Cleveland Councilman Blaine Griffin joined protestors near the Free Stamp on Saturday to protest the killing of George Floyd. At first, he was uplifted and then dismayed. “It was a peaceful protest, a great deal of diversity, people from all perspectives and styles, and people got the message across,” says Griffin. “After that, it just devolved into complete and utter chaos.”
On Monday, with downtown still under lockdown, Griffin went to work, which due to the coronavirus meant a Zoom meeting from his house. The chairman of City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee, Griffin had introduced a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis in March. It was pure coincidence that the committee was scheduled to consider the resolution following so shortly after the protests. But the protests, illustrating the need for such legislation so vividly, sped along its passage. Griffin’s resolution originally had two cosponsors — council members Basheer Jones and Kerry McCormack — but by the meeting’s end it had acquired many more. It has moved forward to a full council vote.
We caught up with Griffin via phone after the meeting to talk about the protests, the resolution and what comes next.
What message did you hear from the protesters on Saturday?
A message of frustration. A message of being tired. People are overwhelmed. I heard a city and a nation crying out for justice. But then it quickly turned to people that had an agenda, and clearly their agenda was to do damage to person and property. To me, that was unacceptable, especially some of the damage that I’ve seen and some of the people who got hurt in the process, who really came down there to protest. There were a lot of people who were assaulted, confronted and really made to feel uncomfortable.
Do you think the tactics used by Cleveland police, like tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bangs, were appropriate?
I think that the police department showed a tremendous amount of restraint to begin with. But then as things began to escalate, I think that they had to use different tactics. The one thing I will say about the folks who decided to do damage to person and property: somebody has been training them, somebody has been funding them, somewhere there was some way for them to be more organized, more strategic in the targets that they wanted to hit and the people that they wanted to confront in the past. I think that the police department used some of the tactics that they have deployed in the past. Once the situation escalated, they were put in a position where they had to utilize [them]. But the radical group of protestors, I think they had a strategy too.
Do you have any proof that there were these trained groups?
I would just tell you by watching them in action, and my experience seeing other protests and civil unrest events. I can just tell you that they were more prepared and better trained, as far as how to actively cause damage than in the past. Which shows me, by virtue of me seeing it, that they’ve learned some different tactics.
But you don’t have any direct proof, from the police department or investigations of any kind?
No, I don’t have that. A lot of it is hearsay. But the spray painting and the symbols that were used clearly show who a lot of those groups allegedly belong to. If you look at the symbols that they spray painted and put up across the city, you can tell who some of them might be affiliated with.
That kind of argument has some historical echoes here in Cleveland, from the 1966 Hough Riots. After the riots there was a grand jury report, which blamed organized black nationalists and Communists for sparking the violence. Some historians have said that blaming outside agitators let city leaders sidestep around their own role in perpetuating the social conditions that led to the riots. So do you actually think that outside agitators are to blame here?
A lot of people believe that there were agent provocateurs. The local chapter of some of the activist groups that have constantly been at the forefront of activism in our city, they were upset because they’re getting blamed for the violence that is happening. They said that they are not affiliated with that, that they’ve separated themselves from that. So they even believe that there were some agent provocateurs embedded in the crowd, and that theory is coming up across the city as well. So do people have proof? There isn’t a report that’s going to come out where people are going to start naming faces like in a gang lineup. But I’m sure the investigations will turn up some results, because a lot of them are being investigated now.
[Editors Note: Reporting by News 5 Cleveland has shown that all of the 120 people booked into the county jail over the weekend listed Ohio addresses, most from Northeast Ohio.]
Is there positive change that you hope could come out of this?
If you don’t identify racism as the sickness that it is, and you don’t make equity the center of how we move forward, as we come out of this COVD-19 crisis and as we come out this terrible, riotous behavior that we’ve seen this weekend, then we’ll have people just as frustrated, if not even more. They feel like their voices are not being heard. So we have to look at what we can put in place in order to release some of the pressure. That’s going to come from changing policies and structures and making equity the center of everything that we do. Unless we deal with racism, unless we deal with equity, unless we eliminate some of these disparities, then there’s a chance that we’ll be having this conversation in another one, two, three, four or five years.
The mayor has called in the Ohio National Guard, and there’s a cordon around downtown and parts of Ohio City right now. Essentially, the center of the city is barricaded off. Do you think that was the right call?
Yes, I do. I think that they had to do that. The biggest concern I have now is that they make sure they also protect assets in the neighborhood. There are some parts of Cleveland that we’re concerned they may show up in and try to create problems there. I think that he had to take those measures because of the way it escalated.
The police department is still operating under the consent decree with the Department of Justice. After what you saw on Saturday, do you think the department has done enough to reform itself?
Most of the people that I talked to said the police acted in a professional manner. This was a litmus test if the system worked, if the reform worked. That’s one part, but the reform was also supposed to be about safety and enhancing safety, and having better police-community relationships. Clearly, the folks that came in prepared with the agenda to cause damage, they’re not on that same level. I think that the city of Cleveland and the residents have worked hard to have a better relationship with the police, worked hard to reform the police. We’ve had one shooting by an off-duty officer recently. We haven’t had near as many shootings. With the institution of cameras, the number of [use-of-force] incidents has gone down. I think we’ve seen improvements. But some of the people who come into Cleveland from outside Cleveland don’t have the same level of relationships with the Cleveland Division of Police, or the sincerity to the mission of the consent decree that the residents and stakeholders of the city of Cleveland have. Because that element doesn’t have the same level of respect for all the work that has been done, they acted out the way they did this weekend.
You introduced a resolution to declare racism as a public health crisis back in March, and held a hearing on it today. That resolution will be up for a full council vote this Wednesday. Why was it important to declare racism as a public health crisis in Cleveland?
Because before you can cure something, you have to first identify it. You have to understand what you’re trying to address. It’s almost like the old saying that the biggest trick that the devil played on mankind was to convince him that he didn’t exist. What we have to do is make sure that we first acknowledge it. But, looking at this from a public health lens, once you acknowledge a public health crisis or epidemic, you then need to make sure that you put the strategies, mechanisms, in place in order to eradicate the sickness or disease that you’re trying to address.
So if racism is declared to be a public health crisis by the city of Cleveland, how does that apply specifically to the police department?
Through what they’re doing now. We have to continue to stay on board with the tenets of the consent decree. We’ve been on board with police reform and the consent decree for the last five years almost, they’ve hit all the metrics on there. We still have work to do. We already gave a document and a guideline to the police department. What we need to do is look at how all of these different systems that we’re trying to reform, how do they help protect our constituencies in the city of Cleveland, and also how do we improve their lives, and promote a healthy lifestyle for all the residents of the city of Cleveland? That’s what we’re trying to do now. It’s not just the police department. It’s across all the systems.
What do you think the next few days could hold?
I told my family yesterday that there’s this, like, heavy burden that’s over me right now. I think right now, everybody in Cleveland has that heavy burden. It’s like a period of mourning, a period of disbelief. We’ve seen the worst of Cleveland this weekend, but I think people are pushing for how we can see the best of Cleveland from now, going forward. It’s going to be hard work. It’s going to be challenging to make everybody understand why we have to address these systemic and institutional inequalities and racism, and why we have to do it. But I think people are really going to start taking it serious because they understood that the lack of listening and understanding bubbled up this weekend, and manifested itself in people getting hurt and property getting damaged.