Shakyra Diaz, policy manager for the ACLU of Ohio, asked everyone in a crowded meeting hall who knew someone with a criminal conviction to raise a hand. Almost every person – mostly youth – lifted an arm overhead.
This was a respectable crowd – a City Club of Cleveland forum – and the arms aloft were eloquent. “The land of the free cannot be the land of the lock down,” Diaz said, and a junior at Gilmour Academy jotted the sentence in pencil on her program.
The note-taking at “A Conversation on Race” at the City Club youth forum was no accident. The urgency of police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland had drawn a crowd. Panelist and poet Basheer Jones challenged the hundreds of high school and college students assembled: “There is more we can do. Come prepared to write things down. You won’t remember everything said today. Teachers, have their students bring their weaponry. An African proverb says: ‘Do not build your shield on the battlefield.’”
Diaz and Jones were joined at the front of the room by Jonathan Gordon, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, and Andres Gonzalez, police chief of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“Cops, we don’t always get it right,” said Gonzalez, the first Hispanic chief of police in the Northeast Ohio County. “That’s true….A police department is only as strong as the community allows it to be. When the community loses faith in the department that is almost the beginning of the end.”
Diaz zeroed in on system inequity: Cleveland is the fifth most segregated city in the United States; Ohio is sixth in its incarceration rate; fourth for incarcerating women. “This country is number one in the world for incarcerating adults and children,” she said.
Gordon brought forward Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” which examines a system that has now put more African Americans behind bars than there were slaves in 1850 before the Civil War. Jones stressed that the students in Collinwood and Glenville High Schools struggle in dilapidated buildings while the new juvenile detention center gleams like a “Taj Mahal.”
Metal detectors in schools condition students for prison, Diaz said, and schools that lack soap and toilet paper telegraph a lack of worth. All this connects, she said, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When one student asked how to respond to those who claim they don’t see color, Diaz replied curtly: “That’s a lie. If you can see, you see color. What we shouldn’t do and cannot do is deny human dignity.” Echoing Ta’Nehisi Coates, who spoke at the City Club in August, Jones said, “The worst part about racism is that it creates self-hatred; some look in the mirror and don’t like what they see.”
Jones challenged the students to make sure their younger brothers knew more about the ABCs than Waka Flocka lyrics, more math than Usher. He stressed the importance of allies, noting that among the 30 Clevelanders he organized to go to Ferguson were Jews and Hispanics while “there are people in your community who look just like you who are working toward the destruction of it.”
Gordon underscored the importance of action, starting with the reformation of the Cleveland police department. He pointed to the good work of Facing History and Ourselves and the students at Shaker Heights High School who have battled racism. AutumnLily Faithwalker of Laurel School said she wished the panel, while strong, had focused more acutely on what exactly could be done.
Little is more urgent, Jones said. “If not addressed, these issues we are dealing with right now will be the downfall of our country.”
Two elders of the American Civil Rights movement—Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. and Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell—went before a sold-out Cleveland crowd to consider “the unfinished business of race,” a topic heightened by the November police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a city park.
“Tamir Rice was our child, Cleveland’s child, God’s child,” Moss said at the City Club of Cleveland, “and every parent should feel the loss.”
Dr. Rhonda Williams, director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, came directly to her point: “How do we dismantle white privilege?”
Moss, 79, who counseled U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said the movement makes the most progress when its steps are deliberate. He listed, in order: research, education, mobilization, presentation of findings, negotiation, demonstration.
“The demonstration is not a means to itself but designed to bring about something higher,” said Moss, who served on the inner circle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Whenever we followed the formula, we won. When we did not, we often lost.”
The former senior pastor of Cleveland’s landmark Olivet Institutional Baptist Church cautioned, “We cannot be filled with so much bitterness that our actions are taken as illogical.”
For her part, Campbell, 82, spoke directly to white privilege. She stressed that meaningful racial discussions must be honest, something she and Moss modeled at the City Club, drawing on long decades of friendship. She described professor John Hope Franklin at the Clinton White House calling on whites to be honest about the advantage they enjoy every morning, walking out of their homes free of suspicion simply because of their race.
“Otis Moss, you walk out knowing how the color of your skin makes a difference in how your day will go,” Campbell said, “even though you are Otis Moss in a town that loves you.”
Moss and Campbell told several stories apiece about victories and struggles waged a half century ago, often evoking King’s name. Throughout the room, there were tables of high school and college students, and a sense of generational change.
“Often we demean young people for going out without our approval, after we did the same thing in our time,” Moss said. Asked by a retired school teacher what to do about youth ignorance of history, Moss answered, “Adults don’t know their history either. People read history with their prejudices, not their minds.”
Jerome Mills, a senior at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, asked a question much on the audience’s mind: “How can we create change and protect ourselves in today’s world?” The African-American teen stood listening for an answer.
“Be the best you can be,” said Moss, who carries a copy of the Bible and the U.S. Constitution in his brief case wherever he goes. “Whatever you do, do it so well that no one dead, no one living and no one unborn could do it as well. When you become excellent, you become a leader. In your time and in your space, you can make a difference—at Shaw High School, in your community, in your living room and especially in the library.”
Moss held up Atlanta as an example of a city “willing to come to grips with race and racism there,” insisting, “justice is profitable; oppression is expensive,” an echo of the teaching of W.E.B. DuBois.
“In Ferguson, the dead person was put on trial and the living person, the police officer, was defended by the prosecutor,” Moss said, stressing that expecting victims of police violence to have led perfect lives is another form of racism.
Margaret Mitchell, who leads the YWCA Greater Cleveland, announced her organization’s arrangement of “It’s Time to Talk: Forums on Race” February 23 at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Cleveland. She invited listeners to join, contribute, and perhaps become a racial justice facilitator for the day.
“It’s time for action, Cleveland,” Mitchell said, “on the unfinished business of race.”