Cops Continued “Coon Huntin’” in Cleveland Despite 2004 Federal Consent Decree

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

No sooner had a Cleveland judge acquitted the only cop charged in the “mass firing squad execution” of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, than the Feds announced their second consent decree with the city in recent years. “It appears the Justice Department’s role is to restate the law and then call it ‘reform’ and a ‘model’ for urban America.”

Cops Continued “Coon Huntin’” in Cleveland Despite 2004 Federal Consent Decree

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

There is only one force that can change the fatal rules of engagement in Cleveland: the power of the people to reject the legitimacy of the rulers, and to create a general crisis.”

In the Deep South, not too long ago, they called it “coon huntin’.” Armed white men piled into caravans of cars in search of Black people to capture and, often, kill, for the thrill and fun of it.

In Cleveland, Ohio, in November, 2012, more than 100 police officers in 60 cruisers chased and fired on a Black couple for 22 miles at speeds reaching 100 miles an hour, finally cornering their car at a school parking lot. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were struck 47 times in a hail of 137 gunshots, 49 of them fired by Officer Michael Brelo who, “Rambo-like,” reloaded his weapon and jumped on the hood of a car to fire the final fusillade of 15 rounds into the Black couple’s windshield.

Russell and Williams were unarmed. Their car apparently backfired after they had been stopped for making a wrong turn. An autopsy showed bullet wounds to the palms of both victims’ hands, an indication of their futile attempt to surrender to the coon hunters.

Last Saturday, an Ohio judge acquitted the only cop charged in the case, Officer Brelo, of manslaughter charges, on the grounds that any number of his fellow cops could have fired the fatal shots. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge John P. O’Donnell also bought into Brelo’s claim that he feared from his life when he grandstanded on the car hood. The cops were, in fact, in danger – from themselves, having shot some of their own cruisers in their zeal to be in on the kill.

Judge John P. O’Donnell bought into Brelo’s claim that he feared from his life when he grandstanded on the car hood.”

Enter – for the second time in a little over a decade – the U.S. Justice Department, which claims it can cure what ails the Cleveland police force through application of what the corporate media obligingly describe as “some of the most exacting standards in the nation over how and when its officers can use force.” The settlement prohibits pistol-whipping and the firing of warning shots, and would bar cops from using force against people for talking back or as punishment for running away. All of these practices are, in fact, illegal, so it appears the Justice Department’s role is to restate the law and then call it “reform” and a “model” for urban America. Or, rather, it is the role of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to restate the law and promulgate police “reforms,” while the larger department uses every opportunity to argue before the U.S. Supreme in favor of officers accused of using excessive force, as reported back in April by the New York Times.

The Justice Department settlement purports to track every aspect of officers’ use of force, and to mandate that a civilian head the department’s internal affairs unit. The city also promises to create a civilian advisory panel on police practices and community relations.

The Black man doing the promising is Mayor Frank Jackson, who has been a protector and apologist for a virulently racist police department since taking office in 2006. Jackson defended the top police brass targeted for Justice Department civil rights investigation back in 2000 as well as in the current probe, begun in 2013. Mostly, Jackson defends his own conduct, claiming to have reduced “use of force” and “use of deadly force” cases by half. He claims to have made the police “accountable...to the point where arbitrators are telling me, 'You're absolutely right, Mayor. Damn, you're harsh.' "

Tell that to the mother of Tamir Rice, who was shot to death two seconds after police arrived at the park where the 12 year-old had been playing with a toy gun. Six months after the killing, Tamir’s body has still not been released for burial. Or to the family of Tanisha Anderson, a 37 year-old bipolar Black woman with heart disease who coroners ruled was killed by “restraint tactics” while lying facing down and handcuffed in a police car, last November. Under Mayor Jackson’s watch, the City of Cleveland has paid $8 million in settlements to victims of police. The families of Timothy Russell and Marissa Williams were awarded $3 million, last year.

It was only a little over a decade ago that the Cleveland Police Department submitted to a previous U.S. Justice Department consent decree. In 2004, the department agreed to ban shooting at moving vehicles ”unless there is imminent danger of death or serious injury.” Mayor Jackson won office two years later – and the cops are still shooting at Blacks in moving vehicles, claiming to be in fear for their lives. But we know that they are no more afraid than hunters are of “coons” – animal or human.

Under Mayor Jackson’s watch, the City of Cleveland has paid $8 million in settlements to victims of police.”

And why should they be? With a collaborationist mayor; a Black police chief, Calvin Williams, who spent much of his 30 years on the force heading SWAT teams; and a U.S. Justice Department whose modest consent decrees are violated before the ink is dry, there is only one force that can change the fatal rules of engagement in Cleveland: the power of the people to reject the legitimacy of the rulers, and to create a general crisis.

When Judge John O’Donnell absolved Officer Brelo of any guilt in the massed firing squad execution of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, a relatively small group of demonstrators marched on the downtown area, at times clashing with white sports fans. Seventy-one protesters were arrested, four on felony charges, before “calm” was restored in the majority Black city. Judge O’Donnell offered his own analysis of the situation. “Some say the volatile relationship between police and the community is rooted in our country's original sin,” he said. “Whether it is or not, that sin won't be expiated and the suspicion and hostility between the police and people won't be extirpated by a verdict in a single criminal lawsuit.”

The racist dog is right. The armed occupation of Black communities by hostile forces will not be “extirpated” – meaning, “rooted out and completely destroyed” – until there is Black community control of the police; Black people policing – and accountable to – themselves.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].