The Next 400: What has Cleveland done since declaring racism a public health crisis 1 year ago?
Some Black activists are disappointed in the lack of progress the city has made
CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was brutally murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
The Minneapolis man’s murder sparked a national conversation about systemic racism. His death even led cities across the country to declare racism a public health crisis.
After months of protests in Cleveland and across the country, we wanted to know, what have our city leaders done to dismantle racism in our community?
“Cleveland has joined many municipalities that are doing this,” said Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin. “I think that there’s a clarion call that everyone believes that change needs to take place.”
In June of 2020, the city of Cleveland declared racism a public health crisis. City Councilman Blaine Griffin introduced the resolution. Aside from formally declaring racism a public health crisis, the resolution also created a working group to promote racial equality.
“The working group is meeting regularly with the urban league, the YWCA, the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the NAACP, birthing beautiful communities,” explained Griffin. “We’ve been working and having regular meetings with myself and several members of council on a regular basis in order to really just put the infrastructure in place.”
19 News asked Blaine to talk more specifically about what the city has done over the past year.
“We’ve already created an office in the health department with a budget that will be dedicated that will almost be like a chief equity officer,” Griffin said. “So, we passed that, the mayor signed it into legislation. We’re actually in the process of interviewing somebody to do that.”
Griffin says they are focusing on five critical issues -- housing, health disparities, educational disparities, wealth creation, and the criminal justice system.
“What we’ve found is, we need to coalesce a lot of the people already doing great work in there so we can build a better collaborative system to have a better impact,” Griffin said. “So, like everything else in government, we’re like in the design, build phase where we’re designing what we wanna see and the outcomes we wanna see but building as we go.”
Griffin admits Cleveland still has a long way to go, but he thinks they’re off to a good start.
“403 years, you’re not gonna change anything overnight,” Griffin said. “I am happy that we’ve put some real good infrastructure in place but let’s be honest Kelly, people wanna touch, feel and see change. Until we can actually make the quality of life better and deal with things that the people in this community feel safe, that they feel like they can get a safe, warm affordable housing, that their communities are safe, that they have a path to economic wealth and prosperity until we can address some of those things and make people feel like they have an opportunity to achieve that, then we’re not doing what we need to do.”
19 News asked if we could sit in at one of their racial equity meetings, Griffin denied our request.
“I will say that they’re being very intentional not to try to go public until we actually make some solid steps,” Griffin said.
He said they’ve been working with law enforcement to root out institutional racism as well.
“You know this council has always pushed for fairness and equity and trying to make sure that we’re trying to give police officers the training and the tools, the money to do the training and have the equipment that they need to perform their duties,” Griffin said. “Incidents are down significantly. Everybody is outfitted with body cameras and other things, so even though we still might have some issues, I will tell you that issues between the police and community have decreased significantly since we’ve done some things with the consent decree.”
Cleveland passed the consent decree in 2015. The U.S. Department of Justice determined the Cleveland Police Department engaged in a pattern of excessive force. the consent decree requires the city to make sweeping policy changes.
“Uses of force are down, our uses of deadly force are down, our complaints are down, and our injuries to both our officers and citizens are down,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said in a meeting on January 27, 2021.
According to Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, there was 20 deadly use of force incidents on average every year from 2011 to 2014. He says since the decree, those incidents have been down to an average of 4 a year.
“I don’t wanna just give this lip service,” Griffin said. “I’ve been clear from the beginning that we wanna do this the right way, and I just ask everybody to recognize that we’re not trying to do this fast and sloppy. We’re trying to do this slow and right.”
But many Black activists in Cleveland believe the city could have made much more progress over the past year.
“I think there’s some very good seeds that have been planted, but, yeah, there’s a lot more to be done,” said Alana Garrett-Ferguson.
Alana Garrett-Ferguson, 29, is the social impact manager for the Ohio Woman’s Alliance. She is also an active community organizer in the Cleveland area.
“I think they’ve made more institutional efforts, and so I think they’re working in tandem with like Cuyahoga county in having established an actual board of people that are serving to really tackle what we know as structural racism,” said Garrett-Ferguson.
Garrett-Ferguson believes the progress the city has made so far doesn’t even scratch the surface.
“You’re really not getting to some of those core issues, and with there being almost a year since George Floyd and seeing that we’re still having police shootings, you just kind of feel like you’re just ripping that band-aid off again, but we’re not seeing a lot of accountability with police officers,” she said. “We’re not seeing it with the city of Cleveland, especially with our mayor.”
Garrett-Ferguson said one of the biggest issues in Cleveland is policing.
“When I think of policing, it’s not just Cleveland police; it’s the fact that like right now, you’re in a predominantly black area, and I could probably point to you seven different private police forces that has the power and jurisdiction to arrest people,” explained Garrett-Ferguson. “So, you have Cleveland Clinic; you have Case, you have Cleveland police, you have CMHA, you have RTA, you have the county sheriff, CMSD can come over here like there is a plethora right, and this is a very highly concentrated area of Black people, there a very high concentration of poverty and so that’s the issue.”
Garrett-Ferguson said as a woman of color, she still does not feel like Cleveland is a safer, more inclusive space.
“Things have not changed much this past year,” she said simply. “Especially when we’re comparing it to that issue that sparked it, which is the police shootings and the fact that CMHA, Cleveland police have not released the tapes for Arthur Keith’s murder it’s a very big slap in the face when you see the amount of shootings that are still happening. This city has a long way to go because Black peoples are dying in Cleveland, and the city isn’t doing anything to stop it.”
Daniel Gray-Kontar is the founder and executive artistic director of 12 Literary Arts. He started the nonprofit in 2016. It serves as an incubator for writers of color, but the work they do goes far beyond that.
“What we have to understand is that young people were at the forefront of the protest movement,” Gray-Kontar said. “It was them that was on the streets. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the seniors. It was them, and so we have to listen to them, so why am I cautiously optimistic? I’m cautiously optimistic because for the first time since I’ve been an activist in this city, there is real interest in listening to black and brown youth, inviting them to the table, creating tables for young black and brown people to begin to have conversation amongst themselves, to organize not just in the streets but at the boardroom table and to inform some change.”
Gray-Kontar believes the city needs to create a youth advisory board that is a part of the city government.
“The innovation that young people bring is as relevant as the leadership that adults bring and the historical context that seniors bring,” said Gray-Kontar. “If you put those three things together the innovation, the leadership, the historical context, well then you got something.”
“I think they’re finally being listened to,” said Garrett-Ferguson. “I see a lot more grassroots groups that are being allowed into spaces and being given an opportunity to have their voices heard that I think for far too long they went ignored.”
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