In Cleveland, Antidote to Worst President and Worst Presidential Debate in History Was Pre-Event Protest

click to enlarge Roughly 500 people gathered on the Wade Lagoon before the Cleveland Presidential Debate, (9/29/20). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Roughly 500 people gathered on the Wade Lagoon before the Cleveland Presidential Debate, (9/29/20).

Hours before the sitting President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacy and sowed confusion and fear about the 2020 election in the most-watched televised political event of the season, more than 500 people gathered at Wade Lagoon in University Circle. The demonstration, organized by a coalition of local grassroots groups, offered far more information and nourishment than the main event down the street, which multiple network anchors christened in the immediate aftermath as the worst presidential debate in the history of the format.

The pre-debate protest featured speakers from an array of leftwing organizations in town. And the prepared remarks educated those in attendance on a number of topics related to recent and ongoing injustices in Cleveland: the inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail, the overlap of public and private police jurisdictions, the federal crackdown on "urban crime" now known as Operation LeGend. But they also celebrated the power of collective action and honored the resistance and resilience that have been necessary to survive in a society defined by state violence, climate crisis, and cosmically vast economic inequality.

In a stirring moment, Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, of the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, recited words from Archbishop Oscar Romero — lately canonized — and the sermon he gave the day before his assassination in El Salvador.

"I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own [sibling] peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, 'Thou shalt not kill' ... In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression."

Molly Nagin, representing the local Communist Party, spoke about the ways in which Cleveland has radicalized an increasingly desperate population. (Cleveland is now the poorest, least-connected large city in the county, with the worst social and economic outcomes for Black women, among other dismal metrics.) She reminded the crowd that Tamir Rice would have turned 18 in 2020, and we all should vote on his behalf.

At least two of the speakers acknowledged that Joe Biden was not the candidate they would have chosen as the standard bearer for the so-called "left" mainstream party, but another Trump term was too dangerous to gamble with. Emcee Asia Jones called Biden the "lesser of two evils" and begged the attendees to vote Trump out.

Signage throughout the crowd both mocked Trump — including riffs on his minimal tax payments, reported this week by the New York Times — and highlighted racial justice and climate policy themes. Many bore the names of local Black people killed by police: Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Desmond Franklin, Thomas Yatsko, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams.

Though the city expanded the event zone to include Wade Lagoon without publicity on Monday, the demonstration went off without visible confrontration. Speakers used microphones to be heard, though technically all sound amplification devices were forbidden in the enlarged zone.

Police cars from multiple departments were staked out nearby. Early on, a small group of Cleveland Police Officers told a man selling Black Lives Matter t-shirts that his duffel bag was too large. Backpacks larger than 18" x 13" x 7" were prohibited in the zone. They initially were going to confiscate the bag, but said that if he took it further east, outside the zone, "there'd be no issue."

After the remarks, demonstrators marched from Wade Lagoon through the institution-heavy streets of University Circle. The police issued a statement late in the evening that the debate and its surrounding events transpired largely without incident. As of 11 p.m., only four arrests had been made. Further details will be provided at a city press conference Wednesday. 

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About The Author

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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