Op-Ed: Youth and the Imperative of Change

click to enlarge SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene

As each new generation comes to full awareness of inherited cultural structures which are inherently unjust, the seeds of revolt are sown and the evolution of the nation continues.

Young Americans are birthing a new nation every day. They are rightly objecting to intolerable social conditions which have long imposed upon people of color a cruel culture of violence visited by an exclusive economic system and the police departments called upon to uphold it.

Young people want action, not words, to address obvious injustices which derive from inequities in jobs, wages, health care, education, and housing and infiltrate, inevitably, into law enforcement.

The old world inevitably will give way to the new as the struggles, the marches, the protests, and yes, riots continue. The spirit of protest, carried along by the passions of our young people, can move America forward.

We must take care that which is dislodged will be replaced by structures which will, indeed, reflect enduring change of the underlying conditions which have given rise to protests.

Established power must be open, and willing to change, to reform, to restructure — and to provide mechanisms to share institutional power. As the once-Mayor of Cleveland, half of my major appointments were black, including Safety Director James W. Barrett, in charge of police, ensuring accountability for the conduct of law enforcement in the black community, and implementation of federal court-ordered busing, without incident. That was more than 40 years ago. Yet, whatever success we enjoyed here was temporary. Long-term, fair-reaching changes remain to be achieved.

The recent murder of George Floyd by police sparked an urgency to recognize the perils facing every person of color’s encounter with the current justice system.

The killing of Tamir Rice revealed the severe shortcomings in the administration of Cleveland’s police department, which filtered through the rank and file, resulting in a court-enforced consent decree with the US Justice Department which is still lacking in compliance. The conditions in the police department were not only a reflection of unresolved institutional racism, it is because those in positions of power either looked the other way or were too timid to deal with the internal challenges.

The abuses in the Cuyahoga County jail, detailed in a 52-page U.S. Marshal’s report, present a similarly disastrous abdication of administrative responsibility for suicides, attempted suicides, abuse and civil rights violations which continue to cry out for justice and accountability.

The Justice Department’s consent decree indicates much more work must be done in Cleveland to restore public confidence in law enforcement. But we must take care that remedies being offered not deprive any area of the city with trained safety personnel needed to protect public safety. This is the risk which attends broad demands to defund the police.

There are neighborhoods threatened by gangs, drugs and murder. We must not promote vigilantism or abandon communities to fend for themselves. We must remember, as Clevelanders, we have the capacity to come together as one community in support of those who demand change in the police department. This means reform, not the defunding and elimination of the police department.

The police must participate in the process of comprehensive reform. We cannot bring about reform without them. This means we must see each policeman and policewoman as individuals, not as undifferentiated agents of oppressive system, just as we should require police to understand and recognize each situation they encounter requires careful assessment, without preconceived race-based notions of threat levels.

The police department cannot exist without the trust of the people. It is time we re-engage at the community level. We need open, public discussions about the quality of policing in Cleveland and the protection of inmates in county jail.

We need new goal-setting, beyond the requirements imposed by the U.S. Justice Department and the findings of the U.S. Marshal. We need to plan aggressively and urgently for a re-imagined and reconstituted law enforcement system which will truly be of service to all in Clevelanders and Cuyahoga County. That will require leadership, courage and innovative thinking.

And we must involve young concerned citizens in the process. Each new generation understands it must bend or break boundaries to create social and institutional transformation. As someone who was elected to City Council at age 23, lost a congressional race by 2% at age 26, and won the Mayoralty at age 31, I know impatience for change is catalytic. I remain impatient. This is a call to envision and create a new community, and a new world, through direct action and civic involvement.
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