep tabs on protesters through the holiday weekend. Mayor Jackson will brief the public again at 9 a.m. Sunday, unless significant developments happen before then that would compel him to provide an earlier update.
“So far, the protesters are making their voices heard in a peaceful and respectful way,” Jackson said at his final 4 p.m. news conference Saturday.
As for the Tamir Rice investigation, the sheriff has said his department’s work is almost done. From there, McGinty will present the case to a grand jury.
And as for Brelo, federal officials said Saturday that they are not done looking at his case.
“We will now review the testimony and evidence presented in the state trial,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a joint statement with U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony. “We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options, and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system.”
That review is separate from a Justice Department investigation that found a pattern of excessive force used by Cleveland police. The department is negotiating with the city on a consent decree that would detail how Cleveland will fix such problems.
Henry Gomez, May 23, 2015, “Activists continue march for ‘justice’ after the Michael Brelo acquittal: The Big Story”, cleveland.com, http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2015/05/activists_continue_march_for_j.html#incart_maj-story-1