I was born and raised in Cleveland, and directly challenging people in power is not behavior I’m used to seeing here. That’s part of the reason Tuesday’s (March 15) primary election defeat of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty is such a major victory for grassroots organizers here.
McGinty has been terrorizing the people of Cleveland for 24 years. He served as a judge for 20 years, spending most of his time convicting and criminalizing poor Black people. In his four years as prosecutor, he did the same thing. Some of Cleveland’s highest-profile police-involved killings occurred during his time as prosecutor, with little to no accountability in any of those cases.
McGinty was in office when Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of the November 2012 killing of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The Black unarmed couple was shot 137 times in a high-speed car chase with more than 60 officers involved. Brelo fired some 49 of those shots—15 from the hood of their car—but was still found innocent of manslaughter.
CPD officers Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myers killed Tanisha Anderson, a Black 37-year-old with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in November 2014 but were still on desk duty as recently as January. Anderson’s family called the police for help because she’d gone out in the cold wearing only a nightgown. They watched in horror as the officers handcuffed her, took her down and slammed her face into the sidewalk. McGinty’s office just took the case in mid-February.
Most infamously, McGinty dragged out and interfered with the investigation into Timothy Loehmann’s fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Loehmann, a White officer with a documented history of mental instability and poor performance, shot the Black child who was playing with a toy gun alone in his favorite park within two seconds of encountering him. At McGinty’s urging, a grand jury refused to charge him with any crime.
While officers aren’t being found guilty, charged or even fired, victims, their families and their supporters have been criminalized and blamed for our own victimhood. The people of Cleveland are familiar with the evils of the county prosecutor’s office, and McGinty is a household name for far too many.
Tamir was killed on November 22, 2014. Six months later, there was still no accountability for his murder and no clear target for organizers. His body wasn’t even buried yet because of McGinty’s ongoing "investigation." So members of the Ohio Student Association, led by James and Amelia Hayes and myself, met with the group that was headed up by Tamir’s cousin LaTonya Goldsby. That group would later become Black Lives Matter Cleveland (BLM Cleveland).
Along with other community leaders, we talked about what strategic accountability could look like in this case—and what would also help citywide over time. The agitational question we asked ourselves was, "Who has the power to get us what we want?" The answer was McGinty.
Once we had a clear target, we spent three weeks planning in the basement of a local bookstore. Up until that point, getting people to an action in Cleveland was like pulling teeth—and in many cases, it still is. There was a lot of fear associated with making McGinty a target. In retrospect, it was hesitancy based in historical trauma and older people’s fear of being led by young Black folks. However, on May 23, 2015 (the same day that Brelo was acquitted for shooting Russell and Williams 49 times), we brought more than 300 people to McGinty’s house on the west side of Cleveland to demand justice for Tamir. Fired-up racists made threats of violence against us, and many liberal community members wanted us to stay clear of his neighborhood because of the disruption we might cause. But that was our exact goal—disruption and extreme discomfort! Our story was that McGinty shouldn’t get to live comfortably while he systemically disturbed families in our community. We also demanded his neighbors answer the question, "Which side are you on?" One of McGinty’s neighbors told his wife that she should stay clear of us, but she chose to leave her home and join us in the streets. She wasn’t the only one from West Park who chose the side of justice that day.
The action at McGinty’s home not only gave a name and face to the injustices and pain that we’ve experienced, but it made our people power visible. We continued to target McGinty throughout the rest of the year, calling him out for all of his wrongdoing. This included BLM Cleveland’s large New Year’s action at his house after Loehmann went free.
Through power-building tactics like direct actions, voter registration and community conversations, we were able to amplify this message and be unified in it. The Rice family stayed on the front lines, and lots of people from around the country helped spead the word.
Much like what we saw in Chicago with the successful #ByeAnita campaign against Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez, local organizers used our community’s anger about the "anti-Black government structure" to defeat McGinty and make plain that accountability is for everyone—including elected officials. OSA will continue that work with a statewide program that has already registered thousands of voters and touched tens of thousands of people with the goal of widening and deepening our grassroots power.
Getting McGinty out of office doesn’t solve systemic issues of anti-Blackness, mass incarceration, failing schools, lead poisoning and food deserts. What we’ve experienced in the past several decades is shady backdoor politics and systemic divestment from poor, mostly Black communities. Cleveland, which is 53 percent Black, was recently declared the "most distressed" big city in the country based on factors like our 36-percent poverty rate, our 53-percent adult unemployment rate and 21 percent of our houses being vacant.
There has been a strategic effort to vilify grassroots organizing, and community folks are feeling the brunt of all this and more. We all must continue to build a more revolutionary vision where we’re discussing structural changes for true liberation. While we’re all obsessed with the status of the presidential race, local victories like this and Chicago’s have national implications and lead to broader social change.
Organizing my hometown around these issues and challenging the power structure I’ve lived under most of my life has been one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had. This is not to mention the stress of trying to lead this fight as a young, working-poor, queer Black woman. But as my grandmother would say, "I"m rolling with the punches. But I’m swinging back!"
Malaya Davis was born and raised in Cleveland and attended Wright State University. Davis has been a member of the Ohio Student Association since 2013 and now serves on staff as one of the northeast Ohio organizers and the statewide communications director. She helped build the Freedom Side collective, lead the justice for John Crawford fight, and helped bring the first Movement for Black Lives convening to Cleveland in July 2015.