After testimony about the May 30th demonstrations from local activists Kareem Henton and Julian Khan at a Cleveland City Council Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, Police Chief Calvin Williams refuted the narrative that police had started the riots.
Williams said he'd heard this narrative repeatedly — though it had not been voiced by either Henton or Khan — and said it was simply not the case that police had ignited the violence outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. On the contrary, he said, officers had withstood a barrage of objects heaved by protesters, "bricks, frozen eggs, concrete, you name it," for a full hour before Williams finally gave the order to disperse the crowd. At that point, officers began launching tear gas projectiles and an array of less-than-lethal-munitions.
"Trust starts with the truth," he said, referring to the mistrust between the community and the police. "I can never let a lie stand."
Seeing as Williams had broached the topic of truth and lies, Councilwoman Jenny Spencer took the opportunity to follow up. She informed Williams that many of her constituents in Ward 15 had lost trust in him specifically, due to his comments in the aftermath of May 30th's unrest. She asked him to clarify his allegations, which had been later denied by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff, that protesters breached the Justice Center during the confrontation.
Williams said he stood by his statements. He directed council to page 13 of the after-action review
, which contained a summary of how Cleveland Police came by this information. He'd responded in a similar way when asked the same question by Scene last month, when the after action review was first released.
Spencer then asked Williams to confirm whether or not there actually had been a breach, but Williams dodged, saying again that the original information had come from an officer with the county sheriff's department, not the city of Cleveland. And anyway, he'd never said that he physically
saw protesters inside the justice center, he said, and the information had no correlation with officers' response to protesters. (Nevertheless, at a press conference the night of May 30, Williams said that protesters had not only breached the justice center but were starting fires and attempting to free the prisoners. The origin of those incendiary embellishments remain unknown.)
Both Williams and Safety Director Karrie Howard said that the day's events had been rigorously reviewed and that fault had to be accepted on both sides.
Spencer, meanwhile, continually sought comment from Henton and Khan, noting that the reason for the hearing was because the after-action review had been written entirely from the police perspective. Councilwoman Jasmin Santana concurred, and thanked committee chair Blaine Griffin for hosting the conversation, asking that activists and organizers be given a regular seat at the table in Safety meetings in 2021.
Henton reframed comments by both Williams and Councilman Mike Polensek, who had been effusive in his praise of the police and who called the riots the "disgusting" work of "thugs and terrorists." Henton said that regardless of where people came from to demonstrate — Cleveland, Lakewood, Solon or Pennsylvania — "people who are treated humanely aren't coaxed into unrest." He said that there were those present who were certainly eager to express their anger, but that their anger was a result of their humanity consistently being denied. He also said that when people blame others for unrest, it signified to him that they were avoiding personal responsibility.
Henton is the leader of Black Lives Matter Cleveland. He told Griffin that, unlike at other demonstrations in the past, no city officials had called or texted prior to May 30th about the day's logistics. Only councilpeople Joe Jones and Jasmin Santana had been in contact. This was "kind of a surprise," Henton said.
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