by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, January 2016) On December 7th about 40 protesters from The Committee for Social Justice and other civil rights groups gathered on the steps of Cleveland City Hall, prior to the evening City Council Meeting, to protest the “Cleveland Atrocity”, the involvement of 13 Cleveland Police Officers in firing the 137 gun shots that killed unarmed Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell on November 29, 2012. The protesters called on Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Safety Director Michael McGrath to fire all 13 Police Officers involved in the shooting. The demonstrators chanted slogans like, “No Justice, No Peace” and called for “No more thugs in police uniforms.”
When it came time for the City Council Meeting, the group of about 40 began to prepare to enter City Hall. Group leaders informed protesters that no signs were allowed in City Hall, so they would have to leave their signs outside. Individuals with signs made arrangements with others to house the signs in vehicles or somewhere outside until the meeting was over.
Protesters were also informed that they would need an identification card to get into City Hall. One young protester told his two friends attending the protest that he had left his identification card at home. All three decided to leave together, rather than separate.
For those entering Cleveland City Hall, as is the custom in recent years, all had to produce identification and police officers at the door wrote down their names from their identification cards before they went through a metal detector on their way into Cleveland City Hall.
At the door, Community Activist Don Bryant was prohibited from entering City Hall by Cleveland Police saying his “Cleveland Atrocity” T-Shirt was in violation of City Council rules prohibiting signs at its meetings. Several other protesters had T-shirts with writing on them indicating their views, yet were let to pass into City Hall.
When protesters reached the 2nd Floor City Council Chamber they were greeted by a sign outside the Council Chambers that said: “Signs, posters, placards and similar items are strictly prohibited in the Council Chambers.”
Well into the meeting, Councilman Kevin Conwell, per an earlier agreement with the group, read a statement into the record from the Committee for Social Justice and other groups present. The statement called on Mayor Frank Jackson to fire all 13 Cleveland Police officers involved in firing the 137 shots that resulted in the death of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell on November 29, 2012.
Without their signs, without some of their members who left because of barriers to entrance to City Hall, the group received no other recognition other than the reading of their statement by Councilman Conwell. The television cameras panning the crowd instead focused on an ordinance by Councilman Joe Cimperman restricting the sale of flavored tobacco in certain types of retail outlets, and to a complaint by Councilman Matt Zone about a circular from the Plain Dealer called Shop Cleveland that residents complained was littering the streets of Cleveland.
Cleveland City Council does not offer a public forum at its meetings for people to address comments or questions to Cleveland City Council members, so protesters had no other means to voice their concerns that evening. Even if they had gone to a City Council daytime committee meeting, getting on the agenda involves getting the permission of the Committee Chair.
Asked about the signs outside the City Council Chambers, prohibiting signs in the Council Chambers, Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins noted that court cases have offered “time, place and manner” exceptions to first amendment free speech requirements. However, he said, “There are definitely issues of freedom of speech in City Council. Especially in the times we live in, there needs to be more freedom of speech, not less.”
Perhaps Cleveland City Council can address some of the issues that inhibit public participation in their government this year. While visitors to City Hall all during the day are carded at the door, it seems very like being in a totalitarian state rather than a democracy when protesters protesting the police killing of civilians have to have their names written down by a police officer when entering City Hall.
Without a real threat, it would seem that City Council and the Administration are over reacting by having armed guards at the doors and lining the back of the City Council Chambers during a public meeting. After all, Clevelanders attend public meetings throughout the city and engage in civil discourse without the benefit of armed guards and metal detectors. Headlines are not blaring about violent incidents at these meetings.
Another step City Council could take is to assure that public records are immediately given to member of the public requesting them, rather than getting sent to the law department for review. It would seem that there would be very few exceptions that would need such a time consuming review that often makes the document requested outdated by the time it is received. To make the practice routine is a slap in the face to the Ohio Sunshine Law.
Also the City Council should open up the floor for citizens to speak and ask questions in both City Council meetings and committee meetings. Citizens should know how their money is being spent and all citizens should have the same access to discuss the expenditures of funds that is given to developers and billionaire sports team owners. Those involved in a particular issue, or who have inquired about an issue in the past, should be invited by City Council staff to attend meetings to ask questions and express concerns when the issue is brought before a committee.
Cleveland is likely to be in the international spotlight as it hosts the Republican Convention this summer. Let us show the world that we have an open and flourishing participatory democracy. Yes, democracy may be messy, and may take more time, but citizens participating in their government will help to create a better society where citizens feel they have input into the distribution of resources and the making of the rules by which they are governed.