Words by Chrissy Suttles
Photos and Video by Jacob Byk
After 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police, his neighbors are working to heal.
A crowd gathers around a once unremarkable concrete picnic table, seeking respite from frigid temperatures under a gazebo on Cleveland’s West Side. At the heart of the table, pressed against stuffed animals, candles and brown-skinned angel statues, is a black piece of paper enclosed in a charcoal frame. Written on it is an excerpt from Esperanza Spalding’s song “Black Gold.”
“Hold your head as high as you can
High enough to see who you are, little man
Life sometimes is cold and cruel
Baby, no one else will tell you so remember that
You are Black Gold.”
The picnic table sits adjacent to the Cudell Recreation Center, less than a foot from where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland Police officer on Nov. 22, 2014. Dispatch alerted officers someone was “pulling a gun in and out of his pants and pointing it at people.” What the dispatcher hadn’t relayed to responding officers is that the caller said it was “probably fake” and that the boy was most likely a juvenile. When Rice didn’t put his hands up at police request, officer Timothy Loehmann fired two shots in two seconds, fatally striking Rice in the torso. Rice had been carrying an airsoft gun. His death was ruled a homicide by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner.
Less than two months after Rice’s shooting, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, more than 100 community members reflect on the incident that tossed Cleveland into the national spotlight.
The four-mile march is organized, in part, by Patrick Mahoney, a Lakewood resident and recent veteran of the 2nd Marine Division.
“We’re on the right side of history. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the streets.”
Mahoney, sporting a black beret and peacoat says he immediately felt a kinship with Rice and his family following the shooting. He tells stories about growing up in a Cleveland suburb, playing “army” with his brothers.
“I was stopped by the police [for] carrying toy guns,” he says.“They just told me, ‘Don’t do that,’ and I think, ‘What if I didn’t live in the suburbs? Would I still be here today?’ Tamir Rice isn’t here today and he’s no more guilty of a crime than I was.”
In the wake of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold; and 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot six times in Ferguson, Mo., by police, motives and policies of police departments around the U.S have been sternly criticized for using excessive force, the Cleveland Police Department being no exception. Moreover, local media’s portrayal of Cudell put the community on defense, with residents publicly and privately condemning the depiction of their home.
Before the march begins, Mahoney asks for a moment of silence for “Tamir, Eric, Trayvon, etc.” As heads fall in solidarity, a brawny gust of wind strikes a worn, marigold stuffed dog and it falls into a puddle of ice and mud. No one seems to notice.
“We’re on the right side of history,” a buoyant, anonymous man shouts above the crowd. “Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the streets.”
Then they turn right on West Boulevard, four miles from their destination: Public Square.
Family members of Tamir Rice hold a moment of silence during a vigil held on the two-month anniversary of his death. The vigil took place at the Cudell Recreation Center, where Rice was shot and killed by a police officer. Photo by Jacob Byk.
More than Meets the Eye
The City of Cleveland is composed of 36 neighborhoods, divided in half geographically by the Cuyahoga River. More than 53 percent of its 390,000 residents are black, many of whom traditionally lived on the city’s East Side because of social segregation. Once Cleveland became the first U.S. city to elect a black mayor, Carl Stokes, in 1969, societal norms began unravelling.
One of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Cleveland is known as Cudell. South of Edgewater and north of West Boulevard, Cudell lies two miles off the banks of Lake Erie. It includes an area of about 1.3 square miles between W. 98th and W. 100th streets and Detroit and Cudell avenues. Cudell’s demographics don’t resemble those of Cleveland as a whole, with 48 percent of its residents being white in 2010 and 34 percent being black. Nine percent, Cudell’s third largest demographic, are listed as “other,” and 5 percent are “two or more” races, according to Census data.
In the ’70s, the working class town was awash with Irish, Polish, Armenian, Italian and Hungarian Americans. Today, its ethnic makeup looks like what designers and art students refer to as a color wheel, where all colors are complementary.
Each block of Cudell offers its own perspective: Some are laced with vacant portico-style, two-story houses residents warn have the potential to become “the newest collection of whorehouses.” Others are mid-20th century duplexes with columns and outward-facing verandas, steep sloping yards and trees lining the roadway. Parts of West Boulevard fit the latter description perfectly and many in this part of town are considered wealthier.
“But most of us are stuck right in the middle,” says Susan Zimmerman, who’s lived within walking distance of the Cudell Recreation Center since 1985. “That’s part of the beauty and diversity of my neighborhood. We have a mix of incomes as well as a mix of cultures.”
Zimmerman is an adjunct journalism instructor at Kent State and Cuyahoga Community College and has taught at Lakeland Community College. She has a professorial look to her, with long gray and white hair tumbling down her back and thin glasses sitting on the edge of her nose. Retired ’70s feminist comes to mind when addressing her wardrobe.
Growing up in Manchester (now New Franklin), Ohio, she made the conscious decision to move to Cleveland in 1979. She sought relief from what she says were tremendously prejudiced parents, devouring media coverage of civil rights activity around the country, most notably marches led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It became a cause deeply embedded within her. Having covered the anti-war protests at Kent State for the Daily Kent Stater, she says she’s kept her distance from recent marches for personal reasons.
“The last time I went to a demonstration, four people were killed,” she says.
The complexity of Cudell is fully realized in Zimmerman’s assessment. She admits sometimes being uncomfortable in particular areas because, she says, residents can fall victim to urban crime. Many residents on her block have experienced a break-in, or worse, she says.
Her most frightening experience in Cudell happened when her neighbor was attacked in front of a vacant home on their street.
Her neighbor is Ron Phillips-Bey, a notably tall, wiry black man in his 60s who lives four doors down. Laugh lines contouring his face and short gray hair receding above his forehead, he has a subtle fearlessness about him—a straightforward ease. He was drafted as a Marine during the Vietnam War in 1969, serving two years. He performed an array of jobs during his years of service, into which he says he adamantly tried to avoid being drafted.
“One of my buddies told me if you take women’s birth control pills, that it would come up that you have too many female hormones and they’d think you’re gay,” he says, followed by his booming trademark laugh. “That didn’t work.”
He recounts the attack in vivid detail. Having used the vacant house next door as a parking lot for some time, he pulled in with his son and wife after returning from a movie. The family spotted two suspicious-looking young men about to enter the home and confronted them.
“I asked them what they were doing, one of the guys said, ‘I’m gonna deaden him,’ and I say, ‘Oh, maybe I better tone it down a bit because this guy may have a pistol,’ ” Ron says.
As he backed off, one of the men began “sucker-punching” him until he was unconscious on the concrete, after trying to defend himself for several minutes using martial arts training.
“They knocked me completely down on the ground and then began kicking me in the head with what were probably metal boots,” he says.
His son, Dahren Phillips-Bey, then a junior in high school, called 911 at the request of his mother.
“I wanted to jump in, but my mom was screaming at me to back up and go get some help,” Dahren says, in the same alarmingly baritone voice as his father. “That’s good advice I guess.”
After regaining consciousness, Ron began to chase the assailants, who fled after a neighbor came outside carrying a shovel, his face swollen and bloodied until police arrived.
They never found the suspects. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While Zimmerman was left frightened following the attack, both Dahren and Ron were angry.
“I wanted to put my fist down their throat,” Ron chuckles. “I said for all the progress we’re supposed to be making for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I go out here trying to protect my neighbors, and I get my ass kicked. Yeah, that’s not progress.”
The attack, if anything, has strengthened Ron’s resolve to protect Cudell from going the way of neighborhoods such as Central, Cleveland, which is by and large considered one of the most dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods in not only Cleveland but the entire country. With a median household income of less than $9,000 in 2000 and more than 90 percent of its population being black, Central is neither diverse nor economically balanced.
While Cudell offers an array of incomes, the neighborhood is no stranger to economic hardship. In 2010, the median income was less than $22,000, about $6,000 less than Cleveland’s during the same year and less than half the national rate of $49,445. The poverty rate was 39 percent during a time when the national rate was 15.1 percent.
Ron moved to Cudell after marrying his wife “about 23 or so years ago,” he says. His aging memory often leaves room for imagination. Growing up on 51st and Woodland, what he says was an equally diverse area, was his inspiration for moving to Cudell.
“It helped, because I didn’t grow up in a segregated neighborhood,” he says. “This area reminded me of when I was a kid. Mixed neighborhood. When I was on 51st there were people of all races and, like here, it’s people of all races. It’s a beautiful blend of people.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a heavily scrutinized article three days after Rice’s shooting, which claimed Cudell is “marred by violence, according to police records and interviews with people who live in the vicinity.”
However, Cleveland’s first district—Cudell’s district—accounted for the smallest fraction of violent crime in the city during 2014, despite it being the city’s second largest of five districts, according to crime statistics from the Cleveland Division of Police.
District 1, which includes Cudell and six other westside neighborhoods, has a population of more than 96,000, only 10,000 less than Cleveland’s largest district. Last year, only 8 percent of citywide homicides, and 17 percent of rapes took place within district lines.
Theft and burglary accounted for the most crime in the district, with 18 percent of citywide theft and 20 percent of burglary.
“I would not call it a violent neighborhood, but I will say that there have been instances of violent crime in that neighborhood as there have been in many neighborhoods in the city,” says Sgt. Ali Pillow, public information officer for the Cleveland Division of Police.
Christopher Quinn, vice president of content at Northeast Ohio Media Group, which works in conjunction with The Plain Dealer, declined an interview to discuss the article, but the organization has published follow-up articles defending its stance, while remaining firm in the belief that Rice’s shooting was a universal tragedy.
“I don’t agree with the criticism, as I believe our duty is to illuminate,” Quinn writes in the Nov. 27, 2014, piece titled “Our stories on Tamir Rice are the latest in the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s examination of how Cleveland police use force.”
Zimmerman is one of a few residents of Cudell who publicly repudiated the paper’s assessment in an op-ed submitted to cleveland.com. Her article, titled “Come Take a Walk on My Block,” was published Dec. 19. In it, she expresses the admiration she has for her neighbors.
“My neighbors are great,” the article reads. “A dozen of us have lived here 20 years or more. People have raised kids here; one family has five children younger than 10. We look out for each other; in nice weather, we hang out on each other’s porches and gather in backyards for special events. Yes, we actually drop in to borrow a cup of sugar or laundry detergent.”
Zimmerman does not, however, believe the Plain Dealer’s assessment was an inaccurate description, just an incomplete one.
“The Plain Dealer portrayed our neighborhood as gang- and crime-infested,” she says. “I wouldn’t say my particular area is infested, but I know some of my neighbors who live on different streets have had those problems.”
Dahren Phillips-Bey, a junior history major at the University of Akron who grew up in Cudell, says some of his more evocative memories come from learning to swim and play baseball at the Cudell Recreation Center, which he says was at the center of his summertime routine growing up. Even after witnessing his father’s attack and hearing countless rumors of violence in the area, he never felt frightened as an adolescent because, he says, he knew his neighbors would have his back.
“I never had any problems with anybody,” he says. “Everyone seemed friendly. No one bothered me. I guess I felt safe with the good people in our neighborhood.”
Protesters make their way down Detroit Ave., a select few carry sizable Pan-African flags, signifying universal civil rights and black liberation. The group is led by powerful, confident-looking members of the Black Man Army, a small, but vocal grassroots organization in Cleveland that supports community-based movements, primarily those of blacks.
Now, they’re in the middle of the road loudly chanting in unison what sometimes resembles beat poetry.
“Tell me what democracy looks like!” “This is what democracy looks like!” they shout, in call-and-response form.
A woman leads the group with a megaphone as residents on the sidelines peer out their windows and doors, offering a curious glance or thumbs up. A vacant police car sits down the road with its lights flashing.
“Back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom. All these racist ass cops, we don’t need ‘em, need ‘em.”
Oncoming drivers quickly realize the pending traffic jam, and almost instinctively, cars begin to whirl down side streets in hordes. Some sit idly by and honk at the demonstration. It’s unclear whether they’re doing it in accordance or hostility.
Only stopping to momentarily block intersections, demonstrators inch closer to the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Two and a half miles down Detroit Avenue, demonstrators take quiet note of the burgeoning police presence around them.
Alternating red and blue lights can be seen conspicuously ahead, arms loop and tighten as unsettled whispers bloom. “Link up or they’ll start snagging people from the back,” the march’s caboose shouts, semi-successfully.
Veterans Memorial Bridge, also known as The Detroit–Superior Bridge, can be seen on the horizon. Protesters ready themselves to make the 949 meter trek across the Cuyahoga River, officially crossing into the city’s east side.
At the bridge’s edge, tensions mount and intonations pierce the air in what seems like anticipation. Cleveland police cars cut off the bridge’s Westbound lane, a man in a blue cap gives careful instructions.
The westbound lane is off limits and anyone who crosses over the burly yellow line will be arrested on site.
“IS this what Democracy looks like?” they shout defiantly as officers call for backup.
Vigil attendees hold back tears while listening to Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, speak about her son. Photo by Jacob Byk.
On Oct. 20, 2014, Ron Phillips-Bey and at least three of his neighbors on West Boulevard dialed 911 in response to what he says was a several-minute-long domestic assault taking place on his street around noon—broad daylight.
“He beat the girl from down this way to up that way,” he says, pointing from one end of his street to the other. “He snatched her purse and threw her down several times.”
Instead of sending a car, the dispatcher repeatedly asked Phillips-Bey if the assailant knew the victim.
“I’m not gonna get out in the middle of it and ask if they know each other,” he says. “I was in worse shape than I’m in now, on two canes.”
Even after the couple fled, no car had arrived to even file a report with the witnesses. The only trace of the incident was calls the department received.
When asked about police response time, Ron struggles to speak, often stuttering.
“I was gonna start cussin’,” he laughs, and spends a few more moments trying to articulate his thoughts aptly. He says he has close friends in the Cleveland police; it’s dispatchers he’s had the most complications with over the years.
“The dispatchers are not sensitive enough and that’s what caused that kid up there to be shot. They drove up into Cudell, into the Gazebo, like they were gestapos and didn’t even take full assessment of what was happening,” he says.
The average response time from when a call is dispatched until when an officer arrives is eight minutes in Cudell, Pillow says.
Beth Mandl had been working as a dispatcher for the Cleveland Police Department about four years when she was tasked with relaying a Category 1 at the Cudell Recreation Center to responding officers. According to police use of force policy, a Category 1 is a deadly active, or anyone “presenting a deadly threat with a firearm, edged weapon, deadly ordinance, Taser/Conducted Electrical Weapon, or any other instrument or substance capable of causing death or serious physical injury.” This, according to the policy, justifies using deadly force at the discretion of the officer involved.
“Simply carrying a gun might not be a crime and might not generate a response from an officer. But all encounters with someone carrying a weapon are done with caution,” Pillow says.
“I hope that this is bringing our community together because the violent death of a child diminishes all of us.”
Mandl was informed the gun was probably fake, but her decision not to relay this information to officers was defended by police spokespeople because, as the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association president at the time, Jeffrey Follmer, said following the shooting, “We have to assume every gun is real. When we don’t, that’s the day we don’t go home.”
Both Mandl and Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Rice, had questionable backgrounds before arriving in Cleveland. Mandl was fired from her previous job as a dispatcher for Case Western Reserve University’s police department, most likely following a concealed carry violation and subsequent arrest in 2008. Loehmann was in the process of being fired by the Independence Police Department when he resigned in December 2012. Official memos stated he was “distracted and weepy” during weapons training and was repeatedly disciplined for being inattentive and emotionally unstable. He was hired as a Cleveland police officer less than two years later.
Because the most recent hiring policy does not require department officials to review previous employers’ personnel files, both Mandl and Loehmann were hired with arguable ease. Pillow says the department is now working to amend those policies in order to set more rigid guidelines.
Although Cleveland police policy explicitly states “a respect for human life shall guide members in the use of force,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department called the city to adopt swift, widespread reform in the department Use of Force policies. The investigation revealed a longstanding use of excessive force, lack of accountability and ineffective policies throughout the department—from falsifying police reports to unnecessary brutality—including violating citizens’ constitutional rights.
“The current pattern of constitutional violations is even more troubling because we identified many of these structural deficiencies more than ten years ago during our previous investigation of CPD’s use of force,” the 58-page review reads.
The most striking of the report’s findings: Officers often fired their guns at those not posing imminent danger and are unlikely to be challenged about it.
Despite these findings, on Feb. 27, city officials’ response to the 71-page lawsuit filed by the Rice family following the shooting indicated they will argue Rice’s death and subsequent suffering the family endured was “directly and proximately caused by their own acts, not this Defendant (Loehmann).” Not until the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into Rice’s death is complete will these charges possibly be addressed in court. The Rice family, alongside the Cleveland Police Department, declined to comment on these recent developments.
Zimmerman says she’s had mostly positive experiences with the Cleveland PD, but the Cleveland veteran offers some suggestions she believes would mend the tensions between citizens and enforcement, such as the use of rubber bullets and community policing. Overall, though, she wants to see healing in her home.
“I hope that this is bringing our community together because the violent death of a child diminishes all of us,” she says. “I like to imagine most of my neighbors are in sympathy with the family and friends of Tamir and that we all will work together to avoid such issues in the future.”
Regardless of how Cudell residents feel about police, everyone seems to agree this particular altercation should’ve never happened.
“When you’re 12 years old, you do some foolish stuff,” Ron says. “I did some very foolish shit when I was 12. The policeman didn’t get a chance to stop and see if it was a kid and see if it was a toy gun. We’ll never know [what he was doing with the gun] because the way he was shot.”
At least seven police cruisers impede the westbound lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge as protesters unbraid to squeeze through the mass of metal and rubber. Clearly spotting an opportunity to intervene, police step out in droves to, it seems, reason with the now scattered, disorganized horde before taking disciplinary action. The better part of the demonstration concedes and continues down the bridge in the eastbound lane.
“We have to get people off this bridge now,” someone shouts as the crowd accelerates.
A few feet behind, cries of “They’ve got Michael,” erupt and they come to a halt. Not everyone followed police instruction. An older white man with a defeated, almost muddled look cloaking his face is being led to a swarm of vehicles.
Protesters grab the man, engaging in a perilous battle of tug-of-war with police for several minutes. The man is thrown on the concrete in the defiant display. “Give him back!” the crowd demands. Police, overwhelmed and underprepared for such an engagement, propel through using unified force, one holding “Michael” by the left arm, the other the right. They lift the man, now suspended in police custody, and slide him in the back of a police car. One of the black officers seems to wipe a tear from his face inconspicuously.
Michael Fiala, 60, was arrested for aggravated disorderly conduct. David Steinmuller, 29, and Edward Lessin, 74, joined him moments later. All men taken into custody were white.
As the dust settles, protesters examine their wounds following the episode. Many, including Mahoney, dab blood with their sleeves.
After the hour-long standoff on the bridge, those who remain walk single file on the narrow walkway against the bridge and eventually dissipate into groups of five to later meet for another march on the city’s east side.
“Never a dull moment,” an officer jokes to a colleague, smirking.