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COVID-19 Laid Bare Inequities, Racism, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson Says

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson delivers his state of the city address over Facebook Live. [City of Cleveland / Facebook]
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson delivers his state of the city address over Facebook Live.

The coronavirus pandemic and a summer of demonstrations nationwide have exposed deep racial injustices and made clear the need for urgent social reform, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in his state of the city address Thursday night.

In the 33-minute speech, the four-term mayor rejected the notion of gradual change, warning that unrest will grow more tempestuous unless the city eliminates inequities and racism in the criminal justice system, education and healthcare.

“Do not be tempted, because of the momentary calmness of the moment, to take the easy path of incremental changes with the attitude, ‘This is just too much to handle all at once,’” Jackson said. “This is the moment that will define us.”

People hurt by an unequal system must be able to participate in it, Jackson said, encouraging more involvement on police forces, as doctors and nurses and at the ballot box.

“None of this works, however, unless those who bear the burden of inequities, disparities and racism force the changes necessary,” he said, “by participating in the system and accessing the power to make those changes.”

Jackson delivered his remarks in front of the grand fireplace in his ornate City Hall office, flanked by U.S. and Cleveland flags. Staff broadcast the speech on Facebook Live and over a phone conference line, a pandemic-era adaptation for an event usually held in front of an audience.

The city, Cuyahoga County and nonprofits have set aside money for businesses vandalized during demonstrations Downtown May 30, Jackson noted, while calling for reforms to the criminal justice inequities that drove the protests.

“The initial contact that people have with our criminal justice system is the police,” Jackson said. “Incremental police reform simply doesn’t work. Instead there has to be institutional reform.”

The mayor has taken a more moderate path than the one advocated by many demonstrators who marched in the streets after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis: Jackson has rejected calls to cut the police budget. On Thursday, he said Cleveland’s 2015 federal consent decree offered a blueprint for police reform.

Without singling out any particular forces in the 2020 election, the mayor directed some of his harshest words for the disenfranchisement of African-American voters. Invoking the history of slavery, Jackson said institutionalized racism had suppressed Black political power.

“From that point until today, attempts to suppress the African-American vote and dilute political power still exists,” he said. The resulting unrepresentative government, Jackson said, would sow “the seeds of social unrest that will be more intense, more violent and will occur more frequently, creating a recipe for economic, social and political disaster.”

COVID-19 economic shutdowns have cost Cleveland $35 million in tax revenue, particularly from the hospitality industry, he said. But the mayor said a $43 million start-of-the-year surplus cushioned the city’s budget from the virus’s blow.

Speaking just hours after Gov. Mike DeWine warned of a “very alarming” increase in COVID-19 cases across the state, the mayor reminded Clevelanders to wear masks, wash their hands and keep physical distance from one another.

“Many people assumed that the pandemic was over with the gradual reopening, or that it wasn’t that serious,” Jackson said.

Jackson also highlighted the millions of dollars in federal funds the city has directed toward rental assistance, business aid and social services during the pandemic. In spite of the virus, Cleveland continues to build new housing as part of the mayor’s neighborhood development plans, he said.

He concluded his speech of dire warnings by assuring the audience that Cleveland has the means to overcome the challenges he outlined.

“The only question is do we have the will or do we have the courage,” Jackson said. “Do we have the will and the courage to make Cleveland a great city?”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.