Exactly What Happened on E. 4th and the Arrival of the Riot Police in Cleveland

click to enlarge This is what a violent agitator looks like. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
This is what a violent agitator looks like.

First, a bit of Sunday-breakfast news:
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams addressed media at 9 a.m. to thank Saturday's peaceful protesters and to once again condemn any violent response to the Michael Brelo acquittal.

Williams said that 71 people were arrested Saturday, on charges ranging from 'failure to disperse' to 'felonious assault.' One violent protester, according to Williams, threw a sign at a Harry Buffalo patron early in the evening. Others were said to have pepper sprayed bystanders at or around E. 9th.

The vast majority, though, according to this reeling eye-witness alt-weekly correspondent, were picked off one by one by an efficient and highly trained police force in riot gear, snatching and zip-tying all those who questioned their authority and might by approaching an advancing front line on Euclid Avenue and later, on Johnson Court in the Warehouse District. At the latter location, between 10 and 11 p.m., so many protesters were arrested that they had to be carted away for processing by bus.         

Quick note: I suspect, as always, that parts of the police reports are true, but I didn't arrive downtown until shortly after 8 p.m., when protesters were making their way from the Justice Center to Tower City. I'm basically trusting only that which I saw with my own two eyes at this point, and will qualify all other facts accordingly.

In the Harry Buffalo reports last night, for instance, police told media that a protester threw an object "through the window" of Harry Buffalo and "a woman was injured." 

A Harry Buffalo employee Sunday morning confirmed the incident, though it varies from original police reports. The employee wasn't there last night (he was working at Barrio, which also closed early) but heard from others that a protester took the A-frame "specials" sign and threw it at a patron, who the employee said was briefly knocked unconscious. Asked if the broken window had been cleaned up, he responded that Harry Buffalo has garage-door-style windows and they were up at the time. Asked if he knew how the woman was doing, he responded that it was "an older gentleman."

This isn't to say that the incident was any more or less serious — though who knows what words were exchanged before the sign was thrown, or whether or not the "protester" was indeed a protester — only that police reports can't be trusted 100-percent. (This feels almost superfluous, almost even humdrum, these days, but still.) 

At roughly 9 p.m., on E. 4th St., among the densely occupied patios between Prospect and Euclid, a skirmish broke out. This is true. Williams said that a protester assaulted a patron and that he (=the protester) and two others were arrested. The police then moved in, Williams said, because the protest was getting violent.  

Here's what I saw:

The E. 4th corridor was a nightmare scenario. Protesters arrived from the Justice Center after briefly sitting down at the intersection of Prospect and Ontario, in the shadows of the Horseshoe Casino and the Tilted Kilt. Like most of the developments during these downtown protests, the E. 4th detour was extemporized. 

Flannery's and Zocalo were spilling over with baseball fans in hometown gear. Two hours worth of post-baseball beers had been merrily imbibed. The patios of Lola, Wonder Bar and Greenhouse were packed with the affluent suburban crowd — one of whom declared audibly that watching the protesters made her "physically sick" — and the protesters, many of whom had been shouting and walking all day, were energized by the effect. Some of the internal commentary centered on the idea that a lot of money stood to be lost if demonstrators camped out on 4th. This would send a message, some of them said.

The chanting was for the most part uninterrupted — "No Justice, No Peace," "Whose Streets, Our Streets," etc. — and many of the gathered media were sort of rolling their eyes as they tried to heft their cameras through the throng and get a handle on the proceedings.

E. 4th, for the non-locals, is for all intents and purposes a pedestrian-only street running North-South in the heart of Cleveland's downtown. It's near Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena and has emerged, in recent years, as a bona fide "entertainment district" with restaurants by local celebrity chefs, glossy branding campaigns and low-slung nighttime lights. It's eclectic, photogenic, real nice.    

A logjam situation asserted itself in very short order. A few of the protesters up front were urging the throng to keep moving, to head toward Euclid, but a fair number in the middle were trying to keep the chants going and couldn't hear directives from anywhere. A street guitarist, trying to lighten what was becoming an extremely tense mood, struck up a brisk and folksy "This Land is Your Land" while a protester bopped beside him with a sign that read "Ignorance is murder."

The moment thus inscribed with a discordant score, a subtle movement in the crowd was detectable outside Chef Jonathan Sawyer's Greenhouse Tavern.

Before I saw the red drink go airborne, I heard several women shout "NO" — my interpretation then, as now, is that nearby protesters saw hostile words being exchanged and wanted to prevent a confrontation at all costs. But it was too late. I heard (did not see) that some additional things were thrown, and an open space began to form, not unlike the ring that forms around a central dancer at wedding receptions.

At this moment, I hopped over the patio railing of what I think was the Erie Island Coffee Company. But the skirmish seemed to have died down in seconds. The fearless patio crowds whipped out, or adjusted the aim of, their mobile devices.

Enough people were eager to see peace preserved that reps on both sides corralled the respective offenders. I saw a woman on the Greenhouse Patio screaming and crying as a man held her back. Among the protesters, a young black man with a scarf over his face (who was later arrested) was held back by a few guys.

Protesters later said that the scarfed man was indeed saying some things that would upset the sensibilities of the white Saturday cocktail crowd, but said also that there was racist heckling being lofted from the other side. (For those who aren't aware, this happens at every protest, the heckling. It's gross. It's very sad, sort of the bigoted, self-righteous, and often unconscious underbelly (or maybe just belly) of white America's vastest ideological swath.)  

But okay: A red drink was flung. A protester I spoke with later in the night said he was close enough to have gotten splattered with it. Said it was very sticky. Said also that the flinger's friends (or at least those seated nearby) then threw their drinks at protesters and the protesters threw plastic water bottles back at the Greenhouse patio in retaliation. Some shoving evidently transpired before the seas were calmed. There was shoving everywhere. Everyone was shoved.

And then — huzzah, huzzah — the police arrived, walking in formation from Prospect, to a standing ovation from the patrons on all sides. You'd think it were Seal Team 6.

The protesters were forced out fully onto Euclid by the cops in a situation that was bearing greater and greater resemblance to a standoff, and one protester was being arrested against the hood of a police vehicle. The media, rest assured, was eating all this shit up. 

Things then promptly approached the edge of reason.

That ought to have been it, is my feeling. A dust-up, sure. A couple of arrests to remind protesters that even though drinks and epithets would be flung in their direction, they must please refrain from feloniously assaulting the clientele, especially in a hoppin' district like E. 4th St.  For God's sake, there's a Cavs game tomorrow. Let's why don't we stay out of the papers? 

But if, for instance, a few Cleveland Police officers in plainclothes, or even regular police uniform, had a conversation with protesters — "That got outta hand. It's getting dark, let us know where you're headed and we'll keep folks safe and informed. And please try not to intentionally engage with downtown visitors or patio-people" — that would've been it.

Instead, the riot police arrived. Battalions of them, assembling on Euclid as the protesters, either shouting or slackjawed, expressed the emotional equivalent of "what in the actual fuck?" And the sun was going down.

At the start, it was the shielded, masked officers on one side of Euclid, south of the median, chanting like some horror-show Gregorian gestapo:  "MOVE BACK MOVE BACK MOVE BACK MOVE BACK." 

Except the protesters were by no means advancing. For the most part they were just confused. There was a police presence on E. 9th, five blocks behind them, so the only possible scenario for riot officers was pushing the quote unquote violent agitators toward a much busier intersection. The media, backpedaling on Euclid and frantically calling producers to give them the scoop whilst navigating cords, idled somewhere between amazed and amused. If it weren't so outrageously unjust, it would have been comical: the excessive, unnecessary police equipment, the frankly performative military formations.

But it wasn't funny. A few bold protesters approached the advancing police line shouting in their faces. These are likely the "aggressive" protesters to which Chief Calvin Williams referred, the irony of course being the aggression was in direct response (and not even close to commensurate with) the aggression on the part of the police.

By training or temperament, behind the masks, the riot officers communicated an utter absence of emotion. (And there's an argument somewhere in all this about how donning a depersonalizing riot uniform predisposes and may even, like, emotionally absolve an officer from perpetrating acts of police-state injustice). Point is, for the protesters, meaningfully communicating with this phalanx was like communicating with a drywall slab.

Still, they sure tried. A few the protesters screamed at the police. A few of them wore scarves over their faces. Some had taken off their shirts and were almost daring the officers to arrest them while reminding them of Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams via shouts and taunts.   

But  let's be clear: There was not a concentrated number of protesters at this point. It's hard to tell because they were already, in many respects, dispersed, but there was certainly no more than 20-30 near the advancing officers. It looked to me like these officers weren't trying to prevent a riot. They were trying to trap loners and those clearly not trained in the strategies (and let's face it, etiquette, of nonviolent protest).

A note, once again: There are a number of skilled and veteran organizers who have helped plan many of Cleveland's demonstrations over the past six months. They often liaise with police and, most importantly, train novice protesters. But there are also, in every protest, those who join the marches in solidarity. These are not "violent opportunists," as some have characterized them, but they are certainly animated by the message and less familiar with, as one organizer put it to me, the "proper ways to agitate."  

The police moved swiftly and in unison when they pounced, the front line parting at the middle and an arrow of five or six officers in shields sprinting out through the aperture to grab a protester who'd come too close, and then immediately closing rank. 

Predictably, this tactic, which was extremely successful in part because "aggressive protesters" were so vastly outnumbered, incited even greater resentment and aggression in those inclined toward aggression by the presence of militarized law enforcement in the first place. One woman came out in front of the protesters and urged them not to engage the officers. (Though even if they hadn't, they still likely would've been arrested, as Chief Williams made clear, for "failure to disperse.)

By the time the officers reached E. 8th, a voice on the police loudspeaker was repeating at intervals that "this is an unlawful assembly" and those who did not disperse would be arrested. Indeed, Williams noted this morning that many were arrested for unlawful congregation.

By then, the numbers had appreciably thinned. A great many had dispersed or else been taken into police custody.

Later in the evening, the largest number of protesters were arrested in the Johnson Court alley in the Warehouse District. Police barred entrance on the W. 6th and W. 9th entrance to the alley so I couldn't see what happened therein, but from W. 9th, I watched a bus slowly fill with protesters who had no exit.

Here's Chief Williams' comments from this morning, once more: "We only moved into make arrests when things got violent and protesters refused to disperse," he said. "We wanted to make sure people understand we are going to help you in this process, but if things turn violent, we will take action to preserve safety."

But how could protesters disperse, one might ask, if there's nowhere to disperse to? Protesters were trapped in there. They were interred.   

More on this as the Memorial Day weekend unfolds. 

Tips or comments, please send with as much cordiality as you see you fit, to [email protected] / @SceneSallard



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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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