Ward 7 Cleveland City Councilwoman Stephanie Howse stood before her colleagues at Monday evening's council meeting and begged them to do better as they worked to investigate root causes of violent crime committed by youth.
Her comments were colored by frustration and impatience. Over the course of multiple safety committee meetings in recent weeks, Howse had asked the various private police departments appearing before council — who have now been granted expanded jurisdictions — for data on the youth who commit crimes.
And last week, during a multi-hour hearing, she was doing a version of the same thing, asking how young people who enter the criminal justice system are assessed. The men across the table included Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O'Malley, and they were confused. Was she asking about the victims, they wanted to know?
No, Howse said. She was asking about the perpetrators. Howse was naturally annoyed, as she'd been trying to get a straight answer on multiple occasions and was sensing that the inability to respond was symptomatic of how Cleveland profoundly fails young people.
But as she re-articulated her question, O'Malley instructed Howse to "talk to [him] professionally."
It was an ugly moment, a guest at council chastising a sitting city lawmaker like a child. And it was a dynamic, in which a white powerful man belittles a black woman, that Howse knew was all too common. Later in the hearing, Howse asked whether the prosecutor's office took into consideration the active development of young people's brains, and O'Malley chided her again. He told her to be professional and then suggested that Howse's line of questioning was related to the prosecutor's treatment of her cousin.
Howse explains how these questions were intended to lead to the point she's getting at.— Alicia Moreland (@DDutchCreative) May 15, 2022
Prosecutor O'Malley responds sharply:
"Ms. Howse, talk to me professionally. Talk to me professionally."
Me: ???😲😦 pic.twitter.com/kxWFGzgfCX
As Howse addressed the exchange during Monday's meeting, she revealed that her cousin was serving a 40-year prison sentence for a nonviolent burglary in Pepper Pike. She wondered whether any burglary in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood had ever resulted in a 40-year sentence.
Howse said that while O'Malley had made the conversation personal last week, her core focus on the safety committee had been and would continue to be the city's inability to get a handle on young people and the root causes that lead many of them to crime.
Regarding the exchange itself, Howse noted that it was her job to ask questions of city council's guests, even if those guests were men of power.
"And I know that my experience is shared by many black women who are usually in the superminority in places and spaces and have to deal with blatant levels of disrespect," she said.
Howse concluded her remarks by reading a passage that urged women to continue defying their labels — "aggressive," "bossy," "extra," "awkward," etc. — and received a standing ovation. Council President Blaine Griffin assured her that an encounter of the sort she experienced with O'Malley would not be tolerated in the future.
One certainly hopes so, as Griffin has previously made it known that he would brook no disrespect against council members.
"We've got to set a tone that nobody should ever mess with this body," Griffin remarked in a 2019 council floor speech, after then-president Kevin Kelley was escorted from a voter-rights event the previous weekend. "The body of this council needs to be shown respect whenever we go anywhere. We need to send a strong message that when you mess with us, you will be dealt with."
Scene called the speech "authoritarian" at the time, because its ominous message was directed at activists and constituents and pertained to an event hosted by the Service Employees International Union. The effect of the speech was that council, or at least council leadership, saw themselves as sovereigns and demanded fealty from their subjects.
Griffin saw it differently, and even said in the same speech that he "punches up, not down." If that's to be believed, he should be much more keen to "deal with" the county prosecutor.
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