CLEVELAND — The signs of renewal are everywhere in this city, from the bustling downtown to the anticipation of the national spotlight during next year’s Republican National Convention. Even the Cleveland Cavaliers are marching toward the NBA finals.
So civic leaders are determined to make sure that Cleveland’s upswing is not interrupted by riots.
“It’s the comeback city,” said the Rev. R.A. Vernon, whose Word Church boasts the city’s largest congregation. “And it can’t afford to be burnt up.”
As early as Friday, a Cuyahoga County judge is expected to deliver a verdict in the case of Michael Brelo, a Cleveland police officer who took part in a massive police chase in 2012 and helped pump 137 bullets into the car of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, black Cleveland-area residents who died in the shooting and were unarmed.
Now, less than a month after neighborhoods in Baltimore burned and less than a year after Ferguson, Mo., exploded, Cleveland officials fear an acquittal in the Brelo case could touch off the same kind of violence.
So local politicians and clergy members, civic activists and even sports stars are working overtime to provide outlets for people’s frustrations.
“Those of us vested in Cleveland’s success should not follow the pattern and practices of those outside instigators who looted, destroyed businesses and [committed] other crimes that ruined inner-city neighborhoods in Ferguson and Baltimore,” said David Malik, a civil rights lawyer.
Community leaders “are feverishly working together to eliminate police misconduct in Cleveland,” he said, adding, “We are much better positioned than Ferguson or Baltimore.”
The Brelo shooting is known locally as “137 shots” — which, Clevelanders note, is nearly as many bullets as were fired in the law enforcement ambush that killed robbers Bonnie and Clyde in 1934 in Louisiana.
The Cleveland shooting prompted small protests at the time but has found new national attention in recent months as unrest has rocked other cities after cases of alleged police brutality.
The Brelo case is not the only source of frustration in Cleveland. The city is also awaiting the results of an investigation of the November 2014 death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by police while playing with a toy gun at a park near his home. Meanwhile, a Justice Department report concluded last year that Cleveland police routinely use excessive force.
Nonetheless, Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson (D) and other officials are determined to avert retaliatory violence. For weeks, they have been holding meetings with protest groups and community members and enlisting dozens of citizen volunteers to patrol the streets after the verdict, which will be rendered by the judge in the non-jury trial.
“It is my expectation that protests remain peaceful and do not undermine the progress this community has made,” Jackson said in a statement last week. “We are all one Cleveland and we want the same thing: peace, dialogue and positive change.”
City officials have spent months discussing the campaign to preserve the peace. In early December, Jackson and Police Chief Calvin D. Williams — both of whom are black — participated in a forum titled, “Is Cleveland the Next Ferguson?”
And when protesters demanding justice in the Brelo case tried to block interstate traffic, police were ordered not to intervene. Commuters complained, but Jackson declared the traffic delays the “inconvenience of freedom.”
The effort has not been without missteps. Earlier this year, Jackson was forced to apologize when city attorneys appeared to blame Tamir for his own death in a court filing in his family’s civil suit against the police department.
Last month, top city officials had to make amends again when an official city Twitter account asked whether Cleveland should be “burned down” like Ferguson and Baltimore.
“Our intention with the #ourcle campaign was to create a conversation online surrounding community and police relations,” tweeted @CRBcleveland, the account of the city’s Community Relations Board. “We apologize for recent inappropriate #ourcle tweets sent from this account.”
Activist groups angered by the mayor’s reaction to the Justice Department report — and what they consider an inadequate response to the shooting of Tamir — have initiated a mayoral recall. Protests and marches are slated for this weekend, which will mark six months since Tamir was killed.
Another group has scheduled a “Protect Our City” counterprotest, and local clergy members and a group of former gang leaders and ex-inmates are being dispatched to various neighborhoods to call for peace and gather information about potential problems.
Former Cleveland Browns player Reggie Rucker, president of the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, has been heading up the latter effort, supplying nearly 40 men and women he calls “violence interrupters.”
“My people have contacts to the shot callers, the gang bangers and all those who control the streets,” Rucker said. “We are going to avoid what happened in Baltimore, because it’s not going to happen in Cleveland.”
Cleveland police have praised the effort.
“They have credibility out there on the street,” said Cmdr. Deon McCaulley, whose territory includes some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. “We hope they influence others.”
The Word Church, which has especially close ties to city officials, also has been involved in the campaign to calm agitators. The church has made its facilities available to city leaders for emergency meetings.
So far, the city has seen few signs of trouble. Only a handful of protesters have answered calls to march outside the courthouse downtown where the Brelo case will be decided.
Still, “it just takes one copycat to say, ‘Let’s just turn a car over because they did it in Baltimore,’ ” said Vernon, the pastor at the Word Church. Earlier this week, more than 600 people filled his pews to discuss the upcoming verdict and other business.
Among the faithful was Samuel Sparks, a church member and owner of Mr. Wonderful’s Chicken and Waffles, a popular local restaurant. Sparks was quick to brag about the “Sweet Jesus Glaze” that drips from his menu items. But he also acknowledged that he is worried.
“As a business owner, I’m always nervous for the simple fact that . . . there’s so much violence going,” Sparks said. “You never know when it will arrive at your doorstep.”
Colvin is a freelance writer.