The Ohio city is one of America’s most racially segregated and under Trump, many fear a conflict between the black community and mostly white police force
by Chris McGreal in Cleveland, Ohio / The Guardian / Friday 3 March 2017 06.00 EST
It’s not easy being a black cop in Cleveland. During his 23 years in uniform, and now as a detective, Lynn Hampton has weaved a tricky path between the city’s African American majority and its overwhelmingly white, sometimes trigger-happy police department. Some in the black community called him a sellout. A few white colleagues regard him as an infiltrator. But Hampton did not give up working to bridge the divide.
Then came Donald Trump.
“We’re trying to keep a lid on this thing here. You’ve got people in this city saying the police department is racist, that we are neo-Nazis,” said Hampton. “Now with Trump coming on the scene, spewing out these bigotries, my community is quite frankly saying this dude is a racist. Then he’s talking about bringing back law and order again, and we know what that meant in the past. What’s that saying to the black community? We’re opening back up open season on African Americans. That’s what people are thinking.”
Hampton, wearing a brown trilby and a gold detective’s badge on a chain around his neck, added that it was bad enough that Trump used the election campaign to push for a return of discredited “stop and frisk” policies, and to accuse Black Lives Matter of being responsible for the killings of police officers.
Those “reckless” pronouncements did not go unnoticed in a city marred by two of the most notorious police shootings of recent times, including the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice. But then, Cleveland’s overwhelmingly white police union piled in by taking the unprecedented step of endorsing Trump for president.
“Bad move. Horrible move,” said Hampton, who is a member of the union. “A slap in the face to the community which you serve. What message does that send to black people about the attitude of the police?”
Now the 57-year-old detective finds himself caught between an increasingly alarmed African American community, and a department he fears will retreat to a mindset more akin to military occupation than policing.
“What kind of society does he want to create? Where we headed? You can’t continue to back people into a corner without anybody eventually getting tired and striking out. Are we going to have more violence against police officers? Is that what he wants? That’s the very thing that I’m trying to avoid,” he said.
Some of Hampton’s black colleagues have had enough and are talking about quitting. That’s not for him: he says he will stay and fight.
On the other side of Cleveland, Brian King, a retired sales engineer for a steel company, knows what kind of society he wants and what he expects of Trump.
“We need him to clean up the inner cities. The crime and the drugs. Clean up some of the people in this country that are causing troubles. The illegal immigrants. The terrorists,” he said.
King said he has plenty of doubts about Trump but they are not the same as Hampton’s. “I don’t think Trump’s a racist at all. I believe that if everyone hates him he must be doing something right,” he said. “Trump was my first choice because I’ve read his stuff and I thought he was an asshole. He’s a shyster. He’s a crook. But I want him to be a crook for us. For the ordinary guy.”
Cleveland voted solidly for Hillary Clinton, although her numbers were down on Barack Obama’s victories. It has among the highest poverty rates in the country, with one in three of the population living below the poverty line, rising to 43% among African Americans.
Cleveland is also among the most racially segregated cities in the country, a divide reflected in its police department, where just one in four officers is black in a city where more than half the population is African American and little more than one third is white.
The force is under federal court oversight after a group of 13 police officers fired 137 shots into a car with two unarmed African Americans in 2012. Officer Michael Brelo was filmed leaping on to the front of the car and firing at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams through the windscreen after fellow officers stopped shooting. He was acquitted of manslaughter on the grounds that the pair was probably already dead by then. To his critics, it looked a lot like Brelo thought he was back fighting insurgents with the US army in Iraq.
“A lot of white officers believe that once you run all bets are off. I can do anything to you,” said Hampton. “What criminal do you know just gets in the car? It’s their job to run. Your job is to chase ’em. A lot of officers are too quick to use their weapons.”
In 2014, a Cleveland police officer shot dead Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child carrying an airsoft gun. The city council paid $6m to the boy’s family but the officer was not charged. Justice department intervention forced the department to increase training on bias and use of force, and to place a greater emphasis on community policing.
“There’s been some incremental changes but the results have yet to be seen,” said Hampton. “They’re still at the ground floor working. This is an institution that’s been compromised a long time ago.”
Now the detective fears that what progress there has been will be set back under a president who has suggested the police are victims of a witch-hunt and appointed an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who calls federal investigations of law enforcement “a smear”. A White House webpage, Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community, promises to end “the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America”.
Cleveland has an African American mayor and black police chief, but Hampton said power within the force remains with the white-dominated hierarchy.
The police union, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, overwhelmingly endorsed Trump but on a low turnout.
The move was engineered by the association’s leader, Steve Loomis, who told Trump during the campaign that federal oversight of police departments is an expensive failure. He also denounced the “false narrative” of Black Lives Matters. Trump reassured Loomis that “you’re going to have a friend in the White House”; Loomis said he believes the new president “is going to be a very strong supporter of law and order”.
To Hampton that is code for the kind of racially biased, heavy-handed policing that has failed in the past. He suspects Trump’s justice department will abandon Barack Obama’s emphasis on civil rights, including scrutiny of police conduct. This week, Sessions pledged to “pull back” on federal investigations of police departments, saying it was making officers hesitant to do their jobs and reduced their effectiveness.
African American officers in Cleveland have their own organisation, the Black Shield Police Association, founded in 1946 to counter racial discrimination within the department. Hampton is its president.
“The police has had a profound effect on the African American community like no other. We’ve got a long history. The police were the slave catchers. I wanted to be an example in our community – that not all police is a certain kind of way. Not walking around badge heavy, that I’m the big bad police. That I’m a human being and you can talk to me just like a regular person,” he said. “Some people look at black officers as sellouts. It’s an interesting place to be between those two worlds but at the same time showing some compassion and understanding. I think African American officers in the urban area are best fit to do that because they come from that. Far too much in recent times, we have hired people that are void of that understanding.”
They include veterans, such as Brelo, who continue to behave as if they’re in the military. “It’s a big problem because, I have to be truthful, there’s question marks about that mentality coming back in our community. Too many people come on to this job with this mentality of us and them, carrying a big stick,” he said.
Hampton said there are many good white officers committed to policing for the community, but he fears that the Trump administration’s tone and policies will embolden the others. “Look at all the crazy stuff that’s going on, people feeling empowered, just because Trump’s been elected. Threatening people. We’re talking lawlessness just because a president’s been elected? You didn’t have that kind of reaction with Obama. We weren’t going around threatening white folks because Obama became president,” he said.
“I think the reality is setting in where we’re at in this country right now. It was undercover. When they elected Trump, it’s going to bring that out.”
The fault lines have already been accentuated by the rise of Black Lives Matter. Hampton despairs of the view, heard inside the department and out, that the movement is anti-police or values black lives more than white. “They’re just trying to make a statement: don’t be shooting people down like they don’t matter, like they’re dogs. No one’s saying white lives don’t matter,” he said.
Still, the detective sees the backlash against Black Lives Matter as part of a broader wave of anger that drove the Trump phenomenon. To Hampton, Trump’s vision of the future looks an awful lot like a past he thought was behind the US.
“You’ve got people who are mad about immigration, people coming taking our jobs, and our borders and this stuff. He tapped into people thinking we need a person who’s not a politician in there. Washington is corrupt. So is Wall Street. He tapped into the bigotry of people who want their country back,” he said.
“Black people say, back to what? You want to go back to slavery? Jim Crow? You’ve got a section of the population who don’t want to share the country. They want some folks to be back where they were when they had no authority, no power, no nothing. Back to being insignificant. They wanted the White House to return to being the ‘white’ house.”
King, the 69-year-old retired sales engineer for a steel company, is not ashamed to say he wants his country back and that he wants it to be great again. But he says he’s talking about taking it back from politicians he accuses of exploiting division and pandering to special interests. He includes Black Lives Matters in that.
“We’ve had politicians for hundreds of years with their own agenda. They go to a black neighbourhood: ‘I love the blacks. I’m going to take care of them’ but they don’t do anything. In a white neighbourhood: ‘I love the whites’. In a UAW (union) area: ‘I love the UAW’. They’re all snakes and getting rich off us,” he said.
But beyond the blunt declarations, he wants to see Trump distinguish between the truly dangerous and criminal and the rest.
“The morons, the terrorists, are escalating. My sister lived in Abu Dhabi for 38 years so I’m not against all Muslims, trust me. Her husband’s family is Palestinian so I’m not prejudiced. It’s the militant Muslim terrorists I’m against. We have to keep them out,” he said.
King takes a similar view of illegal immigration. He said the very act of coming into the country illegally makes a person a criminal and subject to deportation. But then he gestures across the street. “A person I know raised a family over there. I worked with her and we started talking about illegals and she said: ‘I’m an illegal’. She’s been 30 some years over there. It’s not her. It’s the people who break laws I want taken care of,” he said.
“I hope Trump puts sane people in charge of this and says maybe they can stay on an individual basis. I have a niece who’s married to an illegal. A Mexican. I’m close to this situation. The children are suffering because they’re trying to stay in the United States. You can’t just say we’re going to build a wall and throw them all out. But if they’re constantly in and out of jail, please. That’s a no-brainer. Get out.”
But what King really wants is Trump to stand up against the rich and powerful on behalf of the little guy.
Like many of the new president’s supporters, King sees no contradiction in a billionaire businessman who lived in a gold tower claiming to be the voice of struggling workers. Neither is King disturbed by Trump’s cabinet appointments such as the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs partner whose company aggressively foreclosed on homeowners who lost their jobs in the recession. “I understand they were looking for their own wealth at one time. I’m hoping he’s going to demand more from them,” he said.
King is big on Trump’s plan to spend $1tn on infrastructure renewal. “That’s not only a smart idea, it’s necessary. Our infrastructure’s falling apart,” he said. King sees the plan as a reprise of President Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of millions of jobs through public works programmes during the 1930s economic depression.
“It worked before with FDR. Trump knows how to get things done. I want to see what he can do. What have we got to lose?”
Quite a lot, according to Shirley Pasholk. She responds to a question as to whether her 40 years working in a steel mill have been dangerous by holding up her right hand. Half a finger is missing.
“It got it caught between a crane hook and a block of wood when I was picking up a coil that was too small for a crane to handle,” she said. “Things have become a lot safer over the years. When I started you had two or three fatalities a year. Everyone expected that they would have at least one serious injury. Now people here do not expect that. The union had a lot to do with that.”
Pasholk has been a union activist for most of her years as a steelworker, including leading the local branch of the Women of Steel Committee. Without unions, she said, everything would be different. Pay, benefits, working conditions, even the environment, the community around the steel mill.
Pasholk, like Hampton, fears that the president will take the country back to a darker era of fewer rights (she liked Bernie Sanders). “Everything the man’s done says that he will not help ordinary people. He owns casinos where he has tried to break unions. He’s recommended that places like this should move to the south and after we’ve been hungry for a while we’d work for lower wages,” she said.
“His appointments to the cabinet include people who have openly worked against public education, openly come out to privatise Medicare and social security. It’s everything the union movement has been against and everything that has allowed us to live a decent life.”
Most immediately, Pasholk is worried about the future of Obamacare. She was one of the few women at the mill when she was hired in 1976. She spent years on what was known as the pickle line, running coils of steel through acid. In 2001, the mill went bankrupt. Laid-off workers had to find their own health insurance and Pasholk said many were turned down because of conditions such as high blood pressure or faced with punitive premiums. The Affordable Care Act ended such practices.
“The ACA doesn’t go nearly far enough but the limited amount that it did do provides some real help for a large number of people,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things that even for people that have decent insurance are a positive step although what we really need is a national single payer plan like every civilised country in the world.”
The mill was bought out, reopened and is now owned by ArcelorMittal Steel, the world’s largest steel company. It has full order books but faces an uncertain future given the volatility of the industry and the pressure from cheap Chinese imports. Pasholk said Trump is right that China does not compete fairly on steel but she doubts he will do very much about it once he comes under pressure from interests such as the construction industry.
Instead, she expects Trump to concentrate his fire on the unions. Republicans in Congress are pushing for a national “right to work law” likely to weaken unions and hold down wages. Pasholk said the impact has consequences beyond pay, particularly if the Trump administration retreats from enforcing safety and environmental regulations.
“I can easily see the companies trying to get away with all sorts of things on health and safety, and the environmental front. We don’t just work in these communities, we live in them too,” she said.
Pasholk recognises that union members may have delivered Trump to the White House. Clinton’s share of the ballot among union households in Ohio dropped sharply on previous elections as Trump’s focus on jobs and trade resonated with voters who, polls showed, believe international trade takes away US jobs and disbelieved Clinton’s claims of an economic recovery.
“It’s a reaction to the feeling that we were left behind by this so-called recovery where Wall Street recovers and the normal people are still having trouble making ends meet. We hear that everything is great and this is as good as it’s going to get. It’s a widespread feeling of insecurity, that people’s kids are not going have it as good as their parents did. It’s the young people leaving school with this overwhelming debt.”
Pasholk also blames the Clinton campaign, saying it got the tone wrong in Cleveland. These days she administers adult education classes on behalf of the union and company. More than 100 workers and retirees signed up to a recent gun handling class. “When Clinton was here for her rally on Labor Day weekend, I saw they prominently seated these people with these anti-gun shirts. I thought: ‘Don’t you realise the Republicans are going to working people and saying you’re gonna take away their guns? Don’t you realise that is the kiss of death to have those people in prominent places at a rally in an area like Cleveland?’” she said.
Jamal Collins doesn’t give much thought to the president at all except to wonder if his election has had a clarifying effect.
“I’m kinda glad it happened. It really is an eye-opener on what’s really going on. The real truth about America. The real truth that there’s still a lot of racism. People voted for this sort of stuff,” he said.
Collins grew up in East Cleveland, an overwhelmingly black and separate municipality with such a small tax base it is dependent on neighbouring Cleveland to fill the gap in its emergency services and much else besides. More than a few people in both places want to merge the two cities, but councillors in East Cleveland are against voting to dissolve their own authority and jobs.
Collins’s father worked for General Electric and his mother was a bus driver. He went to a high school across the road from blocks of now abandoned and plundered apartments. Unlike most of his friends, Collins landed a place at university and a job as a graphic designer with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then he tired of corporate life and returned home. Today he teaches graphic design to young people – mostly black and Latino – at local schools and the Boys and Girls club of East Cleveland. But his real purpose is to tell them how the world is.
“My whole mission is to come back in and give them a different way of thinking,” he said.
Collins described East Cleveland as “always in decline”. He watched shops on the high street close, jobs disappear and people flee the area. “It was around Reaganomics. The Reagan era came and it was less opportunities and less jobs for people and so people had to do what they had to do and that was sell drugs. That made some people rich and that made some people poor but it made things worse here,” he said. “Crack cocaine. When that came it changed everything.”
As presidents came and went – two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – Collins saw little reverse in the decline. Some could make things worse, but he noticed that it didn’t matter which administration was in charge, the situation didn’t get better. “I think that people were very optimistic about Obama. They were looking for change with Obama. Even with that, the job situation didn’t stop. The decline didn’t stop. The crime didn’t stop. Look at the murder rate in Cleveland. Sky high. Kids getting killed. It really didn’t make a difference,” he said.
Trump’s election confirmed his belief that no matter who is in the White House, the system works for those who have knowledge or money or both. As the young people he teaches don’t have money, they need knowledge. Not just an education but an understanding of how to make the system work for them. Even something as simple as how to get a mortgage in order to escape exploitative landlords.
“There is a divide. Upper class people have access. The whole Trump administration is about the haves and the have nots. If you have money, you have a healthier life. You have access to a better health system. You have better security,” he said. “I tell them, people can’t just wait for things to happen. Can’t wait for Trump to see what he’s going to do. You’ve got to do it for yourself.”
In East Cleveland, that wait is often a trap for people caught in low-paid work, if they can find jobs. Collins said he tries to open doors to ideas from how to set up a business to using social media to showcase themselves. “As long as black people don’t have their own business and companies, it’s going to be an issue. We’re just taking our money and giving it to somebody else. I give them skills,” he said. “I tell them if you have a computer, if you have an internet connection, you can have a company. The upper-class people use computers to create. The lower-class people are just consumers of the technology. What I’m trying to get them to do is create.”
Collins said his own escape came from visiting a friend attending university. “It changed my life … I never heard anyone say you can do this and you can do that and there are these possibilities,” he said. “One of these kids could be the next engineer, the next politician, fireman, cop. How can we forget about them and not empower them with another way of thinking?”
Hampton would like to see more of Cleveland’s young African Americans become cops, not only as a bridge between the police and the community but to change a department still riddled with discrimination. He gives the example of black officers held back from promotion because of minor offences in their youth.
“Shot somebody with a BB gun when he was in seventh grade, that kind of thing. Now he’s 30 years old and they’re still holding that stuff against him. But there have been white officers who’ve gotten into some things, domestics, trouble with the police, and still got on the force. We in this country and this system still got a long way to go,” he said.
Still, he said he’s not going to quit. “It’s very difficult. You have to go within yourself and do what you can within your power to do the right thing,” he said. “We can’t abandon ship. If you abandon ship, what you got then?”