The Story of Cleveland's Gang Violence Is Written Chapter By Chapter with Balloons, Posters and Candles on the City's Streets

Memorial Days

The memorial for Javon Alexander on East 104th Street
The memorial for Javon Alexander on East 104th Street ERIC SANDY / SCENE

A crowd gathers slowly around a utility pole on East 113th Street in Cleveland. Young and old, they bring balloons and stuffed animals, candles and memories. A child no older than 6 hoists a poster onto the ragged roadside pine. Bedecked with photos of his uncle, the poster reads: "Do It 4 Deck."

Today's gathering is a neighborhood coming up for air. Besieged by new waves of violence and an increasing homicide rate, Cleveland's eastside streets are frequent datelines in Plain Dealer crime stories even as they remain far from the commercially minded downtown consciousness. We may as well be talking about Aleppo. Today, these residents collectively exhale, as they have before, as they will again: In just 24 hours, another crowd will form down the road, where 5-month-old Aavielle Wakefield will take her last breaths amid gunfire.

Dexter "Deck" Mangham was shot and killed Sept. 27 downtown, where Euclid Avenue meets East Fourth Street. It was another tragedy, and a rare blast of violence invading Cleveland's most recognizable street -- the one anchored by Michael Symon, the one lauded by the Wall Street Journal and other national publications championing Cleveland as a tourist destination.

The police are saying that men associated with a rival gang fired bullets into a crowd that night around 2 a.m., killing Deck and injuring several others. Those men reportedly went on to kill 19-year-old Sidney Smith -- an innocent sister of a gang member -- on the eastside later that night after pumping 31 bullets into her house. Two men have thus far been arrested.

Deck's friends and family have gathered this late September evening, in the neighborhood where he lived, to remember him. A crowd of more than 100 coalesces into a loose circle as the sun hangs low over two-story homes. Candles are lit. Small cut-out letters are arranged to spell "RIP DECK." The utility pole has taken on new life as Deck passes out of this one, turned into a makeshift memorial totem.

"That's my uncle, and I love him," says one little boy.

Then, on the count of three, the gathered crowd releases heart-shaped balloons into Cleveland's fading sunlight. The wind catches many of them, tossing them into a nearby tree where they get stuck. The crowd laughs. There's not much else to do.

"Deck's just hanging out, like he always was," says one friend.

It's a light hearted moment that belies a serious situation.

Police say the Benham Boyz and 103 Murda Block have been waging a months-long gang battle against each other, trading drive-bys where targets and innocent bystanders have ended up in pools of blood. (Deck was associated with the Benham Boyz, according to those in the neighborhood.)

Judy Martin led the group in prayer before the balloon release. She attends vigils like this every time someone is killed in the city, as the director of Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, a local group that memorializes victims like Deck. She's got intimate knowledge of burying a loved one -- her own son was shot and killed in 1994. She's seen plenty more since then. And the tragedies she lives with aren't stopping, nor are they slowing down. In the two weeks since Deck's murder, four more people were killed in Cleveland, fresh data points clustered too often like flies around the core of Mount Pleasant. (The westside is far from immune, though. On Oct. 6, 68-year-old Clarence Adkins was stabbed to death on Colgate Avenue, bringing the city's homicide total to 101 for the year. For reference, last year saw 102 homicides; in 2013, 88; in 2012, 99; in 2011, 75; in 2010, 72.)

"The vengeance and the revenge and the anger: That all keeps on going," Martin tells Scene. "And until they hit Dexter, they all missed their targets."

Martin is talking about a spate of innocent children being gunned down across the city's eastside as the city's gang violence escalates, the most sickening entries into the city's climbing homicide tally. A few weeks earlier, 3-year-old Major Howard was shot and killed just up the road here on East 113th. A week before that, it was 5-year-old Ramon Burnett on a quiet side street off East 55th. And soon enough: little Aavielle Wakefield, all of 5 months, over on East 143rd on Oct. 1.

If you were to visit East 113th north of Union Avenue, you'd find a memorial to Major Howard that looks much like the memorial to Deck just a block away. Balloons and stuffed animals and posters. Take a 10-minute drive around a 10-block radius, and you'd find many more. It's a startling sight.

They're omnipresent, these memorials, both easy to gloss over and impossible to miss once you're looking. They sprout up on corners and sidewalks, spontaneous and deliberate manifestations of grief and remembrance, balm for each fresh scar on the neighborhood. They're certainly not unique to Mount Pleasant, but in other corners of Northeast Ohio, and particularly in the suburbs, memorials tend to signify the site of fatal prom-night car crashes and the like. Here, that's rarely the case. Here, they're usually tied to gun violence. Here, they represent homicides.

Here, you drive around and can't help but think about what Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams would go on to say amid tears on the night little Wakefield was killed: "This shouldn't be happening in our city."

Just nine blocks away from Deck's memorial on East 113th is the memorial for Javon Alexander, who was killed back in February.

White and blue balloons still flutter peacefully amid Indian Summer wind, casting oblong shadows on the cracked sidewalk of East 104th Street where Alexander took a single bullet to his head. Freshly purchased stuffed animals and Sharpie-scribbled notes from friends cling to yet another utility pole. These sites tend to be well maintained by the victims' loved ones.

It was around 5:30 a.m. when Alexander died, and the sun had yet to crack the February horizon when gunfire ripped apart the street. According to news stories at the time, a woman ran out of her home and shouted, "My baby, my baby." He was only 18.

Back in the winter, Alexander's death didn't get much attention. There was no context. It was too early for the powers-that-be to guess that the city's homicide rate would balloon to triple digits with ease. The public at the time was mired in a heated debate over police officers' use of force in the deaths of Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson. No one was running news stories about gang warfare and black-on-black crime.

But City Councilman Zack Reed has urged the city to take action for years. "We can't be shocked," he tells Scene during a recent trip to Deck's neighborhood, Alexander's neighborhood, his own neighborhood. Reed has slapped the administration with demands to take this problem seriously, to understand the deeper civic meaning of these memorials to the city's fallen.

Things are different now. It's taken awhile for the stories to gain traction, for the summer of violence and bloodshed to lead the evening news and land on the front page. Sadly, it's taken the deaths of three children under the age of 5 to bring us here, to that conversation, to the point where the mayor and police chief call press conferences and visit crime scenes as routinely as big-business ribbon-cuttings spring up downtown.

But that conversation is not easy, nor should anyone expect short-term answers or quick fixes. The problem is systemic. Mayor Frank Jackson was correct when he stood in front of TV cameras after Howard's death and said there was no panacea for what was going on -- which isn't to say all possible solutions shouldn't be pursued with all due alacrity. (The memorial for Wakefield includes a poster that reads urgently: "We'll never stop fighting for you. STOP THE VIOLENCE.") It goes deeper than police, to housing and education, to policies and inaction that have put the eastside African American community in the position it's in now. Fixing all of that will take years and decades, not days and months. But leaders and residents are looking for short-term answers and well as long-term fixes, and every day seems to bring a fresh body without any action.

Just last month, Reed and a few other lawmakers introduced legislation to pull $1 million from the city's $19-million "rainy day fund" to pay for additional police officers and requisite overtime. To date, Councilman Matt Zone's Safety Committee has not entertained a vote on the matter. (Zone did call a vote on a donation of three horses to the police department, which passed unanimously.) Inaction has flustered Reed and other council members.

During a Sept. 21 meeting, he again called out the administration and his idle colleagues: "I don't know what you call it in your community. But in my community, when little babies are being shot and killed, they call that an emergency."

Sept. 21 feels like a lifetime ago already, and the emergency hasn't stopped.

Images of 5-year-old Burnett, 3-year-old Howard and 5-month-old Wakefield quickly made the rounds on social media on the respective nights they were killed. Word travels quick, and even before their loved ones congregated at roadside utility poles to honor their lives, memorials were shot into the digital sphere. #RIP, #restup, calls for the end of violence and more: The smiling faces of these children lingered on Instagram pages, adorned with lament. This even before the sun had risen the next day, before the news published their names.

Those same social media accounts of people tied to the gangs and the residents that live in those streets are dotted with short bios that tally off the dead. Three, four, five names at a time. The dead have been memorialized in a permanent way, at least as far as social media allows, not in a fleeting post or tweet. The dead are now intricately woven into the very identify of the community. This is who we are. This is who we've lost.

Theories abound as to what is really driving the violence: senseless young egos, turf wars, a long-standing "beef" that's led each side to volley bullets back and forth in pursuit of an unnameable end. It seems like the only people who have answers to those questions are dead or in jail, neither of which appear to be a deterrent to those pulling the triggers.

But there are theories, and each one is as believable as the next. One text passed along to Scene by someone who said they received it from law enforcement said, "We are in a tenuous spot. On the verge of becoming Chicago in terms of gang wars. The Heroin trade is a very lucrative business right now & people are killing each other & bystanders over money, drug & turf. It will get worse before it gets better."

People like Martin and other neighborhood advocates tie the whole thing back to the flat circle of time: Men in poor, historically redlined neighborhoods grow up disrespecting themselves and others, and then their children grow up doing the same.

Police sources Scene talked to doubted the heroin theory, but within days similar threads were being shared across Northeast Ohio on Facebook. The threats and fear and awareness of a very real gang beef and the very real facts of innocent bystanders dying made everything believable.

The local police and the FBI are monitoring social media feeds for threats of violence, hints of direction. "Although no credible threats have been verified through any of our law enforcement platforms, the Division of police reminds the public that all must remain vigilant and if suspicious behavior or criminal activity is seen or known of, that this activity is reported to law enforcement," a statement from the mayor's office released that weekend read.

If this is about a new, budding turf war, it shouldn't be all that surprising. Just two years ago, federal prosecutors indicted 92 people on charges connected to a massive heroin ring that ran across the city's eastside.

When Scene spoke with City Councilman Kevin Conwell at the time, he lauded the investigation but warned of an impending power vacuum left in his eastside ward and other neighborhoods. Following a similar 2010 bust, he said, violent crimes increased dramatically. "It's going to happen, because it happened three years ago," he said. Prescient words.

Jackson and Williams pleaded for community involvement, for tips to come forward. It's true, and that's part of what's needed and part of what's already beginning to happen on the ground. Much like the digital memorials that abound on Instagram, the mug shot of Donell "Nell" Lindsey seared across the web over the past few weeks. He's wanted in connection with Howard's death. He's also avoided the police for the past three weeks.

"I hope he moves quicker!" Sid Moustafa shouts when Scene asks about Reed's $1-million rainy-day fund proposal. Moustafa owns the Marathon gas station at East 116h and Union, and the HP gas station down at East 140th. His businesses aren't faring so well these days. Reed's suggestion -- funds for at least 14 additional officers on the streets -- is at least the inkling of a solution. For now, the neighborhood is just drowning in balloons and flowers.

The gravity that surrounds these transient memorials carries with it consequences. It's not just the weight of painful memories; sometimes these memorials act as demarcation lines between peace and violence: "This corner is hot," is the message in police parlance.

On Aug. 5, Jervaughn Gambrell was shot and killed at the Marathon station. He was in the store around 3 a.m., when two other guys showed up. "I don't know what happened between them," Moustafa says. "They both had guns, and everybody just shot each other up." (Three weeks later, Gambrell's nephew was shot a few blocks up on East 116th. He survived.)

In the immediate aftermath, a memorial went up beneath the Marathon sign, right on the corner. The hallmarks were all there: balloons, flowers, stuffed animals and more bottles of Hennessy than you could count. Two months later, the memorial is still there, and it's growing each day. Graffiti has crawled up the base of the sign. "Benham 112" dots the metal frame like pockmarks.

Moustafa speaks wearily, holding a small Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands as he gestures. He's miffed that the Fourth District of the Cleveland Division of Police hasn't done much. He wants the memorial and its magnet for gang presence gone, but he was told not to mess with it for fear of inciting further violence from the gang. (Later, Reed tells Scene: "If the police tell you the damn corner is hot, then who's going to make it unhot?")

"I don't know what to do; I'm waiting," Moustafa says. "I can't take any actions, because I'm not putting myself or my employees or my business in harm's way."

When Scene stopped out to see the memorial in early October, a woman walking down the sidewalk on East 116th came over and tsk-tsked the display. "I was at the bus stop on Sunday, waiting for the 15 to go to work," she said. "A girl came over here and got a bottle and hit another girl on the head. Sunday, at 12:30 in the morning. It's a mess."

And it's not just safety implications. With this memorial casting a shadow across Moustafa's gas pumps, his business has soured. An already struggling local economy is faltering even more under the weight of these shootings.

"The gang violence that's been going around affects the business completely. It's affected my business dramatically," Moustafa says. "Especially my night business. My night business used to be my backbone. I'm hurting real bad. It's getting to the point where I don't think I can go much longer. It's losing money right now. I put a lot of money in there, but I didn't invest all that money to lose."

Moustafa opened the gas station just two years ago, cleaning up a formerly blighted central part of the neighborhood.

"I started off OK, and it started getting better. Then this happens," Moustafa says. "For the past, what, four months? It's just nosediving.

"Anyone who's got a store from 150th all the way down to 93rd: Every store you go in, they'll tell you the same thing," he continues. "Especially the 24-hour operations -- 24-hour operations is tough. They're feeling it."

Al Rollins has owned Upper Cutt on Union Ave. at East 105th since 1975. It's the quintessential neighborhood barber shop, with quiet soul playing from a small stereo and pictures of people, celebrities and otherwise, adorning the walls. On this afternoon, one man is inside getting a quick buzz. Most days, when the weather's fine and business is relaxed, Rollins sits on a small crate outside and plays his soprano sax. That's what he's doing when Scene asks him how things are going around here; business is relaxing a bit too much these days.

He says it didn't used to be like this -- the rampant shootings, the innocent victims, post-mortem balloons on every damn near every street.

"This is the 'hood, and I'm not saying that's what you should expect," Rollins says. "It's something that we're not really used to either. Every post you see have balloons and liquor bottles, pop bottles, candles. Nobody's used to that. Not really much can be said; until something different happens, I don't think it's something we should settle for. But what can you say? Ain't nothing you can say. The only thing I do is keep on playing, and keep myself and my family in line.

"The neighborhood's changing as we speak," Rollins says between bursts of melody.

A few years back, Rollins found himself dodging bullets right outside his barber shop. "I was sitting right here, got caught up in some crossfire," he says. "It destroyed my horn. So hearing about any of that [violence] takes me to a certain place."

Still, Rollins isn't convinced more police officers are the answer here. He's not sure what it's going to take. "I mean, this situation, in the future we're going to have to come to some sort of conclusion," Rollins says. "It's getting closer to us. It's getting worse, because when we're not affected, it's people around us who are affected. Down the street, two robberies just the other day."

The next day, Scene catches up with Alfrieda Haywood, a school crossing guard outside Andrew J. Rickoff Elementary at Kinsman and East 147th. She's been posted up here for six years.

A lot of kids here walk to and from school, although Haywood says she's seeing more parents than ever showing up to drive their little ones.

"They know what's going on around here," she says as kids race out of school and into the community. "I be cautious, but I'm not worried about it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I can't worry about that."

She used to live around right around here, but she says the strains of the neighborhood drove her away: "It's been a lot of violence around here. I feel for the family of the little baby that got shot last week. There's something going around, and you gotta look for yourself and be observant."

Down at City Hall and at Cleveland Police headquarters, those in charge of public safety are grappling with an explosive issue from which there is no clear exit.

Hours prior to Aavielle Wakefield's death, Mayor Frank Jackson was at a ribbon-cutting for the Flats East Bank, demonstrating almost perfectly the dissonance between downtown's corporate power structure and the blind violence of the city's poorer neighborhoods. It's not an indictment of downtown or Jackson or developers, just context for what else happens inside the city's borders. By the time Jackson and Chief Calvin Williams arrived at East 143rd Street, a crowd was gathering. Williams wept on-screen. A memorial would slowly take form on the spot.

The next day, on Oct. 2, Williams discussed that most recent homicide to bring Cleveland to a halt. He stood in the police headquarters briefing room and explained that no leads emerged from the first night of the investigation. "We are getting tips in, and our officers are following up," he said. "But we need more. Our community needs to step forward."

Williams sighed, heavily.

"Over the past month or so, everybody knows the kind of things that have been a plague on the city, as far as violence and young folks," he said. "We've lost three young innocent lives. It's hard to stomach that, because it's not for any reason that we can come up with -- not for any reason that any sensible person can come up with."

Earlier this year, Williams' own brother was gunned down in a domestic dispute. It was a surreal moment, one that brought to city's woes to its police chief in a personal way: The chief was facing down the scourge of violence that had made its way into his own family.

Much like the whole of the U.S., the time between shootings in Cleveland is becoming shorter and more steeped in debate and reflection. Jackson, during that Oct. 2 news conference, drew a parallel between Cleveland's crisis and the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in rural Oregon. Following that tragedy, President Barack Obama spoke about how terrifyingly routine this is becoming: the aftermath of violence is a regularly scheduled process.

So are the memorials, so is the grieving. Another day, another week, another family mourning, another vigil. Another time that Judy Martin addresses the friends and family of a loved one dead and gone.

"We've got to stop this," Martin says. "Or we're gonna be here every week, every month, every year."

Anyone with information relating to these crimes and others can anonymously call Crime Stoppers with tips at 216-252-7463.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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