CLEVELAND—Take a 15 minute ride on Cleveland’s RTA Red Line, westbound from the hubbub of downtown and the Republican National Convention, and get off at the West Boulevard station. Go up a flight of stairs, step outside, and cross Detroit Avenue, turn left at the Palazzo, an Italian restaurant that looks like it was pretty cozy and romantic before it closed down. Walk about a half a block, and you’ve reached the border of the Cudell Commons and Recreation Center, where a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice seven months before Rice’s thirteenth birthday, in November 2014.
The park was breezy and warm on Tuesday afternoon, with dozens of children frolicking in a public fountain and others playing basketball and riding the swings. If it weren’t for a pile of stuffed animals left on a picnic table near where Rice was killed, it would be difficult to identify it as the scene of a tragedy. Under the pavilion where Rice played with an airsoft gun before officer Timothy Loehmann shot him in the torso, a group of leftist activists strung up a banner bearing Rice’s name and urging passersby to “Rebel Against KKKapitalism.”
Just outside the pavilion, a 67-year-old black resident of Rice’s neighborhood named Robert Hargrove sat on a park bench, wearing a Coogi baseball cap atop his bushy white hair, watching his grandchildren as they cautiously poked around the table where the activists worked. At one point, a granddaughter brought Hargrove a cup of popcorn and veggie chips that an activist had evidently given her. “Veggie chips?” he asked her with a laugh, feigning indignation at the thought. “What is that? Isn’t a potato already a vegetable?”
Hargrove grew up in Alabama, during the height of the Jim Crow era, and arrived in Cleveland about a decade ago. He lives in a townhouse about a block away from Cudell Commons, where, he says, “the front yard is small and the back yard is small.” Every day over the summer, he takes his grandkids to the park to enjoy the green space.
“Until this thing happened, I didn’t think there was racism here,” he said. “If you go back to the water fountain, you’ll see black and white kids playing together. You’ll see them playing and laughing.”
“Police around here are very good,” he went on, before interrupting himself. “They’re very good now. They come around to the park two or three times a day. I imagine they’re reflecting about what they shouldn’t do again.”
Rice’s death, and the subsequent grand jury decision not to charge Loehmann with a crime for killing him, was one of a string of similar incidents in 2014 that prompted nationwide protests against police violence and solidified the profile of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had launched in its most formal iteration a year before. Today, that movement has reached an inflection point. The killing of black men by police officers continues unabated: Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of St. Paul were shot and killed by officers in their respective cities within two days of each other this month. But the movement has been complicated, through no fault of the vast majority of its supporters, by the subsequent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the first by a man who apparently told police that he was upset about Black Lives Matter and the recent police shootings, the second by a man whom opponents will likely link to the movement, despite the extreme separatist ideology to which he evidently subscribed.
Black Lives Matter has faced intense backlash from the political right since its inception, and these killings of officers have only intensified the criticism against it. At Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the evening before I met Hargrove, a sheriff from Milwaukee opened his remarks to the RNC by celebrating the recent acquittal of Brian Rice, one of the Baltimore police officers charged in the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray. The room erupted into raucous applause. After I returned downtown from Cudell Tuesday afternoon, I saw a white Trump supporter berating black activists through a megaphone outside Cleveland’s Public Square: “You’re criticizing police, and yet the police are here protecting you.”
Hargrove told me that after the shooting in Dallas, he was worried his neighborhood would erupt into protest and disorder, as it did after Rice was killed. He went so far as to ask his grandchildren to sleep on the floor for one night, in case of a shooting on the street outside. Fortunately, there was none.
“Police have an idea about what we’re like, instead of coming to find out what we’re really like. I think they’re quicker to violence with us. I think they more readily shoot us,” he said.
“Not all of them are bad, but it’s dangerous when people are afraid of the police, because the people will arm themselves against the police. Now they’re pointing guns at each other. All it takes is guns. It doesn’t have to be a war, doesn’t have to be an argument. Just point guns at each each other, and somebody’s going to shoot, and somebody’s going to die. Then, after one shot, a million people might start shooting.”
In the days after Rice’s killing, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a story detailing the “history of gangs and violence” in Cudell. A month after that, a journalist named Susan Zimmerman published an op-ed in the same paper, taking issue with its previous assessment of the area, which she also calls home. “It’s an urban neighborhood: Yes, there is crime; yes, we’ve had break-ins and a stolen car,” she wrote. But the focus on crime painted an incomplete picture: “The homes are big: Most are two-story, 1920s-era singles and doubles – stucco, brick and wood in tones of peach, sage green, slate blue and white. My neighbors are great. 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.”
I spent only a few hours in Cudell on Tuesday, but I’m inclined to agree with Zimmerman. Black and white families mingled on the playgrounds; a woman in a hijab herded her children down the sidewalk. The residents I spoke to were mostly friendly. They were united in their frustration with the arrival of the Trump circus this week, which was sold on the positive economic impact it would have on the region. Karen Smith, who lives three blocks from Cudell Commons, doesn’t believe that impact will reach her neighborhood. “It’s all about money,” she said while cooling herself by the fountain with her sister. “What is that going to do for us? No way I would go downtown this week. I drive for Uber, and I took the week off.”
Smith said that she was worried about violent protests damaging the city, but that “if the police stopped stereotyping, that wouldn’t happen.” Smith’s sister, Lisa Lacey, lives in nearby Warrensville Heights. She pointed to a police officer in her city named Nakia Jones, who recorded a viral video expressing her outrage at the killings of Sterling and Castile, as an example of the kind of officers she believes are needed to help police departments ease tensions with the communities they are tasked with protecting.
Back at the pavilion, Hargrave spoke to me expressively and at length about his neighborhood, and on topics like race and education. “College education should be free if you want it, for two years at least. I agree with the communists about that,” he said. “Of course, brilliant kids get in for free. But the brilliant ones are usually rich. They have a good education growing up. Then they get older and have more rich, brilliant kids, and they get into college free too.”
He was able to attend college himself only through numerous grants and scholarships, and the bills still saddled him with debt, he said. He reflected on an essay he wrote during his time as a student, about the marketing of Chevrolet cars, the thrust of which wouldn’t sound out of place at a Trump rally. “Chevy used to have this slogan, where they called themselves ‘The Heartbeat of America,’” he said. “Well look at it now. The heartbeat’s not too good, is it? Half of General Motors is now out of the country. All it takes is one heart attack.”
Hargrove understands Trump’s rise as a byproduct of the decline of American industries like auto manufacturing, but Trump himself, he says, is a hateful clown: “He’s racist. He’s anti-women’s liberation. The things he’s saying are so bad. For kids to hear it is bad.” He is wary of empty calls for racial unity—he criticized President Obama’s recent town hall interview on race and policing for “asking us to kiss and hug and be friends,” without placing enough emphasis on the underlying causes of police violence—but believes a solution might be found right here, in his own neighborhood.
“I have a friend who’s Iranian. He likes it here. I’ve got another friend who’s Puerto Rican—he’s Hispanic, he doesn’t like me to call him Puerto Rican for some reason. He gets along. We stay in the same neighborhood. I’ve got white friends, quite a few of them, and they get along,” he said. “We play cards, we drink beer together, and we get along fine. But I guess the rest of the world can’t do that.”