EHS OutLoud Blog

Sandy Says: Burn Baby Burn

by Sandy Smith
Mar 18, 2016

Will the Republican National Convention spark riots in Cleveland? At least one political candidate seems to think so.

Donald Trump announced March 16 that he predicts riots will break out in Cleveland, the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention, if party leaders deny him the presidential nomination.

The Republican National Convention opens on July 17, 50 years to the day of the start of the Hough race riots in Cleveland.

On July 17, 1966, a white bar manager in a predominately black neighborhood put up a sign stating he would not give water to black patrons. He refused service to two people and a crowd gathered, quickly followed by a large police presence. Bricks were thrown, guns went off, chaos ensued and eventually, Gov. James Rhodes called out the National Guard.

In a six-day period, four people were killed, 30 were critically injured and entire city blocks burned. I was three years old, and I saw Hough burn.

My mother’s uncle, who lived in another state, was having surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, which was a few blocks from Hough. His family was staying at a hotel next to the clinic and we picked them up to take them to dinner. From their room on an upper floor, I stood at the window and watched an entire neighborhood turn to ashes.

A grand jury convened in August 1966 to determine the cause of the riots and to assign blame. Not surprisingly, in a city where the schools had to be forcibly desegregated, the jury found that “the outbreak of lawlessness and disorder was both organized, precipitated and exploited by a relatively small group of trained and disciplined professionals at the business. They were aided and abetted… by misguided people of all ages and colors, many of whom are avowed believers in violence and extremism, and some of whom are either members or officers of the Communist Party.” In addition, white juries acquitted white defendants accused of murdering black victims during the riots.

Subsequent investigations found no organized group of “trained and disciplined professionals” and no formal involvement by the Communist Party. In reality, the riots were the result of profound poverty, a sense of uneven distribution of wealth and services, a lack of support from the city administration and institutionalized racism in both the police department – fewer than 10 percent of the officers were black – and in the city.

Earlier in 1966, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the city to be more understanding of the needs and challenges facing the community, with one commission member calling conditions in the Hough area the worst he had ever seen. Mayor Ralph Locher disputed the commission’s claims.

Which brings us to 2016. A grand jury acquitted two white Cleveland police officers of any wrongdoing in the shooting of a 12-year-old black child, Tamir Rice, who the officers believed was pointing a gun at people near a city recreation center. The gun, it turns out, was a toy.

Protesters have gathered a number of times in downtown Cleveland to protest the grand jury ruling, what they perceive to be other acts of brutality by police, racism in the city, a lack of response by the city to their concerns and a number of other issues. Their concerns echo those voiced in 1966. And just as in 1966, a federal agency recently sounded an alarm.

In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Cleveland announced they had “entered into a court-enforceable agreement to address the department’s findings that the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The agreement will create widespread reforms and changes within the CDP.”

Much like Locher in 1966, Mayor Frank Jackson has disputed a number of the findings of the DOJ report and despite the signed agreement, is dragging his heels on embarking on any kind of substantial change. Instead, he’s ordered extra riot gear for the convention.

I hope that Donald Trump doesn’t understand the historical significance of what he said. If he does, then shame on him.

And I hope he’s wrong and my city doesn’t burn. Only time will tell if history repeats.

Speaking as someone who had a front row view of the Hough riots: it’s not looking good.