Vigilantes in West Park Ready to Rumble on Saturday

Vigilantes in West Park Ready to Rumble on Saturday
Protect Our City Facebook Event.
"Let's ban together as a community to protect what's ours," reads the 'Protect Our City!!!' event description on Facebook. It's an event intended to mobilize West Park residents to prevent Tamir Rice protesters from demonstrating in the west side neighborhood Saturday afternoon. Some attendees say they're merely gathering to keep the area safe. (All quoted material = sic).

"For those that are not aware or what's going on I'll keep it simple and to the point. The mother of Tamir Rice has planned a 2 day protest at our park and plans on walking through the neighborhood and going to a prosecutors home to make waves supposedly in the name of justice. Well we all seen how well that worked out for Ferguson recently. Let's not give them an inch of space in this park first off. Fill the lot full of vehicles, fill the park full of law abiding citizens and keep them from doing any destruction to our city..."

The event, organized Monday by Tommy Gunn Snider (who refused to speak to Scene for fear of being misrepresented), now has more than 300 attendees ready to descend upon Impett Park Saturday afternoon, and to take up arms if necessary. Many of the event page's commenters are residents of West Park (and/or relatives of police officers) who perceive the Tamir Rice rally as a threat to their safety.  

Resident Justin Kowalczyk told Scene he may attend Saturday's "event," but says he would do so out of affection for his neighborhood and for Cleveland, not because he's anti-protest. He grew up in West Park and moved back with his wife and kids just last month.

He said he disagrees with the racist rhetoric on the Facebook page — there's plenty of the familiar "thug" paranoia — and thinks that those who use the event to push a negative agenda give West Park a bad name.

Still, he said, the tone of the Tamir Rice rally rubbed him and his neighbors the wrong way.

"When the Tamir protest's flier states that their goal is to get the neighbors to pressure the prosecutor into taking action and specifically states "no justice no peace" then there are some serious concerns," Kowalczyk wrote in an email. 

Kowalczyk is referencing the following language in the #Occupy4Tamir Facebook Event: 

"We will be joining hundreds on Saturday May 23 at Impett park to march to Prosecutor McGinty's house to bring the urgency of the matter to his front door. If he does not move swiftly, we will continue to come back until his neighbors want justice as badly as we do." 

That phrase in particular, until his neighbors want justice as badly as we do, has been interpreted as a credible threat of violence by some parents in the neighborhood.  A few of them — this has been gleaned primarily through Facebook comments — accuse the Tamir protesters of targeting West Park because it's a predominantly white neighborhood where police officers are concentrated.

And though the fears of violence are off-base, organizer Malaya Davis says that it is important to expand the conversation beyond the Justice Center and the streets of downtown, where almost all of the police-brutality protesting has taken place for the past six months.

Davis is an organizer with the Ohio Student Association, an organizing team that has worked as part a collaborative to help Samaria Rice structure and strategize a "non-violent direct action."

"When we say 'no justice, no peace,' we don't mean we want violence. Nobody wants that. We mean you don't get to live comfortably and quietly in your neighborhood while you come into ours and cause havoc," she said. "We want our passion and our frustration to be visible. Not physical, but visible."

In a phone conversation with Scene, Davis said that part of her group's action was going into the neighborhood and talking to residents about how they felt (prior to Saturday's rally).

"Some of the folks who helped us canvas lived in West Park" Davis said, to show that the 'Protect our City' group wasn't representative of all residents there.  
When asked why this particular protest was focused on Prosecutor McGinty's house — as opposed to the home of Sheriff Clifford Pinkney, who's investigating the shooting — Davis said it was a fair question. 

"But obviously it's not up to me," she said. "Basically everything that's happened has been the family's decision. I want to support them in their efforts."

Davis said that the organizing collaborative has been meeting for three weeks to discuss the action, and that they planned to meet again Wednesday evening to discuss contingencies if the 'Protect Our City' crowd complicates things.

"The reason we're doing this is so Tamir's story doesn't die," Davis said. "This isn't to be Baltimore. That is honestly crazy." 

click to enlarge Vigilantes in West Park Ready to Rumble on Saturday (2)
Protect Our City Facebook Event.

But that's a tough pill to swallow for many of the residents in West Park, the most outspoken of whom continue to chastise Samaria Rice's parenting and loft erroneous accusations about the police confrontation at Cudell as valid justifications for opposing the #Occupy4Tamir gathering.   

One parent, who asked to remain nameless to protect the safety of his family, said he's taking his child to the zoo on Saturday. It was a pre-planned trip, he said, but he feels better getting his son away from potential violence.

He, too, was bothered by all the talk of concealed carry weapons and confrontations on the Facebook page — "It's nothing but empty words, the sort that gives the majority of the community a bad name," he said — and is annoyed that such a stark line in the sand has been drawn with this issue. 

"You're either a cop hater or a racist (among other things) if you are asked about this case and start answering one way or another," he wrote Scene in an email. 

He said, though, that the idea of protesters putting pressure on neighbors is "a little twisted." 

"Why choose to threaten a community of families until the prosecutor files charges that he can’t file yet? Why not go to the Sheriffs station, courthouse or prosecutors office?" He wrote. "These are people’s homes and families. How do these protesters that want us to want justice like they do (because apparently it is believed that we don’t because of who we are and where we live) not see how their actions could be deemed threatening?" 

This parent, Kowalczyk and others are especially nervous about "outside agitators." Even the event organizer, the brash Tommy Gunn Snider, said he would in no way infringe upon protesters First Amendment rights if they remained peaceful (though the idea of filling every parking spot and preventing protesters from gathering at Impett seems pretty directly in contempt of the right to free assembly, if not to free speech).

Still, Kowalczyk and others say they definitely don't want a turf war. They say they will of course defer to law enforcement officers and will only intervene if things get out of hand, especially if the "outside agitators" arrive and start breaking windows.  One reason frustration is mounting, Kowalczyk added, is that they haven't been able to get a straight answer from the city about what they're doing in response to planned protests. (The city's preparations have been characterized as a "clusterfuck" by at least two sources Scene spoke with, independently).  

Malaya Davis, when asked point-blank, confirmed that no violence was part of the planned action Saturday. (For the record, we were embarrassed that we had to ask).  

As for outside agitators, no one really has any idea what that's about. 

Councilman Jeff Johnson first floated the idea during a Sound of Ideas broadcast earlier this month, during which he said he expected and encouraged nonviolent protest but was worried about folks from elsewhere coming to Cleveland and causing a ruckus.

Since then, City Hall has been promulgating the fear of outside agitators on the reg — that was the narrative Baltimore City Hall was running with too, for awhile — and frankly, all these "intelligence briefings" and "violence interruption" preparation is fueling fires that need never have been lit in the first place. 

We all need to join hands as #OneCleveland, Mayor Jackson has instructed us. (Although the marketing campaign had to be at least temporarily changed to #OneCle, because #OneCleveland was already taken by a high school in Cleveland,Tennessee).

Too good to be true. 

But that's beside the point! We must band together — not "ban together," as the Protect Our City organizers Freudianly declare — and refuse to let ne'er-do-wells from parts unknown poison our otherwise nonviolent protests. 

But who are these ne'er-do-wells, exactly? The one time a small group from Ferguson bused up to Cleveland to join local demonstrations, they were assaulted by employees at their hotel in Middleburg Heights... not the other way around.

That intel has been conveniently left out of the the Protect-our-City Facebook page, the most ardent rabble-rousers on which continue to use "Ferguson" and "Baltimore" as catch-all euphemisms for "bad people" and "bad situations." There's no real awareness of (to say nothing of empathy for) the factors that led to the chaos in those cities. Sparring sessions on both the Protect our City and the #Occupy4Tamir page make for great lunchtime entertainment, but the lack of meaningful exchange is disheartening.   

One resident told Scene that a rumor is now afoot that rioters from Ferguson and Baltimore have already arrived en masse and are stationed at hotels nearby, presumably waiting to pounce.

Certainly, the Protect our City group doesn't seem to acknowledge the fact that no protest in Cleveland has resulted in violence to date.  

In part, that's because of a calm and professional police force. Calvin Wiliams and co. have done an excellent job maintaining order and trouble-shooting emergent traffic delays downtown.

But the lack of violence is also because of an organized corps of demonstrators and activists who are well-schooled in protest etiquette and who — even if their views are unsavory to some, and even if they are loud and passionate — recognize the efficacy of non-violent direct action. (The inconvenience is supposed to make us reflect on an issue. We see marches downtown or in the newspaper and we talk about it, right?) 

So if the West Park residents are concerned foremost about the safety of their children and the structural integrity of their storefronts, as they claim — and a lot of these people are swayed by hardwired parental instincts and the mood of the neighborhood and are thereby rationally concerned, (please do be apprised that they're not all wackjobs) — the last thing they ought to do is watch 300 Friday night and show up to Impett Saturday with automatic rifles.

For those who are more concerned by the presence of chanting black folks, with zero history of or inclination towards grand-scale violence, in the streets of a white neighborhood, they're better off taking that up with the United States Constitution.     
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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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