'Bad Day in Cleveland': Roldo Bartimole's 1969 Account of the Glenville Shootout for The Nation Magazine

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Fred "Ahmed" Evans - Photo by Jerry Horton, Courtesy: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University
Photo by Jerry Horton, Courtesy: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University
Fred "Ahmed" Evans
This article, which was originally published on July 14, 1969, is here reprinted with permission from The Nation and Roldo Bartimole.

CLEVELAND — Sometimes in history it has become politically convenient to sacrifice the socially despised for the "protection" of society. Rationalizations of justice then overpower the judicial process and make it merely the means of legitimizing society's need for a victim. However, such political trials often become, as in the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, not the end of the matter but only the beginning.

A beginning of that sort may have been the conviction of Fred "Ahmed" Evans, a black nationalist, who has been sentenced to die in the electric chair in September for the murders of three policemen and a civilian in a gun fight between police and black nationalists last July 23 in the Glenville section of Cleveland. A shooting fray of this sort provides some of the classic demands for a political trial: a case involving the seemingly open defiance of established order by a deviant who is the product of the very social ills the society seems unable to correct; the eruption of violent conflict at a time when the process of justice is compliant to the political climate of "law and order"; and a need to destroy the legitimacy of any leadership among the socially despised. The prosecution may have summed it up by asking for conviction  in the name of "preserving the American way of life." It was crucial, too, that the event took place in a city that had elected a black mayor thus providing both a possible step toward the problem-solving, but also a test of the depth of racism. Mayor Carl B. Stokes had steered the community peacefully through the difficult period after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Indeed, at the time of the shooting, the Mayor was enjoying his height of popularity. Yet there were strains, especially between the administration and a police department which rejected a black leader. The Glenville episode started on a day when the Mayor was out of town and the police were warning of impending violence and plots to assassinate black leaders, including the Mayor. The police have been and remain eager to raid black nationalists' headquarters and constantly keep alive the concept of themselves as the "thin blue line" between whites they protect and blacks they patrol.

Glenville lies in the northeast corner of Cleveland, not far from the city line of East Cleveland, an older suburban area. The section has short, narrow streets with two- and three-story buildings, mostly housing, with alleys running between and behind the structures. The confusion and conflicting stories of how and what happened to set off the violence have never been satisfactorily outlined. The first alleged sign of activity was a police report that fifteen to twenty armed men, some of whom had arrived shortly before by car, were leaving Evans' apartment. This apartment became one of three main locations where militants and police traded gunfire on the streets serving a compact two-block area about the size of two football fields. At the farthest point from Ahmed's apartment, a police tow truck came under fire; the third location was between these two points, where two militants were killed behind a house that allegedly contained snipers.

Although police listed their casualties as victims of snipers, the initial firing suggests a spreading gun battle at street level. The eruption brought hundreds of policemen into the area where a police "surveillance team" of undetermined number had been watching Evans' apartment after reports that the militants had armed themselves. The heaviest shooting and casualties came near Evans' apartment in the first hour and a half. Shooting at alleged snipers continued late into the night, but the three nationalists killed and the one wounded were all shot at street level. There have been unsubstantiated rumors, however, that the bodies of dead and wounded nationalists were spirited away.

Evans was charged and convicted on seven counts of murder. Four of these counts arise from an Ohio conspiracy law that states: "Whoever aids, abets, or procures another to commit an offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender." An all-white jury deliberated sixteen hours to convict Evans on all counts; it made no recommendations of mercy. Four other nationalists face the same charges and will stand trial this summer.

This tragic event, which took the lives of seven persons, and left many wounded, including eleven officers, could have been viewed as a spontaneous eruption of violence or even a police attempt to eradicate black nationalists; but it has been viewed by officials, press, academics and certainly by the prosecution and police as a conspiracy to kill police.

A Cleveland Plain Dealer headline two days after the outbreak told its readers it was a "massacre of police," a description generally accepted in the community. The necessity of punishment for a "massacre" is self-evident; but the conspiracy charge is flimsy and the possibility of police provocation raises the question whether self-defense, even against police, is not legally permissible.

Ahmed Evans was both a likely and unlikely protagonist. Two years ago, he predicted that blood would flow in the streets of this city in a race war coinciding with an eclipse of the sun. The day passed without event, other than a police raid of Evans’ astrology shop. His warnings of doom, however, were given nation-wide publicity through an article in The Wall Street Journal that was picked up by the press across the country. The notoriety changed Evans’ image from that of an eccentric astrologist to a leading black nationalist. He also bitterly complained that it made him a target of police harassments and beatings.

Ironically, Evans helped to create the appearance of racial harmony that Mayor Stokes was nurturing. Evans walked the streets to preserve the peace after Dr. King’s death, as he had joined with the civil rights leader in 1967. During that summer, Evans and other militants were paid from a private businessmen’s fund to “keep it cool for Carl.” The calm, many felt, helped Stokes win City Hall. Even at the time of the shooting, Evans was receiving funds from a City Hall program. But Ahmed’s peace-keeping activities never made as good copy as his warnings. Defense lawyer Stanley Tolliver blamed the news media for creating the image of Evans as a “black Frankenstein.”

“Who shot first? And at whom? Various accounts of where, how and why the shooting started have appeared. Even after extensive investigation, the questions remain unanswered,” concludes the study of the Glenville shootout by the Civil Violence Research Center of Case-Western Reserve University for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Police contend the nationalists fired upon them first; the nationalists contend the opposite. Evans gave this version:
I was heading for the Lakeview Tavern [a short distance from his apartment] when I heard shots coming from the end of the street. Then one of the brothers passed me. Some policemen in a blue detective’s car opened up with a machine gun and he was dead. So I ran into a yard and I began trading shots with a policeman behind a parked car. I couldn’t hit him. I wasn’t even coming anywhere close to him. And then my carbine jammed.

Joseph Turpin, a country workhouse guard who lives near Evans, testified at the trial that Evans attempted to enter his home about 8 P.M. that night. Turpin said he didn’t allow him in but that he made five phone calls between 8:15 and 11:30 P.M. to the police for Evans, who had told Turpin he wanted to surrender. A Legal Aid lawyer testified that a prosecution witness said one of the prosecution lawyers had told this witness that he was aware Ahmed was in Turpin’s attic at the time the policemen were killed. (No spent shells were found in the attic by a police search.)

Two witnesses were key to the conspiracy theory of the police and prosecution. One was Sgt. John J. Ungvary, for some thirty years a member and head of the Cleveland Police Department’s Subversives Squad—a department that has a reputation of conspiracy theories, especially those involving Communists. (In 1966 the Cuyahoga County grand jury, with the help of police, blamed the Hough riots on subversives and Communists, even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation dismissed the contention.)

Sergeant Ungvary testified that he had discussed “revolution” with Evans and that the black nationalist had told him it was “inevitable.” Evans said, according to Ungvary, “sooner or later there’s going to be an open warfare between whites and blacks and the beasts will be eliminated.” (It was Ungvary who brought information of impending trouble to City Hall the afternoon of July 23. An informant had told him that Evens had been to Detroit and Pittsburgh the previous night for arms and was planning another arms-running trip that night as a prelude to an early morning attack. This was never verified and the informant, according to the Civil Violence report, was suspected of being under the influence of drugs.)

Ungvary’s thinking, typical of the police mentality in Cleveland, can be best illustrated by his testimony two years ago before Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland’s Internal Security subcommittee. Ungvary told the Senators: “What we need is a law that would let us charge them all [black nationalists] as conspirators…. Wouldn’t that be far better than to wait for an overt act?” That concept, blacks believe, was put to use in Glenville.

The second prosecution witness to lend credence to the conspiracy theory was 17-year-old Walter Lee Washington, Jr., who described himself as a member of the Black Panther Party, which he said was a “social club.”

Washington testified that a meeting was held at Evans’ apartment on the morning of July 23 to discuss a shootout with police and that Evans showed those present “how to load and unload a rifle and what to do if it jammed.” Here is part of the testimony in answer to prosecution questions:
Q. What was the purpose of the meeting?
A. To tell us when the pop is going to jump off.
Q. What do you mean?
A. When there was to be a revolution.
Washington was an unusual witness for the state. He had been charged on January 23 with first-degree murder in the street-stabbing death of a 68-year-old man. The man was stabbed eleven times in the back. The murder took place in September, after Washington and four companions, according to police, had set fire to a church, a fish market and an abandoned building, all in one night. Police described the gang at that time as terrorizers of residents and merchants in the Glenville area. In addition to murder, Washington had charges of arson, glue-sniffing and theft lodged against him. All those charges have been dropped and today Washington is a soldier in the U.S. Army, an alternative he was offered to standing trial for arson. Though defense lawyers broadly hinted that the prosecution had bought perjured testimony from Washington, the jury apparently believed the conspiracy theory advanced by Ungvary and Washington.

Only one person named Evans directly as having fired a bullet, and his testimony was strongly contested. William H. McMillan, a police tow-truck driver, testified Evans was the man who had shot him. However, the registered nurse who treated McMillan and a hospital aide testified that McMillan couldn’t identify anyone at the hospital that night, though he was asked several times. “He didn’t know what happened or who shot him,” the nurse said. Further, she testified that McMillan was more interested in calling reporters about the shooting than in receiving treatment for his wounds.

In talks with reporters, McMillan proposed the theory that the abandoned auto which the tow truck was to pick up was a “decoy,” intended to lure the truck into an ambush and subsequently the police too, when they responded to McMillan’s call for help. The theory fell by the wayside; it lacked plausibility because pickups of abandoned cars are most unreliable and usually occur two or three days after the initial request. The Civil Violence report dismissed the theory, saying the tow truck “arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time.” But the ambush theory lived on in popular imagination.

Mayor Stokes from the beginning blamed a “small, organized gang” for the violence and said it would “meet the full measure of the law.” He tried to play down the gun battle, calling it an “incident,” as an isolated act of violence. Though the Mayor called down the full measure of the law on the militants, he failed to pursue a number of promised investigations into police activities, including one complaint in which a black private guard was killed. In this case, the city law director arrived and was told by citizens that the shots came from a police car.

The Civil Violence report, release of which was delayed until after the Evans trial on the ground that it might interfere with the trial, echoes the Mayor and the conventional version of the gun battle as a violent act of blacks. The report says: “A small, well-equipped army of black extremists was responsible for the bloodshed (whether or not they fired the first shot).” The sweeping sentence was quickly picked up by the media as the reasoned conclusion of the report and further evidence that the militants were to blame. Though a reading of the report suggests its writers misread their own facts, the headlines of Cleveland papers indicated the effect: “Masotti [Louis H. Masotti, a political scientist at Case-Western Reserve who headed the report staff] Report Hits Fanatics,” said the Cleveland Press; “Masotti Blames Glenville Battle on ‘Extremists,’” said the Plain Dealer. Masotti told me that he was “sick” that the sentence had remained in the final version of the report, that it was supposed to have been deleted. (The sentence, however, reveals a bias of the report; it concerns itself with escalating black violence without giving equal attention to the possibilities of escalation on the part of the police).

It was decided at the afternoon police meeting to deploy a “mobile” and “inconspicuous” surveillance of Evans’ apartment. The Civil Violence report says “enough oars were available for an effective moving surveillance and the police department would assign to the task as many Negro officers as it could.” But the police in the field established a stationary surveillance, with cars full of white policeman parked within easy sight of the apartment. The police disregard of orders was “glaringly evident,” said the Civil Violence report, but it never pursued the question of how it happened. The nationalists believed that the police were preparing to spring an attack. “We were ambushed, not the police,” Evans said later. (Shortly before the shooting, Evans, armed and disturbed, met with two black city officials and asked them to “get the surveillance removed.” The meeting ended when he told them, “Tell the Big Brother downtown that everything is going to be all right.” The officials felt it would be futile to ask the officers in the lookout cars to move. They drove away to a telephone and by the time they called City Hall, the shooting had started).

At this point two other factors, the time when the shooting started and the use by police of two radio frequencies, combined with the disregard of orders, suggest that the official version of what happened in Glenville purposely hides the truth. Masotti admits that there was conflicting evidence on the time factor, and that he was aware the police used two frequencies. The surveillance team was from the tactical unit, which communicates with its headquarters on a high frequency that is not heard by regular patrol cars.

The starting time for the violence was put at 8:25 P.M. by the police and so accepted by the Mayor (who issued an “official” time chronology) and the Civil Violence report. However, one time fact conflicts sharply, Patrolman Louis Golonka was pronounced dead at Forest City Hospital at 8:40 P.M. The official chronology has him shot at 8:35 P.M., which means he had to hear the “all units” call for help at 8:30 P.M., get to the scene, be shot, rescued and taken to the hospital to be pronounced dead — all in ten minutes.

Why would the police distort the time when the conflict started? Some speculate that the tactical unit had made contact with the militants, possibly initiated it, but had not alerted the regular patrol police. As the gun battle spread, the police tow truck became involved, was hit and radioed for help on a low frequency band, bringing regular patrols into the area. The fact that four policemen were shot within a one-minute time span and four others in another one-minute period indicates that they were unprepared for what they encountered.

For certain, militants were armed, engaged in a gun battle with police and probably killed some officers. (The defense suggested that some officers were killed by other policemen. Defense lawyers showed that two of the three officers killed were drunk). But the argument that black militants planned an ambush and conspired to kill policemen is not convincing. The prosecution showed that Evans and his associates had bought thirteen weapons, including high-powered rifles. But the weapons were bought openly in Cleveland area department and discount stores, and Evans signed a police document, necessary for the purchase of weapons in one suburb. (Witnesses testified that Evans had formed a gun club and a neighborhood barber testified that in July he had found a practice range for the group’s use.)

The defense attacked several decisions of the Cuyahoga County coroner’s office which dovetailed with the police version of the shooting. For example, the original autopsy of Lt. Leroy Jones indicated that he was killed by a “shotgun”-caused wound, but that was later changed to read a “gunshot” wound, coinciding with the police claims that militants had semi-automatic weapons while the police had only handguns and shotguns.

More revealing was the coroner’s ruling that James Chapman, a 22-year-old Negro whom police described as a “hero” who helped to rescue police, was killed by a long-range shot, thus by a sniper. Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, an eminent Pittsburgh pathologist, testified categorically that Chapman was killed by a shot fired not more than “six inches” from his head. Contrary to normal procedures, laboratory reports showing that police were drunk were not included in their autopsies.

The political nature of the trial extended beyond being merely an attack upon black nationalism. Charles R. Laurie, the assistant prosecutor, made broad insinuations about Mayor Stokes' involvement. "Why did City Hall let the police go in there unprepared? Why? What were they going to fight back with? Spitballs?" At another point Laurie said: "Under the facade of making dolls and dashikis [the program funded by the city with Evans at its head] in the shop [well outside the area of conflict], they prepared for ward against men in blue. City Hall gave him the money and what did he do in gratitude? He gave them hot bullets in return."

Although common pleas court Judge George J. McMonagle, who heard the case, overruled the defense plea for a new trial because of racism, saying that there "is no basis for such contentions," most would sharply disagree. The prosecution lawyers, both white, several times during the summation, called the two Negro defense lawyers "boys." Laurie badgered one young Negro girl, finally screaming, "You hate white people, don't you?" He then asked her, "Wasn't my color the people that put up the money for these [poverty] programs?"

Of Chapman, Laurie said: "He was a decent citizen and he wasn't even a white citizen..." And in the final plea, he told the jury that they had to take a stand as Americans and warned: "From an acorn grows a mighty tree. A spoonful of ink in a gallon of water gives you a tainted color."

There have been other casualties of the trial. The verdict brought campus disorders to Case-Western Reserve University, where students protested the delay of the Civil Violence report, feeling its release would have aided Evans. The Civil Violence Center at the university is now the subject of a campus investigation and Masotti, in the midst of the disorders, resigned as its head.

Twenty persons have been convicted of contempt of court and given up to one year in jail for disorders stemming from an attempt to bring charges against the police for their actions in Glenville. Prosecutor John T. Corrigan refused to meet with them. They were arrested for blocking the doors of criminal court on the third day that they sought an audience with him. Judge McMonagle, who imposed the stiff sentences, said the group, called the July 23rd Defense Committee, made a "planned assault... to physically shut down the courthouse..." He said the harsh punishment was to prevent further disrespect for the law. Since testimony before him in the Evans case told of beating and probably murder by police, the judge's righteousness toward those attempting to put pressure on the county prosecutor rings hollow.

Judge McMonagle said to Evans after the conviction: "Now if it can be said there was any defense that you presented or interposed as far as this case is concerned, it was that you did not agree with our laws, and apparently you were not bound by them...." He charged that Evans had caused "really a dreadful and awesome state actually to exist in our community and nation. You know, actually before we had this Glenville incident, that has been adjudicated as caused really by you, there was never any open display of firearms by youngsters. Now boys of the same age as your followers and who are, however, college students, now feel that apparently it is the proper thing to do and the legal thing to do, to have a show of rifles, shotguns, and bandoliers; basically, these children are really emulating the example you set as part of the incident which is now coming to a conclusion."

Evans, who did not testify, said to the court: "This will not end by the means that have been used today against the black men who are willing, who are able, who are strong enough to stand up. The electric chair or fear of anything won't stop the black men of today." He said that he was not a murderer, adding, however: "I want it fully understood by all the men that I have known and all the people whom I have associated with, that they are on the right path; because when you are on the right path to righteousness in a world such as we now live in, you are bound to run into opposition, the likes of this."

The Civil Violence Center report concluded that the Glenville battle may have "marked the beginning of a new pattern" away from black violence against property to "violence aimed at personal injury." Its failure, however, to put the same test to motivations and actions of white policemen at the outset of the conflict opens the report to criticisms of reaching the conclusions it set out to find, if not succumbing to a racist view of violence. This is suggested by its failure to examine the implications of escalating white violence, despite gory accounts of it in the report. The desire to measure the rise of black violence may produce a self-fulfilling theory as each new black-white confrontation is tested by the question, "Is this an escalation of the black revolution?" Black violence may escalate, and if it does one may be sure that the state and the courts will not condone it. But with the results of the Ahmed Evans case before us, one cannot be so sure of the same opposition to white violence. 
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