On Nov. 30, 2012, fresh out of high school and ready for college, I read The Plain Dealer’s reports on the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams were two unarmed and periodically homeless individuals who were shot 137 times by Cleveland police officers.
During this time, I was introduced to the city’s protest culture. Demonstrators met every Friday in Cleveland’s Public Square. They circulated a list of demands calling for the removal of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty from the “137 Shots” investigation and for a Department of Justice investigation into the Cleveland Police Department.
The latter demand was met, and the federal government investigated the police department’s use of force. Mr. McGinty, for his part, refused to step aside in the 137 Shots case and again, more recently, in the grand jury proceedings for 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death.
In the last two years, additional victims, like Tanisha Anderson and Brandon Jones, have become household names here. Anti-police and pro-police demonstrations began to receive more press coverage as public consciousness of the issue of police violence grew.
And somewhere along the way, Police Chief Calvin Williams of Cleveland and I took an evening course together titled “Methods of Research” on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the fall semester of 2014 at Cleveland State University.
A Leader Who Inspires
Following the 137 Shots tragedy, the bulk of the protesters’ ire was directed at Mike McGrath, who at that time was the chief of police. After a promotion, Mr. McGrath became the city’s safety director and Calvin Williams became the chief. But echoes of “McGrath Must Go!” in the city council’s chamber during the recent winter months draw a neat line charting the continued course of protesters’ criticisms.
So even though it was clear to me that Mr. Williams, my classmate, was a city employee when he arrived to class from work wearing his City of Cleveland lapel pin on his sport coat, it wasn’t until the death of 12-year-old Rice in November 2014 and the subsequent televised press conferences that I learned just how much power my quiet classmate commands.
This power was also made evident following the shooting death of an infant, Aavielle Wakefield, in October of last year. During a press conference, Mr. Williams tearfully mourned the state of gun violence in his city and the subsequent deaths of our children, adding that it “shouldn’t be happening.” Mr. Williams’s grief in this moment was very real: his own brother was killed with a handgun. The chief, who is African-American, shows how gun violence particularly devastates African-American communities in Ohio.
The report of the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the 137 Shots tragedy found systemic failures in the police department’s use of force against city residents. It also found the department’s relationship with the city’s African-Americans broken—a dire situation that, sadly, many people already recognized.
Since then, according to some members of the force, Cleveland police morale is nearing an all-time low. The evidence for this is anecdotal, but it is not hard to understand why it might be true. Many have blamed law enforcement for all the violence in the city. Police officers became the target of protesters’ rage and anxiety,
Most recently, on Dec. 28, 2015, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty announced that no criminal charges would be brought against Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Following the grand jury decision, crowds of protesters marched on Cleveland’s streets.
Mr. Williams ordered his department to use restraint, and the daily protests remained peaceful. No one was arrested. “This is what happens in a democracy,” the police chief said.
Throughout all these moments of anger, protest and tragedy, Mr. Williams has projected remarkable humility, despite being called to handle crisis after crisis. While supporting the demands for change within his department, I also felt some small comfort knowing that Calvin Williams was ultimately in charge of the Cleveland Division of Police.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is among the most segregated regions in the United States, comparable to Cook County in Illinois and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin. In 2014, African-Americans accounted for 81 out of the 96 homicide victims in Cuyahoga County. I continue to ask myself, “How, when the kingdom of God is at hand, is this the reality we face?”
When we hear the Gospel, we should find something that puts the world into perspective. Our Catholic framework shows us the world as it is: brutal yet beautiful.
The message of the Gospel is that good will triumph over evil. More than anything else, Christ urges us, “Do not be afraid.” Fear, however, has become so entrenched in the city’s psyche that it has become difficult to see the alternative: love.
What I do know, though, is this: It is a blessing to have a police chief like Calvin Williams, who comes from the city and who sees his vocation as a police officer to be a self-giving service and sacrifice for his neighbors, who believes policing starts at the subsidiary level in the community. We are afraid, but people like Chief Williams help us to trust in God’s plan.
He helps us to believe something often heard from protesters on Ohio streets quoting Kendrick Lamar’s lyric: “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright.”