My wife and I arrived in Cleveland in 1980 with activist creds won in our youth. She organized against the tracking of Chicano students in the Phoenix, Arizona public schools, and I participated in the anti-Vietnam War and early environmental movements.
In that time, though the Kucinich administration had just fallen victim to a coordinated campaign to kick it out of City Hall, the freeze was a ways off. There was still a very vibrant Saul Alinsky-style community organizing movement in the neighborhoods. People were forcing the powers that be in the banks and insurance companies to correct long records of neglect and abuse of neighborhood residents. In their spare time, they also enjoyed terrorizing recalcitrant City Hall bureaucrats.
I had originally planned to go to graduate school at Cleveland State University but found that it was not what I wanted. So I got a job with a housing development nonprofit that was a spin off of one of the organizing groups, Near West Neighbors in Action. The nonprofit Near West Housing Corp. had just transitioned from being the neighborhood housing committee and was a standalone development corporation led by a former organizer. In those days, people in the nonprofit development corporations did not think of their organizations as part of an industry. They thought of them as part of a movement, with a social conscience and ethos.
To us, our neighborhood was not “Ohio City.” It was the Near West Side. A poster on our office wall said, “Cleveland is an Ohio City. This is a neighborhood.” It was accented by a dollar sign within a circle with a slash through it. Nothing could be further from the current self-image of today’s development corporations.
As part of the movement, we were expected to help parent groups during the always-mad convention periods and cover block club meetings. We also took part in direct action events called “hits,” such as occupying a bank office, or visiting a City Hall official who did not answer our invitations to a meeting. We were brash, arrogant and fearless.
But we met our Waterloo when confronting the Standard Oil of Ohio Corp. for money to weatherize housing. This culminated in the hit on the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club in September 1982, when we heard that Alton Whitehouse, CEO of Sohio, would be there. We showed up, and did not find him, but we caught hell for the action.
As powerful as we felt we were, we were also dependent on funding from local foundations, who were not pleased by the hit and began defunding the organizing groups. Money was instead channeled to more “reasonable” development corporations.
It amounted to a counterinsurgency effort from Cleveland’s elite. The first step was getting rid of Kucinich. The second was getting rid of the organizing groups. Nonprofit directors quickly learned not to mention organizing in their funding requests. It wasn’t smart to say too much about advocacy. When it came to organizing, Cleveland entered a deep freeze.
The new drumbeat became economic development, or “bricks and mortar.” Former organizers became development corporation heads or they left the field entirely. Heavily subsidized downtown development projects were rubber-stamped by Cleveland City Hall and the county. The dollar sign that we rejected on our old poster reigned supreme. Bringing back the suburban middle class was the goal. The police could handle the poor.
But as the activists went quiet during the late 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, the old demons of Cleveland’s history remained beneath the development agenda gleam. Cleveland’s problems mirrored the ones in other places across the country. Gilded Age levels of inequality, the continued scourge of racism and environmental decline make for poor foundations for social stability. Nationally, there were finally signs of life for an activist response as many took to the streets during the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Locally, the last few years have been right for a thaw. The Tamir Rice shooting showed that police impunity was as much a reality here as it had been during the Hough and Glenville riots. Like in Flint, Michigan, Cleveland’s children were being poisoned by lead. Even the revival of Lake Erie hit a wall with zebra mussels and toxic green algae.
Responding to those issues, left-leaning activists have melted Cleveland’s ice. I was excited to be involved in most of those efforts, having wrapped up my working life with the Cleveland Tenants Organization. The first was the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, which melded electoral work with old-fashioned activism. The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus formed out of the Sanders campaign, and began to organize activists again. The Republican National Convention was a kickstart too, as activists gathered for the End Poverty Now March during the convention.
Last, but not least, was the campaign against the Quicken Loans Arena (now called Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse) renovation in 2017. Never before had the rubber-stamping of development projects faced so much organized, vocal opposition.
Even Crain’s Cleveland Business recognized that, to use the old, overused saying, the times were a-changing. In a Jan. 1, 2017 editorial, it urged the city’s establishment to get a better stadium deal: “Let’s call it what it is: a $70 million handout.”
Our activism had convinced even the city’s business mouthpiece to be skeptical of the deal. We eventually almost defeated the project, had it not been for one of our coalition partners, which finally buckled under establishment pressure.
I have been in lean times and I have been in these times, and I much prefer now to the past deep freeze. Cleveland’s activists are coming alive.
But no one wants to return to the freezer. Today’s activists should dodge the trap my generation fell into by building up grassroots organizations and avoiding dependency on foundation funding.
Activism is the pulse of democracy. That pulse is stronger now in Cleveland than it has been for decades, and it must keep beating, despite daunting odds. As the African anti-colonialist Amilcar Cabral cautioned, “Claim no easy victories.”
8:00 AM EST
June 4, 2019