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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Rally for Luke Stewart at Euclid City Hall Forces City Leaders to Listen to Anger Over Officer-Involved Shooting

Posted By on Tue, Aug 22, 2017 at 9:21 AM

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY ERIC SANDY
  • Photos by Eric Sandy

There were two meetings at the Euclid Municipal Building last night: a City Council meeting, replete with the intricacies of zoning policy, and a rally for Luke Stewart, a 23-year-old black man who was shot and killed by Euclid police officer Matthew Rhodes on March 13 of this year.

At various points in the evening, both groups came face to face with one another. The evening was peaceful, but not without moments of extremely tense negotiations and a heightened energy.

Council chambers were packed, and the atmosphere was already very charged when Mayor Kirsten Gail began the meeting by addressing the Stewart case directly, as well as the violent Aug. 12 arrest of Richard Hubbard that has drawn nationwide scrutiny and outrage. Fists were raised silently in the audience as Gail explained that the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation had long ago taken the Stewart case out of the city's hands. "We do not have control over the investigation or process, and that is by design," Gail said, reading a prepared statement. "We want answers as well."

Police Chief Scott Meyer echoed her comments, noting that Stewart's death and Hubbard's arrest had "understandably damaged" the police department's relationships with Euclid's black community. Officer Matthew Rhodes remains on active duty. Officer Michael Amiott, the cop who was videotaped beating Hubbard's head against the street earlier this month, is currently suspended without pay.

"We will learn from this situation," the mayor said.

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After those brief statements, the council meeting began in earnest. Public comment was to be relegated to the end of a lengthy agenda. Somewhere during the second sleepy agenda item, Black Lives Matter organizer Rian Brown stood up in the front row and began chanting: "Fists up! Fight back!" She and others were quickly escorted out of the room by police, but nearly everyone else in chambers had begun chanting along with them in a stirring moment of voluminous support.

As Brown was taken to the back of the room, one elderly white man in the audience remarked to his pal: "They're fucked." But this disruption tactic was very much intentional; the whole point was to ignite some sort of action. Scene followed Brown and the others into the municipal building lobby, where the rally for Luke Stewart began.

Very quickly, more than 100 men and women streamed out of council chambers and joined the growing crowd. Chants filled the room: "What side are you on, my people?" and "If Luke don't get it, shut it down!" and "Vote them out!" The energy was extremely intense, and police initially seemed to respond. Officers got everyone to line up, single-file, to return to council chambers to speak publicly about Stewart's case.

That never happened.

click to enlarge Rian Brown speaks to protesters in the lobby of the Euclid Municipal Building.
  • Rian Brown speaks to protesters in the lobby of the Euclid Municipal Building.

Ultimately, police did not allow the protesters back into council chambers; they remained in the lobby. And even though everyone had assembled in a single-file line there, the group eventually dissolved back into a broad, peaceful protest. At one point, everyone sat down as Brown and others led an almost Occupy-style meeting about the importance of having their voices heard by Euclid City Council.

Councilwoman Taneika Hill came into the lobby at one point. (The council meeting was still going on, and at least a few wary white residents were seen videotaping the rally from behind the windows of council chambers.)

"I want them to hear every person's pain, every person's experience, every person's situation," Hill told the crowd, emphasizing how she wanted her colleagues on council to understand the intent of the rally.

The response from protesters was an oft-repeated question throughout the night: "Why is Matthew Rhodes still on the street?" No answer was provided, though City Council President John Monroe did at one point sort of blame the police department's collective bargaining agreement with the city. (Council does not make personnel decisions like the firing of a police officer. "At times we may want to say much more," he said, but council's voice is somewhat limited in these matters.)

Nonetheless, Hill listened to Stewart's family members, but there was no real progress or dialogue.

Then the tactical officers showed up.

Threatening criminal trespassing charges and ordering the protesters out of the building, the SWAT crew stood at the ready. Damien Parker, a protester representing First Team International, immediately stood them down and urged them to "try to find a peaceful resolution."

click to enlarge img_0770.jpg

Police Chief Scott Meyer and Mayor Kirsten Gail were called into the lobby to help defuse the situation, and the evening's one dialogue unfolded quietly between Parker and the two city leaders (and, later, between Stewart's cousin Jocelyn Smith and the chief and mayor).

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"You gotta hold these officers accountable," Parker told them, "or you're going to see violence across the city of Euclid. That's not a threat; I'm just telling you." He added that the crowd gathered in Euclid that night was only a small fraction of the people in Northeast Ohio who remain angry about how the city has handled these two police incidents.

While Meyer and Gail didn't say much in response, they remained in the crowd and listened to both Parker and Smith. Mayer reiterated that the Stewart investigation is out of their hands. The next step, he said, is for BCI to hand the case over to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, where all officer-involved shootings must be run through the grand jury process.

The conversation drew to a close, and Meyer ordered his tactical officers to part. The protesters walked out of the building, chanting once again "What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?"

Scene asked Rian Brown of Black Lives Matter whether she thought there was any progress last night. She didn't, saying that "these are the same concerns we've brought up since March." While she and others were canvassing the city earlier this month in support of Stewart's family, officer Michael Amiott arrested and beat Richard Hubbard just down the road from them; Brown said that there's no other way to view it than as a "targeted hit."

What became clear from her statements and from others is how divided the city of Euclid is right now.

Out in the parking lot, Jocelyn Smith thanked everyone for their support of her family. She said that the city had informally agreed to meet within 48 hours to discuss Officer Rhodes' future with the department. And if that meeting does not happen, she and others insisted, the group will be back. The immediate goal: Force Meyer into acting on Rhodes.

"If he doesn't utilize his power," Smith said, "we're damn sure gonna utilize ours."


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