View attachment 50697 LEVELAND — One night in February, a black preacher put the prosecutors on trial. It had been two months since the prosecutor’s office in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County persuaded a grand jury not to indict a white police officer who had shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, in a city park.
Now the prosecutor was running for reelection, and with the primary a month away, the Rev. Jawanza Karriem Lightfoot Colvin saw an opportunity to indict a judicial system that he had come to believe was rigged against black people. He and the activist group he co-founded summoned the two candidates—embattled county prosecutor Tim McGinty and challenger Mike O’Malley—to a forum at a synagogue in a Cleveland suburb.
There, Colvin thundered like judge, jury and executioner: “If you were young, poor, a minority of color, or one who lived in the city, you were profiled, arrested, charged, indicted, convicted and sentenced at an alarming, disproportionate level.” His preacher’s cadence brought the crowd of 1,000 at the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple to its feet—black and white, Jewish and Christian.
“We want action now! We want change now! We want reform now!” Colvin proclaimed. “Not next year, not next election! Not ’til the next death, the next tragedy, the next trial, the next press conference! We want it now!”
He had to wait just four weeks. McGinty lost the primary on March 15, all but assuring O’Malley of election in November. The vote further raised the local profile of a young religious leader who has vaulted to prominence in the wake of the Tamir Rice case. Some in this key city in a crucial swing state see what he has accomplished on an issue that has embroiled the entire country and predict that it might propel Colvin onto the national political stage.
Colvin, 41, is the pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, a large and storied African-American congregation in Cleveland, and he has taken a very different and far more aggressive approach to activism than older black ministers from the civil-rights generation. As co-founder of Greater Cleveland Congregations, a five-year-old community organizing group, Colvin has built alliances across majority-white Cuyahoga County on social justice issues. After Rice’s death and a damning report from the U.S. Justice Department, Colvin stood nearly alone among the city’s politically involved black ministers in challenging Frank Jackson, Cleveland’s popular African-American mayor, and publicly pressuring City Hall for changes in how Cleveland is policed.
“I would’ve liked to see bolder leadership,” Colvin says. “I think we undershot what true change looks like.”
When the 2,472 delegates, 15,000 media and 30,000 assorted other dignitaries, lobbyists and staff arrive next month for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, they'll be greeted by untold numbers of protesters. The Rev. Colvin, who plans to join two marches on the first day, will be at the center of the action, pushing an agenda of judicial reform that is gaining more national attention, even acceptance in conservative circles. But conventiongoers should expect to be challenged, even shocked, by Colvin’s message.
“The criminal justice system,” Colvin says, “in many respects, has replaced slavery.”
Colvin was named pastor of Olivet in 2009 at age 33, after the retirement of Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a veteran of the ’60s civil rights movement. He was eager to pick up the mantle of Olivet’s long history of social activism: Martin Luther King used Olivet as his unofficial home base during his 1967 Cleveland campaign, one of only two organizing efforts he mounted outside the South.
His own education, at Morehouse College and Union Theological Seminary, inculcated Colvin in the “King tradition,” while he learned about Marcus Garvey and the Black Power movement from his father, a Vietnam veteran who joined the Black Panthers while studying at UCLA. “My whole faith formation was around the relationship between Christian identity and black struggle,” he says.
Yet when Colvin arrived in Cleveland, he didn’t channel his activism into the existing political alliances among the city’s African-American Baptist churches. Instead, Colvin helped organize a type of political force Cleveland hadn’t seen before: GCC, a coalition of 40 congregations that employs Saul Alinsky-style community organizing tactics to tackle social-justice issues. “Our goal is to improve quality of life, particularly for the disenfranchised and marginalized whose voices are left out of the public discourse,” Colvin announced at an early organizing meeting. Unusually in Cleveland politics, GCC bridges the area’s black-white and city-suburb divides; the three founding co-chairs were Colvin; Rev. Tracy Lind, dean of Cleveland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; and Joshua Caruso, a rabbi at Fairmount Temple in suburban Beachwood. “He’s organizing in a diverse way,” says Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson. “He’s never allowed himself to be labeled just a black leader. He breaks the traditional mold of the Baptist minister, the civil-rights-activist preacher.”
Criminal justice was part of GCC’s agenda from the beginning. It was one of five issues its members chose as part of its core mission in its founding assembly in 2011, along with health care, jobs, sustainable food and education. In 2013, GCC took part in a successful effort to get Ohio to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a fight in which both liberals and Republican Gov. John Kasich faced down strong opposition from Republican legislators.
Colvin became leader of GCC’s criminal justice team, and he and other GCC members began reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, a widely praised book that has become the manifesto of the criminal-justice reform movement. Even now, five years after he read it, the book’s argument that mass incarceration and the drug war function as a system of racial control, as slavery and legal segregation did, still rouses him from reflection to anger. “There is a relationship that extends from slavery to the prison-industrial complex,” Colvin says, “in terms of the wholesale management of black bodies.” He says the book made him more aware of the “deeply embedded level of injustice in the criminal justice system” and nudged him to look at how many people from Cleveland go to state prison, including nonviolent offenders, and whether they had adequate representation. And Colvin took special note of The New Jim Crow’s argument that, in Alexander’s words, “It is the prosecutor, far more than any other criminal justice official, who holds the keys to the jailhouse door.”
But as Colvin and GCC began to focus on the prosecutors, a couple of notorious killings forced them to turn their attention to the police.
In November 2012, at the end of a 20-minute high-speed chase involving 60 police cars, Cleveland police officers fired 137 shots at fleeing driver Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, killing them both. Soon after the chase, Colvin, the local NAACP, and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge each wrote to the Justice Department, asking it to investigate the Cleveland Police Department’s use of deadly force. (Cleveland’s mayor followed suit a few weeks later.) The Justice Department was nearly finished with its report two years later when Tamir Rice was shot and killed.
Colvin didn’t intend to become an activist for police reform, but the events of late 2014 compelled him. Rice, he says, was “a 12-year-old boy who has a play gun and is only living in the world of a 12-year-old, and then got met by egregious action.” Two weeks after Rice’s death, the Justice Department issued its scathing 59-page report, concluding the Cleveland police employed a pattern of “unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons.” In an echo of Rice’s killing, the Justice investigators also found the police used “poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable.”
Later that week, Colvin stood beside Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, at a news conference at Olivet, as he called for the resignation of Cleveland’s two top safety department officials, Michael McGrath and Martin Flask. At a meeting with Cleveland’s mayor that week, as Jackson defended his record, Colvin interrupted. “The federal government had to intervene,” Colvin said pointedly. “Policies and procedures can’t resurrect a dead body.”
Colvin was nearly alone among Cleveland’s politically powerful black ministers in challenging Jackson, elected to a third term in 2013 with 67 percent of the vote. Most black clergy see Jackson as an ally, and would rather work with him than pressure him publicly. That’s not Colvin’s style.
“He’s not one of the mayor’s go-to leaders,” observes Jeff Johnson, a Jackson critic on the City Council. “He’s independent of the mayor, which makes a lot of the mayor’s people uncomfortable. When you’re a go-to person, the mayor expects you’re going to stay with him through thick and thin. From Rev. Colvin’s standpoint, it’s issue-based.”
In February 2015, at Olivet, a capacity crowd watched as GCC presented Jackson and the local U.S. attorney with its recommendations for police reform. Its agenda, based on research of reform in other cities and influenced by the rookie officer’s shooting of Rice, included better vetting of potential police candidates and independent investigations of all police deadly force. Colvin says 85 to 90 percent of GCC’s recommendations made it into the city’s consent agreement with the Justice Department, signed in May 2015. Next, Colvin hopes to see Jackson (who declined comment for this story) direct Cleveland’s city prosecutor to treat more drug cases as misdemeanors.
Meanwhile, Colvin pressured McGinty, the county prosecutor, for indictments in the Rice shooting. With seven other activists, he filed court petitions last June under an obscure Ohio law, asking a judge to find probable cause that the officers had committed crimes. (The judge did so, but could only forward the complaints to McGinty, who replied he wouldn’t be rushed.)
In the fall, McGinty convened a grand jury, but activists felt he had no interest in winning an indictment. He released reports from expert witnesses he had hired who believed the officers had acted reasonably, then suggested that Samaria Rice and her attorney, who were seeking civil claims against the city, had economic motivations for pressing for a prosecution. Colvin responded with an op-ed in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer that questioned McGinty’s fairness, then joined several other clergy calling on McGinty to recuse himself.
On December 28, McGinty announced that the grand jury, on his recommendation, had declined to indict the officer who shot Rice or his partner. That created a political dilemma for his critics. The deadline for prosecutor candidates to file for the Democratic primary—the election that really matters in very blue Cuyahoga County—had passed two weeks earlier. O’Malley, McGinty’s opponent, was hardly a clear ally on police accountability or criminal justice. He had served as top deputy under McGinty’s predecessor, Bill Mason, whom many African-American Democrats felt had prosecuted lower-level drug crime too aggressively. McGinty, on the other hand, had decreased prosecutions of nonviolent offenders by 25 percent, according to his office, and infuriated the local police union by aggressively bringing manslaughter charges against one officer in the 2012 chase and shooting. (He was acquitted at trial.)
Fudge, the congresswoman, and many black ministers endorsed O’Malley. Black Lives Matter activists argued for no endorsement. Colvin and GCC decided to test both candidates. “I did not endorse O’Malley,” he says. “I laid out the case of what we had seen coming out of the prosecutor’s office.”
At the forum and in writing afterward, GCC asked McGinty and O’Malley to respond to three demands: refer police deadly-force cases to the Ohio Attorney General, reduce overcharging of misdemeanors as felonies, and treat drug abuse as a health problem, not a crime. In a six-page letter, O’Malley committed to all three. (McGinty, who declined to comment for this story, argued in his letter that he’d already made progress on GCC’s issues and pledged to do more.)
Colvin says he looks forward to holding O’Malley accountable. Some of his statements “were large on being promises but low on depth,” he says.
O’Malley agrees voters expect reform. “People thought the system was not working as it should,” he says. “People want to see substantial change.” But what that change should be is still unclear. O’Malley says many people asked him to end overcharging, but “nobody would give you a precise definition of what overcharging is.” Still, O’Malley intends to hold monthly meetings on criminal justice reform in the county. “My plan is to meet with [GCC] right before each one,” he says. “Then they can watch it unfold in front of their eyes.”
The Rev. E.T. Caviness of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, a key political figure in Cleveland’s black community for 50 years, praises Colvin’s criminal justice activism. “He’s brought the religious community together,” says Caviness. “Along with the rest of us”—groups from the NAACP to the Urban League—“he’s really helped to make sure that long-needed reform is coming to the fore.” Caviness acknowledges that Colvin’s tactics, including open criticism of the mayor, differ from his. “I put more emphasis on trying to work with people than criticize them,” Caviness says.
Johnson, the councilman, calls Colvin “one of the true post-civil-rights leaders that we’re still trying to get used to”—a younger activist with a skill at building new coalitions among black and white progressives. Colvin “can walk into a room with LGBT, Jewish, interdenominational [clergy], and bring with him credibility in the black community,” says Johnson. “He’ll tell them—because I’ve heard it—‘That is not in the interest of the black community.’”
In 10 years, Johnson predicts, Colvin won’t succeed figures like Caviness as Cleveland’s “go-to black leader,” because he doesn’t want to. “I think he’s going to go national,” he says. “His coalition building, his independence and intelligent, fearless voice are going to be appealing.”
For now, Colvin is focusing on the spotlight the Republican National Convention is bringing to Cleveland. On the convention's opening day alone, he plans to join an anti-poverty march and a peace march. Olivet is hosting both Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West that week; Dyson is the keynote speaker for the People’s Peace and Justice Convention, a gathering for progressive groups, while West will speak at a three-day Faith and Public Action Forum there.
The Republican rhetoric this year “challenges our notions about civility,” Colvin says. “It’s important other voices be heard and lifted up during that time to point out there is a way we can go about transforming our nation that doesn’t take stereotyping or marginalizing, or is based on the demons of our worst nature.”
By Erick Trickey - Politico/June 16, 2016
Minister Who Took on Cleveland's Cuyahoga County a Hero to Many