Cleveland UU's Stay Focused on Systemic Change in Criminal Justice

Although Cleveland Ohio has been one of the cities suffering some of the worst instances of police violence against unarmed African Americans, it has been a city in the shadows of the national spotlight highlighting activism around “Black Lives Matter”. That changed recently, and it changed in a way that Cleveland UU’s were proud to be part of. Alongside our interfaith community based coalition partners, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), we were on the streets of Cleveland on May 26 to embody our four year call for criminal justice reform, a call that was reflected back and embodied in turn moments after our march concluded, with the announcement of a Consent Decree on police department reform between the US Department of Justice and the City of Cleveland.

As founding congregations of GCC, members of West Shore UU Church, First Unitarian Church, and The Unitarian Society of Cleveland were involved four years ago in a process of selecting criminal justice reform as one of GCC’s key focus areas. Later that year, a Keystone Cops police chase with 137 bullets fired at an unarmed couple fleeing police woke the city up to how out-of-control our police force was. With leadership from GCC clergy, the city stayed calm as we raised our voices in shock and horror at these events. Just when we thought the 137 bullets chase was as bad as it gets, 12 year old Tamir Rice was shot dead while holding a toy gun in a neighborhood a few miles from West Shore Church, a neighborhood where we have members residing.

For West Shore members, this tragedy challenged some among us to be concerned about the slow and focused strategy within GCC that called for systemic reform. We gathered as a church community and considered what else we could do. Hanging a large “Black Lives Matter to West Shore UU Church” banner was the least we could do, but it brought the most reaction from our all-white suburban neighbors. Getting out on the street to join protests led by mass-incarceration activists and support a press conference by the Rice Family was another thing we could. Expanding our knowledge of the “new Jim Crow” was a third thing. Despite many forms of activism available to us, the interfaith organizing activists among us stayed firm on the goal of long term sustainable change.

Rev. Dr. Wayne Arnason (with red stole) taking action alongside multifaith partners

Through GCC, we organized a teach-in on the Consent Decree and hosted GCC’s delegate assembly where we raised our common voice as one on key elements of reform that the Consent Decree should contain. As a member of GCC’s Strategy Team, I was invited to be part of a group meeting with the US Attorney and with the County Prosecutor to press our views about the needed reforms. These officials came out to meet us, as well, at a thousand-person assembly that called them to account for their leadership, both past and future.

When the trial of Officer Michael Brelo ended in acquittal, we had already planned, regardless of the verdict, to be on the streets of Cleveland to represent the united, determined, and peaceful faith community that we have here. Our message was that this is not about one case, one verdict, one death. Our message was that this is not about senseless violence or arrests by a tiny few who hang around after the organized protests are done. Instead, it is about permanent changes in our police force’s training and community relationships.  The City and the Justice Department knew our march was planned for a Tuesday. They had the Consent Decree announcement waiting in the wings in response. To their credit, the Mayor and the US attorney gave credit to effective community partners advocating for change as an important factor in making the Consent Decree possible.

I have been proud of my congregation, my fellow Cleveland area UU’s, and our interfaith colleagues in Greater Cleveland Congregations for keeping our eyes on the prize during this difficult time. We aren’t done yet! The Tamir Rice case remains to be addressed and the Consent Decree must be funded and monitored. We will continue to Stand on the Side of Love with our partners, stronger together in our activism than we could ever be on our own.
Rev. Dr. Wayne Arnason
West Shore UU Church

P.S.  Many multifaith community organizing networks around the country are working for systemic change and embracing the stepped up energy and the new opportunities opened up by by the Black Lives Matter movement. Click here for more information and how you can get connected.