Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration and the Cleveland Police Department have been preparing for the possibility of a violent uprising in the wake of a verdict in the trial of Michael Brelo, the only person facing prison time for the 137 shots the Cleveland Police fired at the unarmed Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell in late 2012. They claim that the city’s preparations are designed to “protect people in protesting and exercising their First Amendment rights.” However, this is a falsehood designed to cover for infiltrating the protests and the Mayor’s fear-mongering is actually endangering protesters’ safety.
Consider the city’s actions. While it’s heartening that Jackson and the CPD have signaled their intention to take a “hands-off” approach to peaceful protesters, descriptions of the “Rapid Response Team” and “Marshalls” the city has enlisted to act as a buffer between protesters and police are deeply troubling. Although billed by the city as a group of independent volunteers, it is clear that they are being trained to act as de facto state agents. As Sam Allard wrote in the Cleveland Scene, the functions of these volunteers, including “embedding in protests” (i.e. undercover infiltration), sound more like a rehash of COINTELPRO than “peacekeeping.” Especially sinister is the intention of the city to equip these volunteers with striking lime-green badges, an affront to the independently-run Legal Observers of The National Lawyers Guild who have identified themselves with the distinctive color since 1968. In response, the NLG felt compelled to put out a statement disclaiming any relation to Mayor Jackson’s “volunteers,” saying “Unlike the City’s volunteers and Marshals, NLG Legal Observers® do not report to, work with, or negotiate with law enforcement or government officials.” The NLG’s work protects protesters from the primary threat to their safety, which is the police. Undermining the NLG in this way shows a blatant lack of concern for protesters’ safety on the part of the Jackson Administration. Ideally, Jackson would abandon the entire charade of trying to protect the safety of protesters and leave that job to the NLG and other legal observers along with street medics who, unlike CPD, protesters can trust to provide first aid if they are injured. The least the Jackson administration could do would be to change the color of the volunteers’ badges in deference to the NLG.
While the primary safety concern for protesters is the risk posed by violence from the police themselves, they also face occasional violence from angry drivers and bystanders. If the police did have a role in protecting protesters’ safety, these individuals would be detained or at least discouraged. To date, however, the police have shown uncharacteristic mercy for such individuals. If Mayor Jackson were truly concerned for protesters’ safety, he would be reminding Clevelanders of the scrupulously peaceful nature of recent local protests, and encouraging Clevelanders not to bring weapons into the situation. Instead, Jackson has been amplifying the unfounded rumors of plans for riots in the city. This has helped to fuel paranoia among Cleveland residents, resulting in plans for counter-protests that have a distinctly threatening tone, including talk of armed retaliation in case of rioting and images of war scenes from the movie 300. As Malaya Davis of the Ohio Student Association emphasizes, protest chants of “No Justice, No Peace” are not meant to suggest violence. It means that Clevelanders should not be peacefully sitting in their homes while injustice reigns in neighboring communities. I call on the mayor to stop spreading rumors of rioting and to remind would-be vigilantes that protesters are almost never armed, and even in Ferguson and Baltimore, families and residences were never targeted.
-Keith Wilson of PTS