Sunday Dec 17

On Saturday August 12th, events surrounding a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned fatal. Three people died and about 35 were injured. As the nation looked on, struggling to make sense of the violent clash between the alt-right and counter-demonstrators—noncommercial radio was ready.

Licensed to the University of Virginia, heroic college station WTJU-FM Charlottesville was front and center. Providing two live news updates a day, directly from the field, and a special segment the following Saturday to share each others stories, bring the community together to begin to heal, and air messages of support from around the country.

Like many others, radio journalist Jennifer Waits turned to WTJU to hear the breaking news from Charlottesville and try to understand what was really happening. She says, “I tuned into portions of the WTJU broadcast and it was incredible to hear some first-hand accounts of kindness in Charlottesville in the aftermath of the horrible violence there. It was powerful radio.”

This serves as a keen reminder that the left of the (FM radio) dial is protected to provide local public value. And, in times like these, it’s clear to see the why it is important to ensure every community has access to one of these small, hyper-local, truly independent stations. They offer local listeners shelter in a storm, critical information in a crisis, and a hub—to gather around in times of peril and uncertainty.

Outside of Charlottesville, stations around the country (and the organizations that support them)—rallied to do their part.

Leading the pack was College Radio Day, established to “raise a greater, international awareness of the many college and high school radio stations that operate around the world.” Founder Rob Quicke promptly issued a “Call for Unity and support for WTJU Charlottesville”.

Dozen of stations, from around the country, were quick to respond in solidarity. Quicke says, “The only other time that we have issued a call of support like this was in November 2015, when Paris had just experienced horrific terrorist attacks and we heard that college radio has lost one of its own in the attack at the Bataclan music venue. Then, like with Charlottesville, we saw college radio stations unite to show support. In moments like these, college radio is a unified force of goodwill.”

Coming out of Louisville, WXOX, ArtxFM GM Sharon Scott reports their DJs responded startling events in Charlottesville in powerful ways, saying ”This intense situation shook our staff to the very core. None of us expected to see this sort of torch-carrying hatred rear it's despicable head in 2017. Therefore, the station had no coordinated response prepared. Instead, each show reacted strongly, immediately, and viscerally through their broadcasts of songs, speeches, and custom mixes demanding freedom, redemption, and equality. Peaceful and Powerful, Music provided the expression when we could not find the words.”

Aaron Rosenblum, archivist and sound archivist, who hosts Radio Presque Rien on ARTxFM, collected audio from the Lville2Cville Solidarity March and aired the collage of “Black Lives Matter” chants on his program the following Monday.

In Chicago, CHIRP invited people at their local town hall to come on the air the following Monday. They discussed what had happened, responded to an outpouring of emotion, and played music in response. Throughout the conflict, they also aired news programming from Democracy Now, Pacifica, and Creative PR to provide independent reporting from the scene.

At KABF-FM in Little Rock, Arkansas—on-air labor show host Toney Orr says, “On my show, the discussion centered around how Charlottesville brought to light the issues of race and how some leaders in this country refuse to address the issue of race and the white nationalist movement. Callers were upset that the president didn't go far enough in denouncing these groups and what they stand for. I also had callers who wanted to discuss how they believe that their rights to embrace their heritage was being threatened … Our phone lines have been hot over this incident.”

This is just a small sampling of how non-commercial radio stations around the country showed up for their local communities to help people process their outrage and grief. While we have come to take these stations for granted, they are crucially important.

To understand why, it’s valuable to take a look back to an example of community radio’s role in organizing local communities—the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM).

Beginning in the late 1970's, AM/FM, part of the ACORN family of organizations, began supporting noncommercial stations. By the mid-1980s KNON-FM was successfully on the air in Dallas, WMNF-FM in Tampa, and KABF-FM in Little Rock. Now in 2017, AM/FM has also recently put WAMF-LP on the air in New Orleans, and agreed to manage WDSV-LP in Greenville, Mississippi.

All of these stations were designed to be "Voice of the People" stations, meaning they are programmed to provide a megaphone for low- and moderate-income families to air their interests and issues. As community, noncommercial stations—they service the broad interests and tastes of their community and are supported by their listeners, with a special emphasis on constituencies and organizations whose work most needs access to a larger audience.

AM/FM also distributes programming from these stations to any other interested non-commercial stations.Across the family of stations, public affairs and call-in shows have opened up their microphones to discuss the tragic events in Charlottesville. Wade's World interviewed Kristin Szakos, a two-term Charlottesville city council member (see previous article) about the years-long struggle to remove Confederate statues and her insights on the local police actions and tactics. Call-in programs including the Labor Show, Community Voices, and the Barbershop have all done special programming on Charlottesville

Like a flashlight in the kitchen drawer, it is easy to forget why these organic networks and non-corporate radio stations are important—until you need them. As FCC protections are eroded by brokers and profiteers— and mainstream news channels become increasingly less locally focused—these remaining stations are invaluable as trusted news sources and, in so many cases, first responders. Do your part to support them, by listening, lobbying, volunteering, or donating.

Kenya Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and community radio advocate. In 2011, she helped to organize the effort to Save KUSF.

On August 11 and 12, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, found itself under attack – an invasion of hate as heavily armed Nazis, Alt-Right extremists, white nationalists, KKK members and garden variety racists, anti-Semites and xenophobes swarmed in to protest the city’s decision to remove a giant statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Three people died in the ensuing violence, and the community was left feeling shaken and vulnerable.

As in all disasters, some were more shaken than others, stark differences that parallel longstanding inequalities that have persisted in this socially progressive Southern city for centuries.

What some saw as restrained police intervention left many in the African American community, whose distrust of police had been built over generations, to conclude that the police were not interested in protecting them from white supremacists, and had intentionally left them vulnerable to attack.

The fact that the white supremacists were attracted to Charlottesville ostensibly to protest the removal of a Confederate statue led many to ask why the statue had been allowed to stand for almost 90 years, telegraphing support for the Southern cause in the Civil War despite the city’s widely touted socially progressive politics.

Predominantly African-American neighborhoods that were the object of threats from white supremacists who marched and drove through them on the morning of the 12th were held up as evidence that inequitable patterns of poverty, along with a failure to adequately provide affordable housing as property values rise, demonstrated that Charlottesville was not just a victim of white supremacy: it was an illustration of it.

A downtown business campaign to announce Charlottesville’s recovery, co-sponsored by the state Tourism Commission, was attacked as tone deaf and offensive: how could the city talk about returning to “normal,” activists demanded, without recognizing that “normal” is how we got here.

As the swarm of national media has packed up and left for south Texas on their way to the next disaster, Charlottesville is once more out of the national spotlight. But residents have increasingly turned the spotlight inward to ask if the city is committed to battling white supremacy at home as vigorously as we reject those from out of town who came here to terrorize us.

The Statues are Still Here

As city after city across the nation tears down monuments to the Confederacy in the wake of August 12, Charlottesville’s statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are still standing. An arcane state law that may or may not prohibit Virginia cities from removing war memorials has been cited as the basis for a court injunction in a lawsuit brought by the Daughters of the Confederacy and a loose coalition of “southern heritage”-loving Charlottesville residents.

For generations, white Charlottesville – and America – has refused to recognize that Confederate statues in our midst were a direct slap in the face to our African-American neighbors. That refusal is one with the inability to see what it’s like to be part of a community that has been systematically disenfranchised for 300 years, criticized for being militant or overreacting when they call attention to problems that their white neighbors don’t understand or see, and being told to accept the slow, incremental change that will take generations to close gaps in housing, economic opportunity and education.

Many of us in Charlottesville have long been committed to the work of racial justice, and believe that the removal of the Confederate statues is necessary if we hope to move forward to true justice and equity. We should have done it years ago.

But Charlottesville and the other cities it has inspired to tear down their own monuments to white supremacy must not stop there: we must continue to take concrete steps, in collaboration with all sectors of our communities, to root out white supremacy in our laws and systems as well.

Dismantling Inequity in Charlottesville

We do take some comfort from the knowledge that one reason the Unite the Right Rally chose to invade Charlottesville is that the City Council, on which I serve, had publicly committed ourselves to not just removing a statue, but to working toward racial justice, LGBT celebration and rights, cultural diversity, and resistance to the dangerous rhetoric and actions of the right.

The vast majority of participants in the Unite the Right rally were not from the area, in most cases not even from Virginia. They flew and drove in from around the country to invade and intimidate us.

The City of Charlottesville has publicly committed itself to becoming a community that values true diversity and promotes racial and economic justice. Over the past several years, we have begun to make real inroads in closing longstanding gaps in school achievement, employment, community engagement and historical narrative.

We have partnered in an Alliance for Black Male Achievement, welcomed hundreds of refugees and other immigrants, banned the box and raised the Living Wage for all city employees, provided college and childcare scholarships and expanded public preschool, after school and summer programming, increased graduation rates, and created employment pathways to quality jobs.

In this year’s budget alone, the city government doubled funding for affordable housing and added funding for an additional HBCU college scholarship, for a school curriculum on African American history, for GED training in public housing neighborhoods, for a Youth Opportunity Coordinator to focus on the needs of youth of color, for public housing redevelopment, for historical markers to memorialize our city’s African American history, for recreation facilities in neighborhood parks, and for a second round of the Dialogue on Race begun almost a decade ago.

The city requires developers to provide affordable housing or contribute to the Affordable Housing Fund to the maximum extent allowed by state law, and has petitioned the state legislature to give it more latitude and power – currently strictly limited. The City Council this year committed to fully fund HUD Housing Choice Vouchers and establish a Landlord Risk Reduction Fund to expand the number of affordable rental units for very low income residents as local rents rise. The City’s Housing Advisory Committee has developed a list of recommendations to increase the availability of affordable housing; the Council has adopted the first round of these recommendations. Many of the practices used by others cities to increase affordability are not allowed to cities under Virginia law, so the Council has developed a list of legislative proposals to change state law to allow them here.

Our police department was one of the first in Virginia to agree to collect data to identify and eliminate racial inequities in our law enforcement system, and instituted training and policies that ensure that that work continues. We’ve studied and reduced disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system and begun a similar study of the adult system; we’ve reduced our jail population and reduced recidivism, and increased employment opportunities for folks coming out of incarceration.

In the past few years, our police department has recommitted itself to building relationships, particularly in the African American community, to increase trust and make our city safer for all our residents. This work is imperative, as all our citizens need to be confident that the police will be there for them.

And yes, we voted to move the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from their venerated pride of place in our most central parks.

Have we eliminated racial disparities in our city? Clearly not. Have we eliminated all racial bias and disproportionate minority impact of our policies and actions? Not yet. Did the fact that we left standing for 90 years monuments to the lost cause of the Confederacy constitute a collective wink and a nod to the forces of white supremacy? Undoubtedly.

That’s why we must re-commit ourselves to the work already begun to make Charlottesville, as the City Vision inspires us to be, “A Community of Mutual Respect, [i]n all endeavors … committed to racial and cultural diversity, inclusion, racial reconciliation, economic justice, and equity.”

As a newly awoken public demands that white supremacy be addressed at home as well as from organized hate groups, we are hopeful that future city councils – and those in other cities – will be able to accelerate progress on these and other initiatives. It will take continued public pressure to prevent city leaders from accepting the progress that has been made as enough, and truly begin to achieve the economic, educational and political equity that our Vision demands.

Some folks have been asking me if Charlottesville is getting back to normal, and I’ve responded that I don’t want to get back to normal. Along with my neighbors, I am working to make sure we come out of this traumatic summer more unified and with even more determination to live out the values we hold dear.

Kristin Layng Szakos is an activist and former journalist who has lived in Charlottesville since 1994. A writer who has served as a member of the Charlottesville City Council for eight years, she serves on the National League of Cities Race, Equity and Leadership Council, as well as the NLC Youth, Education and Families Council and Public Safety Policy Committee and a dozen local boards and authorities. She and her husband, Virginia Organizing Executive Director Joe Szakos, are the authors of two books, We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do – and Why and “Lessons from the Field: Organizing in Rural Communities (published by Social Policy Press).


It has taken decades for Cleveland, Ohio to shake its reputation as the “mistake on the lake.” But starting out last year with the Republican National Convention, a new narrative has taken hold that Cleveland is back and is full of shining promise. This was driven home by the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA championship. Their official welcome mobbed the city’s downtown, with tens of thousands of people from Northeast Ohio who were proud to claim the city that most of them or their parents and grandparents had fled years ago.

There has been a renaissance of sort in Cleveland. The downtown is booming with entertainment districts, shining new hotels and convention centers, and upscale housing for the young, hip and affluent. There are also enclave neighborhoods around University Circle – now known as Uptown in the lexicography of real estate speculation – Tremont, and Ohio City. They have finally succeeded after decades of effort in gentrifying these areas, which now host hip brew pubs, restaurants and housing.

But the bad old days have not gone away. During the 2008 and 2012 elections I worked for Barack Obama, canvassing neighborhoods that I was familiar with from my days working for neighborhood based non-profit housing corporations. I was joined by many of my peers and we had the same response to what we saw. “My God, I thought things were bad in the 1980s when we were working the neighborhoods. Hell, those were the good old days. Things have really gone to hell since then.”

Add to this the continuing misbehavior of the Cleveland police as seen in the 2012 maniacal police chase that led to the firing of 137 bullets into the car of two unarmed residents who police thought had fired at them, when the pops were from the car backfiring. Add to this the infamous police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Add to this continuing decay of those neighborhoods not favored by the wheelers and dealers. Add to this the scandalous rate of lead poisonings among neighborhood children. Add to this the daily body counts from shooting deaths from a state of participatory mayhem in many neighborhoods that defies reason or logic. Compare the breathless boosterism of downtown and favored neighborhoods, with these realities and you can understand the rise of a rebellion in Cleveland against a business as usual that has prevailed since the demise of the Kucinich administration in 1979.

The deal to renovate the Q arena that houses the Cavaliers, was announced during the Christmas season so that no one would notice. But the Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) – an affiliate of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus – which began as the local Bernie Sanders campaign, the SEIU 1199, and the Amalgamated Transit Union in Cleveland took notice and began to organize.

First, however, there was an issue that primed the pump of anger against the promoters of the renovation and that was the Fight for $15 issue to raise the minimum wage in Cleveland. Fight for $15 was organized by the SEIU and was a cause celeb among Cleveland activists, and it frequently resulted in raucous and colorful demonstrations in front of City Hall in the winter of 2017. In the face of fierce opposition by the corporate Greater Cleveland Partnership and its city hall clients it was decided to put it to initiative vote for May of 2017. Smelling possible future defeat, Mayor Frank Jackson and Council President Kevin Kelley did an end run around local democracy and had their lobbyist – a notorious former right-wing legislator in Columbus – slip in a provision to pending legislation in the State House that would forbid votes on the minimum wage by any municipality in Ohio. The measure was passed, the initiative was cancelled and a future grudge match became inevitable.

The deal that was arrived at behind closed doors by the city, county, a tourist agency called Destination Cleveland, and Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ organization was a complex sandwich of agreements to reassign existing taxes generated by the Q with new bond issues for the $160 million public share of the deal. The goal was to add new commercial and entertainment space as part of an atrium that would be added to the existing Q arena. The backers of the deal declared that the renovation was essential to make the Q competitive with other cities for sports, convention and entertainment events. That without these renovations it was an open question if the Cavs would remain in Cleveland after the end of their 2027 lease. And if they did not remain, then the very existence of civilization in Cuyahoga County was in danger. The bottom line was that the tax payers of the city and county would once again be shoveling more subsidies down the gullet of a billionaire team owner, with the knowledge that team owners for the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians would be standing in line for more subsidies to keep them happy.

The background of this feast at the public trough was that it was on top of decades of downtown oriented tax increases for the public, and property tax abatements and bond issues to subsidize rich developers. This was on top of the fact that city hating state legislators had been cutting public funding for the cities of Ohio for a generation, and that with the election of Donald Trump cities would once again be in the bull’s eye for cutbacks and austerity. Money could never be found for the social needs of populations such as Cleveland’s, but was always available for developers such as Dan Gilbert.

The Cuyahoga County Council was the first body to consider the deal. The public hearings saw standing room only crowds composed of suits, opponents of the measure, and representatives of the building trades supporting the renovation. The details of the deal were explained in numbers that would put an amphetamine addict to sleep. Always present in the testimony of the backers were two drum beats – jobs, jobs, jobs – and the future of civilized life in the county. The backers drowned the public in numbers and fear. The opponents, led by the Greater Cleveland Congregations and its allies spoke of the realities of life in Cleveland’s neighborhoods, and the justness of subsidizing rich developers amid so much unmet need. As one minister in GCC put it, “They tell me that I don’t understand the details of the deal. I tell them that they do not understand the details of life in the communities of Cleveland.” Overlooking this controversy in Cleveland was a shift in the zeitgeist of the overall society to concerns about social and economic inequality that had been forgotten during the Reagan and Clinton eras that worshipped wealth and gave business anything it wanted.

The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus opposed the deal flat out. The Greater Cleveland Congregations was more diplomatic and advocated a dollar for dollar match between what was given to the arena, and what would be put in a Community Benefit Fund to help meet community needs such as mental health facilities. They even gave examples of other cities that had made such deals with community organizations as part of stadium and arena deals. The position of the backers of the Q renovation was that a deal was a deal and could not be altered, and that the Cavs employed residents and was generous in its charitable donations.

When the vote came down one Democrat and two Republicans opposed the measure. The opponents wanted the vote to be delayed until they saw how hard the County would be hit by anticipated budget cuts at the State House. A rumble of discontent rippled through the building trades, sensitive to the approaching construction season. One of the Republicans was impolite enough to remind the council that no matter how esoteric the details were of the deal, it all came down to spending tax dollars in a county that was already hard pressed financially. But the majority opted for jobs, jobs, jobs and the continuation of civilized life in Cuyahoga County.

Both on the county and the city level of deliberations, what was being witnessed was the final surrender of a generation of politicians who had gotten their start during the populism of the Kucinich era, and were now in the twilight of their careers, firmly entrenched in the Clinton era logic of business-friendly Democrats. They knew from bitter experience which side of the bread was buttered, and which side was dry.

The action on the Q next moved onto the Cleveland City Council. Opponents never held very high hopes for fighting it in the County Council for the simple reason that the County Council represented not only urban neighborhoods, but affluent suburban neighborhoods whose residents used the sports and entertainment facilities of the Q complex, and were the reliable deciding votes for downtown development projects. Cleveland City Council held greater possibilities. It too had been a reliable rubber stamp for developers over the years, but its members were often not impressed by the miraculous claims of heaven on earth and life everlasting that were standard in the pitches of economic development hustlers. They knew all too well the realities of their wards. Their support was often based on fatalism and resignation, not belief. Also, it is much easier to buy and bully poor people and their hard-pressed representatives than it is to buy and bully the affluent who have choices in their lives.

With the Cleveland City Council, there was a nucleus of opposition in six council people who called themselves the Gateway Six, after the Gateway complex that the Q was a part of. Some of them had been proponents of the doomed Raise Up $15 campaign that the council majority had defeated earlier in the year with the help of the GOP caucus in Columbus. In committee, they brought up the consistent theme of the opposition to the project – the jarring visuals of a shining and prosperous downtown, smack up against neighborhoods just a few blocks away that were beset
by poverty, despair and violence. How could the council continence subsidies for a billionaire team owner in the face of so much want? The six included the longest serving council member, Mike Polensek aka “Iron Mike” who had a reputation as the scourge of previous administrations and previous deals that had appeared before council. He served as the council’s collective memory. He reminded council of unfulfilled promises made in past development schemes and ridiculed the finely-honed testimony of proponents of the Q renovation. He also subjected them to thunderous oratory describing the horrific conditions that were a daily reality for him.

Behind the scenes were several city council members who had concluded based on events such as the Tamir Rice shooting, and the controversy over the minimum raise increase, that maybe just maybe Mayor Frank Jackson was beatable in the November 2017 election. The two who dreamt such dreams were Councilman Jeff Johnson, and Councilman Zack Reed. Both had been derailed by past scandals that squeaky clean Jackson would delight in reminding the electorate of, but they were the only ones willing to risk the wrath of the Cleveland establishment that would applaud Jackson being declared Mayor for Life. Perhaps the risk taking and recklessness that had been their undoing in the past, would be the quality needed to strike a fatal blow to a reigning king.

The potency of the six council members is that their opposition would deny the administration and council President Kevin Kelley the needed super-majority to pass the deal as an emergency ordinance. According to the original thinking of the opponents an emergency ordinance would prevent them from doing a referendum to put the project on the ballot in the fall. Such a ballot measure would wreak havoc on the summer construction season and would make council members who voted for it, very nervous about facing the voters in November. The proposal was brought before the council and then withdrawn when the administration saw that the Gateway Six were hanging tough. The second time that the council met on the legislation the backers began the day with a dog and pony show proposing a Community Benefits agreement that was laughable in its content. The Cavaliers would refurbish the basketball courts of city schools and recreation centers. They would also direct the ticket receipts that usually were donated by them to charity to Habitat for Humanity to build 100 houses a year in Cleveland. It was nowhere near to other Community Benefits agreements in cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore and other cities where the agreements had some real money behind them and had brought real benefits to the cities’ neighborhoods. The dog and pony show also featured African American construction workers holding banners touting the jobs, jobs, jobs theme of the proponents.

But the jewel in the crown of the efforts of the proponents was that they had peeled off one of the Gateway Six who would vote for the project. Brian Cummins was a former Green Party council member who had had a difficult life in council and was defending his seat against a whole raft of rivals in the Democratic primary. He had a solid reputation as a progressive and had worked with the author on beating back a proposed incinerator that threatened their neighborhoods. There were several parliamentary objections to the vote by the now diminished opponents, which were beat back by the council majority. Then the final vote was held and the project, after much storm and fury, was passed. The Gateway Six lost a member – Brian Cummings. When he voted, Cummins looked like he would have preferred to be any other place on earth. He did not look up from his desk, and with a barely audible yes consigned himself to infamy. The audience in the council chambers was composed of building trades representatives, Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus members in their black and blue t-shirts, Greater Cleveland Congregations members in their yellow shirts and SEIU veterans of the Raise Up $15 campaign raucous in their red shirts. The red shirted SEIU members got up first and marched out of the council chambers to the chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho corporate greed has got to go!!” The rest of us got up in batches and left the council chambers to gather outside in the hallway to ask the question “What now?”. Most of us thought it was over with. Steve Holecko of the caucus told his people that the opposition leaders would have to decide on the next steps.

What I have found in my activist life and most admired about faith based groups is that they are nothing if not resilient. They will bounce back when us seculars are cursing the darkness and chewing on bitterness. This was certainly the response of the Greater Cleveland Congregations.

Word went out that the next night there would be an opposition meeting at the Olivette Institutional Baptist church on Cleveland’s East Side, one of the leading churches in the GCC and one of the most famous African American churches in the city. The crowd had thinned out from previous such gatherings, but was still there and ready to hear what was next. Reverend Jawanza Colvin, a speaker in the grand tradition of African American preaching, said no retreat and no surrender. We were going to launch a referendum to put the deal on the ballot starting the next day. I asked Steve Holecko about this later and he said that the GCC had the funds and the lawyers to know what they were doing, they were the leading group and the watch word was “Charge!” We were sure to be challenged in court, but what we were doing was exactly what the backers did not want – to keep the issue alive. They were used to getting their way and getting it in peace. Launching the referendum despite the Council decision, meant they would not be able to enjoy their victory in peace and would still have to look over their shoulders.

There were a couple of points we had in mind in persisting with the referendum. First was to keep the issue as a political hand grenade that candidates in the November council elections would have to think about. Second was to force the city, county and Dan Gilbert to the negotiating table. The pittance that was offered before the crucial council vote was arrived at behind closed doors, and with no one else in the room but the backers of the deal. An article by Plain Dealer reporter Mark Naymik praised the deal and commented that as anemic as it was, it was unprecedented in the annals of such downtown projects. But the dominant view in the opposition was that it was an insult, and we were holding out for much more. And we would continue to raise hell until we got it.

The next day my wife and I went to a training at Olivette and then hit a couple of “hot spots” on the East Side. The organizers were feeling their way on this, and this day of petitioning was a trial run. We were run off from a supermarket parking lot but not before we made a good start on gathering signatures. Tris was a natural but then I had to remember that when we met decades ago, she was sun burnt and worn out from a massive petition campaign to put some utility issues on the Ohio ballot. So, I should not have been surprised. We were told to go over to Shaker Square – where we had at one time lived. We found a good spot, and neither square security or the Cleveland police bike cops ran us off and we got to work. The pickings were not as rich as the previous parking lot but signatures continued at a respectable rate. People were not happy with the deal and were willing to sign. I even got a signature from a young man who was fully decked out in Cavaliers regalia. The people who supported you were East Side, African American Cleveland voters. If we could get the volunteers out, we could get the needed signatures by the end of the 30-day period we were working against.

We dropped off the petitions and let the organizers know what worked and what didn’t and headed home, taking side streets through the East Side neighborhoods. If we ever wondered about the reason for our efforts, the sight of these neighborhoods banished any doubt. This was the Cleveland that the downtown boosters did not want to talk about. These were the neighborhoods that Dan Gilbert had never visited. We drove past boarded up houses, and houses that looked as if they were standing up out of habit. We drove through intersections where corner businesses were either abandoned, or were the classic enterprises of poor communities – itinerant store front churches, used car lots, cell phone stores, carry outs, and check cashing centers. “Show me what democracy looks like……” was a chant we used in demonstrations. In these neighborhoods “Show me what plutocracy looks like….” would have been appropriate.

The campaign began to find its rhythm in the week after signature gathering began. GCC continued to be the headquarters for turning in signature books, and monitoring how the overall campaign was going but it began to delegate the actual grunt work of getting signatures to its coalition partners and other sympathizers. The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus organized the effort on the West Side of Cleveland, along with its East Side center. A transportation equity group that works on issues of public transit, began to gather signatures at transit stops throughout the city, and SEIU hit public “hot spots” downtown. My wife and I started “humping the hood” as we call it, in our ward on the West Side.

Door knocking is hard work as anybody who has done it knows. Most of the time no one is home, so it is low grade ore. We had walk lists of registered voters so there was a high probability of getting good signatures. While the East Side was looked upon as the richest area to gather signatures in, we found a lot of sympathy for the effort in our classic West Side neighborhood (white, blue collar working class) as well. If we could talk to someone, in most cases we would walk away with a signature. What had slipped the attention of so many of the city leaders as they busied themselves in creating Destination Cleveland, was the level of antipathy for the Q deal in the forgotten neighborhoods of Cleveland. If Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Mayor Frank Jackson had “humped the hoods” they would have gotten an ear full.

Not that they were deaf and dumb to our work. The mayor began his re-election campaign early with the announcement of a 65-million-dollar program for development and services in the neighborhoods just to prove that he had not forgotten the neighborhoods. The Cavaliers began an advertising blitz that boasted of their charitable work in the neighborhoods and attempted to show that they were not just greedy millionaire players and billionaire owners, but were concerned about the rank and file residents of Cleveland as well. There was an even more powerful sign than these PR blitzes, that the backers of the Q were getting nervous. Destination Cleveland, the supervising entity for the Q project, put on hold the issuing of bonds for the renovation of the Q until it could see if we succeeded in getting the referendum on the ballot.

Meanwhile, the leaders and rank and file of the effort speculated on what the future would hold. Would we get the needed signatures? The initial signature counts were favorable. Would the backers of the Q come to the negotiating table? From the available tea leaves it did not look good for that. It looked like those who had always gotten their way, were determined to continue getting their way. They would go to war in a fall campaign before they would come to the negotiating table. And if they came to the negotiating table would we be ready to negotiate for a package that would be meaningful, and not just the chump change they trotted out before the City Council vote? Both the opposition and the backers of the Q deal were in unfamiliar territory, where the compasses of the past had gone crazy. The much-anticipated negotiations did not take place. The backers of the Q had other plans.

To make it short, we did not just get the 6,000 signatures we needed. We got 20,600 signatures in 20 days in a major bust ass canvassing operation. But the status quo was not going to roll over. After a press conference in front of City Hall, we carried the boxes of signatures up to the office of the Clerk of the City Council, where the acting clerk refused to accept the signatures because the legislation had already passed the City Council and was signed by the Mayor. The opinion of the clerk – who is not an attorney – was that as a result a contract had been made and to accept the signatures would be a violation of the Ohio Constitution. This caused a major confrontation at the Clerk’s office where two the leading ministers for GCC presented their hands and said, “Then you are going to have to arrest us.” Several of the council men who had opposed the Q renovation appeared and had a heated discussion with the Kevin Kelley – the President of Council – asking him to justify it. He finally agreed to store the boxes at council, but made it clear that this did not mean the signatures were being officially accepted. The council men told the assembled crowd to get legal counsel and sue the city.

The city had its own twist with the goal of pitching the entire question before yet another Republican dominated institution – the Ohio Supreme Court. The City of Cleveland sued itself to get an opinion from the court on the legality of the signatures. Q opponents were represented by a law firm that is famous for its civil rights and liberties work, and the law firm appealed to the court for standing to be involved in the court proceedings. That permission was granted the second week of July.

The result was a stalemate. The county was not selling any bonds until the matter was resolved. An entire construction season was passing away, and all sides are waiting to see what would come out of Columbus. Meanwhile, the jockeying for the fall councilmanic and mayoral elections has begun, and looming over all the races is the question of the Q. To add to the problems for the Q backers was the unsuccessful attempt by the Cavaliers to win another championship, and rumors that Lebron James – a divinity in Northeast Ohio – was not all that happy with Dan Gilbert and might move on to another team or even retire. Both factors diminished the case made by for the Q renovation.

Just because there was a semi-official stale mate did not mean the activists of the campaign were sitting on their hands. Activists detest inertia. Mayor Frank Jackson, proving that power will eventually make you stupid, announced a fundraiser in the rich suburb of Gates Mill, Ohio at the mansion of insurance tycoon Umberto Fedeli – a reliable contributor to Republican candidates and causes. When I heard the news, I called Steve Holecko, the political director of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. He was thinking the same thing I was. Such a fund raiser was a terrible photo op for Jackson. This was validation of everything people were saying about the Jackson administration, and to hold a demonstration there to greet the contributors was an opportunity too good to let pass.

We scouted out the site and after some debate visited the village hall of Gates Mill, to let the police chief know what was coming. Returning to Gates Mill was something of déjà vu for me. In 1982, as part of the Reclaim America campaign of National People’s Action, I was part of the storming of the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club, where we were in search of Alton Whitehouse – the SOHIO corporation CEO. He was a target of a campaign to prevent the decontrol of natural gas and to get a billion dollars for weatherization and home heating subsidies. It was a memorable fiasco that gave the Cleveland ruling class an excuse to call Cleveland’s foundations, who then defunded a generation of community organizing in Cleveland. On top of the previous overthrow of the Kucinich administration, this resulted in a civic ice age in Cleveland that was just starting to melt.

This lesson from the past caused the Greater Cleveland Congregations, a 501c3, to sit this one out, but the caucus was funded by passing the hat and a cadre of dedicated volunteers, and SEIU 1199 had its own funding source – so we were covered.

The police chief of Gates Mill, was very solicitous and said we could have an area across from the mansion for our rally. We had to pinch ourselves when we heard this, after our experience during the 2016 Republican National Convention, where we had to fight city hall for the right to even breathe.

Amid a crazed pitch of activist creativity, we came up with a name for the event – Frank’s Fat Cat Festival. If you want a successful event, it never hurts to have a catchy title, laced with humor. The word went out and we started collecting buy ins from SEIU 1199, the new Democratic Socialists of America chapter, along with several other groups. The Scene Magazine, whose reporter Sam Allard has revived the muck raking journalism of Roldo Bartimole – an old thorn in the side of Cleveland’s Great and Good - gave the event a plug. We crossed our fingers and waited.

There are more convenient places to have a demonstration than this subdivision in Gates Mill. This was a major worry of ours that we solved by arranging a shuttle from a nearby Metroparks parking lot to the site. Another problem is that the site required a significant drive from Cleveland and good GPS to find.

About ten of us gathered at the site and we started to grouse to one another that this was going to be a wear a paper sack over your head moment, when we started hearing the percussion section of the Raise Up Cleveland activists of SEIU. Around the corner came the red shirts, and bull horns that announced that the party had now begun. The last time Gates Mill had seen this many African Americans, and African American hell raisers at that was 1982 at the infamous Hunt Club Hit. The police chief came up to Steve and reminded him that the agreement was no bull horns, and no drums. Steve shrugged his shoulders and said, “You go talk to them.” He walked away, knowing that discretion is the better part of law enforcement.

By now, we had a crowd of 40 that sounded like a hundred, and the guests began to arrive in Mercedes, top of the line luxury SUV’s, a few Maseratis and other high-end vehicles. I was the first to spot Dan Gilbert coming in to support his horse in the mayoral race. It was a clash of worlds just as stark as the old Hunt Club Hit was, but this time we did not invade Fedeli’s digs. We went around pasting play money on people’s shirts. The Raise Up Cleveland group started yelling “Meow!!” at the fat cat guests. We began to get bored with the old “hey, hey, ho, ho” chants. I came up with one that even caused the cops to laugh, “No hors d’oeuvres! No peace!!!” Umberto Fedeli did bring out a pizza for the demonstrators, who responded by telling him “No pizza. We want Frank.”

We got good coverage, but unfortunately there was some collateral damage suffered by the Greater Cleveland Congregations for the action. Four of their member congregations – two churches and two Jewish temples – withdrew from the coalition, charging that it had become political and had adopted tactics that were too militant. This sounded like a bogus rationale because those who organized the Fat Cat Festival were quite clear about who was involved, and the GCC name never came up. Most of us in the Q campaign interpreted the withdrawal of the four congregations as an example of behind the scenes power plays on the part of the Q backers to split the coalition. Armund Budish, the Cuyahoga County executive, and a major figure in the Cleveland area’s Jewish community, and Democratic Party fund raising was suspected of putting the squeeze on the two departing Jewish temples. And there was speculation that Dan Gilbert had suddenly become interested in making contributions to certain churches. There was no evidence for this suspicion, but Gilbert was known for making contributions to various organizations, motivated by self-interest, not philanthropy. GCC declared that while they regretted the departure of their former coalition members, the departure was not going to cause them to waver on the Q or on their broader mission of social justice.

Other rumors and behind the scenes conversations made us suspect that our opponents were gearing up to play hard ball. There was a lot of evidence that had piled up anecdotally that the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus (CCPC) was not just disliked by Cleveland’s Great and Good. We were roundly hated. When there was earlier speculation about negotiations the backers of the Q made it clear to GCC that under no circumstances would they sit down with them, if we were in the room. This news was flattering to us. It made us look much more dangerous than we have ever been. The other evidence of how the tension had ramped up concerned the imminent election of a new chair for the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. The race was between Shontel Brown, a county council member, Sandra Williams a State Senator and Trevor Elkins – mayor of Newburg Heights, Ohio. Brown was considered a representative of the Jackson/Kelley party establishment, Williams was playing an independent role, and Elkins was a representative of party dissidents and an ally of the progressive caucus. Word came down through the grapevine, that the Jackson forces made Elkins an offer that Brown would bow out of the race, and they would support him, if he repudiated his former close ties to the Caucus. He refused, but it did show that our opponents were very, very busy behind the scenes while everyone was waiting for the Ohio Supreme Court decision.

The waiting game on the Ohio Supreme Court finally ended on August 11 when the court in a 4 to 3 decision ordered the Cleveland City Council Clerk to begin the signature count. Another gambit by the city to derail the referendum, and a bizarre one at that, had failed. There are many sticks available, however, when it comes to beating the dog of democracy. The city might maneuver to have the referendum decided in a special election where the vote would be much smaller, and where it would not be an issue in the mayor’s or councilmanic races. Council could meet to repeal their legislation on the Q and thus remove it as an issue.

All the above speculation ended on August 28, 2017 when Dan Gilbert owner of the Cavaliers, threw in the towel and pulled out of the deal. This came after a very demoralizing weekend where the powers that be displayed that they still had power by routing the Elkins rebellion in the Democratic Party over who would be the new chair of the county party. With the collapse of the Q deal, the activists of Cleveland experienced a severe case of whip lash. One day we were stomped into the ground, and the next we are handed one of the greatest victories we have ever had.

Or so we thought. Then on Thursday the 31st it was announced that the Greater Cleveland Congregations, without consulting with or even informing the other coalition members, had made an agreement with County Administrator Budish for two mental health clinics to be built – one of the West Side of Cleveland and one on the East Side. The agreement was very general and Budish wrote in a letter saying that it depended on county finances and what he called “best practices” for providing mental health and drug addiction treatment. One could read the terms of the agreement repeatedly and still have questions about just what it was that was agreed to, and what were the guarantees that promises would be kept. It was nowhere close to the original proposal for a community benefits agreement and left the original Q deal intact. There were no guarantees because GCC’s part of the bargain was to withdraw the petition for the referendum, which was the club the campaign was holding over the heads of the city, county and the Cavaliers franchise. GCC members made up the petition committee. Legally they could do it. They withdrew the petition. There would be no referendum and the campaign was dead.

The Greater Cleveland Congregations faced a hurricane of recrimination from the city establishment after Gilbert dropped out of the deal. It paled before the fury that hit them from their coalition partners. The words “betrayal” “traitors” and “sell outs” were some of the more charitable accusations that were hurled at them. What infuriated the activists from all the groups was that after eight months of organizing, and after all the work that went into collecting 20,600 signatures in under 30 days, it was all thrown away for the most minimal of benefits. As Steve Holecko of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, put it “Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.”

For the backers of the Q deal, the caving of the GCC was a miracle, and work began immediately to get the project back on track after months of delays because of the opposition. That the Q project was alive and well was confirmed on September 6th, when it was announced that the Cavaliers were back as partners and it was full speed ahead with the project. This turn of events made me suspect that Dan Gilbert’s withdrawal from the deal was a ruse. He knew how much hell the GCC would get for the collapse of the deal, knew that they were talking to a mediator, and knew that they were about to fold and fold cheaply. All that it would take to finally win was his announcement that he was dropping out of the deal. It was a masterful move. That, of course, is just my opinion. Social media in Cleveland worked overtime speculating about what really happened behind the scenes, and all manner of lurid schemes and conspiracies were entertained. My scenario was probably one of the milder ones.

So, what can we say now. First, the activist community in Cleveland that invested its heart and soul into this epic battle was in shock and many of us were frankly depressed in the aftermath of GCC’s action. Second, the Greater Cleveland Congregations has become a pariah and a generation of Cleveland activists will never again trust them or work with them. They have yet to realize or admit to just how much they have lost for what they call a win. Third, to end on a positive note we should give ourselves credit for almost pulling off one of the greatest popular victories seen in Cleveland since the campaign to save Muni Light during the Kucinich administration. An editorial on September 3, 2017 in Crain’s Cleveland Business – hardly a friend of our coalition - noticed the importance of what we did “…..but if there’s one lesson we’ve learned, it’s that the same sort of deals that worked 25 years ago won’t work in the Cleveland of today.”

And, “On the front end of these negotiations, though, it seemed as if the hubris of local civic and business leaders got the best of them and they were never quite able to catch up. And ultimately, it was a collective of concerned citizens who felt disconnected from the leaders they helped elect who forced the Cavaliers to put on the brakes.”

We changed the city. We will be back.

Randy Cunningham is a steering committee member of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and the author of Democratizing Cleveland: the rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985.

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