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

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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.

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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