“You about to lose your job, Larry McDonald!”
Through the cracks in the hot pavement and into the rustling trees, on May 31, these words reverberated through the neighborhood surrounding East Cleveland City Hall.
Almost five months after the murder of eighteen-year-old Vincent Belmonte by East Cleveland police officer Larry McDonald, activists and organizers gathered at Heritage Middle School to demand accountability.
On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, Sgt. Larry McDonald fired three shots at Belmonte, hitting him in the back. McDonald’s body camera footage, obtained by cleveland.com, shows the moments leading up to the shooting and the moments following, suggesting McDonald turned off his body camera while he murdered Belmonte. According to police, Belmonte was driving a stolen car, fled from officers, and threatened them with a gun. According to Belmonte’s family, Belmonte borrowed the vehicle from a friend. And if he was so threatening, they wonder, why did all of the bullets hit him from the back?
“If proper action had been taken against [Larry McDonald] years ago, my son would still be here,” Belmonte’s mother said to the crowd gathered outside the East Cleveland Police Department.
Throughout his career, McDonald has received a number of complaints about excessive force and lack of probable cause. He was laid off in 2006 due to his reckless behavior but rehired in 2008. In 2020, he was put on probation for releasing a woman from jail in exchange for a date and investigated for stealing marijuana from the department’s evidence locker.
The rally, held on Memorial Day, commenced with a land acknowledgment from Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, co-director of the InterReligious Taskforce on Central America.
Then the emcee invited Kareem Henton, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, to speak. “I’m sorry to make this family relive this again and again, but it cannot be lost on anyone that Vincent was shot in his back,” Henton said. “I struggle to find how someone fleeing law enforcement is a danger to law enforcement. I struggle to understand how it is that a law enforcement officer with a known record for his deviant behavior, and was on probation at the time, can be given the benefit of the doubt by East Cleveland’s [leadership].”
Next, Antoine Tolbert of Chasing Justice LLC added to Henton’s sentiment.
“In East Cleveland, we see a failure of leadership from top to bottom,” he said. He then invited the audience to call out the names of victims of police violence with him as he poured out water from a water bottle. “Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, Desmond Franklin, Marissa Williams, Tanisha Anderson,” they shouted out. The list goes on.
“Chasing justice is no longer about holding the police accountable. We want the prosecutors. We want the judges. We want the attorney general. We want the certification officers. We want everybody who has failed this community. They’ve got to go,” Mariah Crenshaw, Chasing Justice LLC’s founder, exclaimed after explaining the affidavits her organization filed against various Cuyahoga County police departments for misconduct and corruption. “Larry McDonald is only doing what they let him do. [Mike] O’Malley, and everyone protecting McDonald, have got to go!”
Next up were Alicia Kirkman, whose son, Angelo Miller, was murdered by Cleveland Police in 2007; and Brenda Bickerstaff, whose brother, Craig Bickerstaff, was murdered by Cleveland Police in 2002.
“This is the fight of your life,” Kirkman turned away from the crowd to address Belmonte’s mother directly. “I’ve been in this fight for fourteen years. Every day, I’m figuring out how I can get [patrolman] John Lundy convicted of murdering my son.”
Both women encouraged members of the crowd who are registered to vote in the city of Cleveland to sign the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, or the SaferCLE, petition for a ballot measure that expands the investigative and disciplinary powers of the Civilian Review Board to investigate police misconduct, and establish a permanent Community Police Commission to be given final authority on disciplining police officers.
“We need 7,000 votes to ensure justice. We’re going for 10,000,” added Bickerstaff. “If you can’t come to me, I’ll come to you.”
The Belmonte family led a march from Heritage Middle School to the East Cleveland Police Department building on Euclid Avenue and Marloes, where marchers and organizers in cars blocked the intersection.
Members of the family took turns giving remarks about their final days with Vincent and demanding accountability, while sage was smudged and passed around. The crowd repeated chants, waved signs and heckled officers watching from their vehicles and the roof of city hall.
After the crowd dissipated, Kareem Henton’s message lingered. “When you leave here,” he told the crowd, “take on the responsibility of bringing others into this struggle. When we show up again, I want to see these numbers triple and quadruple.”
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