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'Our Land': Men Wanting Non-violent Change

by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Today we have another piece in Our Land, our occasional series about community policing in Cleveland.  Yesterday we heard some perspectives from the city’s Central neighborhood:

JOHNSON: “I have had a bad experience myself where my children has went and said 'hi police, hi police' and they keep walking like they're not even talking to them.”

We return to that neighborhood today.

Sulieman Thornton

THORNTON: “My name is Sulieman Thornton, I was a shot caller for the Quarter Boys in W 25 th Riverview Estates, and my official title on the streets was Sway.”

Sulieman Thornton now works with the non-profit Society 4 Non-violent Change, trying to keep the peace in Cleveland neighborhoods: 

THORNTON: “I think we should have more police and community relationships. I think police should have their presence in the communities more. There should be a shorter response time to these criminal acts, particularly violence [affecting] children, and people in the community being victims of those crimes.”

Next to Thornton is a man who gave his name as Toby.  He’s familiar with the situation on the streets.

TOBY: “Police killing people everyday.  Basically it got to start in the community before you ask police for anything, basically.”

In talking about police in this neighborhood, and many Cleveland neighborhoods, the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice looms large. Rice was shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann within seconds of officers pulling up to the Cudell Recreation Center last November.

Over the weekend, prosecution experts issued an opinion that Loehmann’s decision to shoot was reasonable based on the information relayed to him: that a 911 caller said a guy with a gun was pointing it at people, not knowing the gun was a pellet gun.

Again, here’s Toby:

TOBY: “It hurt, because I'm a father at the end of the day.  I don't know what I would do if them was one of my kids that that happened to.  It's sad, for real, because when you shooting a gun you supposed to know that always check for innocent civilians, for real.” 

Sulieman Thornton also addressed the Rice case as someone who participated in protests sparked by the situation, but also as a father of a daughter and a son.  I had asked Thornton about an apparent uptick in gang violence as possibly warranting more aggressive policing.

THORNTON: “This police brutality been going on far before children were killed. We profiled based off the way we dress, based off the way we walk, the way we look, even the music we listen to.  There’s gangs in suburbs, listening to the same music listening to the same music, wear the same outfits, but you don’t hear those reports on news about police brutality against them in those communities. I think the police need to be trained, mentally profiled, because you got a lot of police officers coming home from the military, went through traumatic things in their lives, and what not.  You’ve got racist police in the police department.  I hate that babies being killed.  I don’t like it. I think the police should be more proactive, they should use their counterintelligence, because if you can use your counterintelligence to track down drug dealers why can’t you do better investigative tactics to find these criminals and these killers and bring about approaches.  How did this guy just pull up? He didn’t ask Tamir Rice any questions. I seen the tape.  He didn’t approach that young man properly. He approached that man as if his life was in danger.  HIS life wasn’t in danger, Tamir Rice’s life was in danger. And then he shot that boy and killed him in cold blood.”

Toby agrees that more aggressive policing is not the answer.


Toby: “That’s going to add fuel to the fire, for real. If it’s already conflict in the streets already, and then you all add the police to come with it, that’s too much, for real.  Now you ain’t got no choice.  Just think about the guys trying to do right to protect they fortune, for real.

 A couple days ago, I get some gas, I leave, I go across 93 rd going towards Union. I see police cars everywhere.  I get out the car go in a restaurant on 93 rd, I take a seat, 3 or 4 people in the restaurant. Next thing you know, literally about 15 police came with they guns on me. Luckily it was people in here seeing everything going on, for real.  Who says that I didn’t have anything on me that could’ve turned this into a violent conflict for real? So when I see them coming with they guns on me, the first thing I think is grab my ID, because it got to be some identity thing going on. I’m reaching for my ID, he like ‘no, no, don’t reach, don’t’ you know.  But my whole thing I’m gonna bring out my ID, for real, because we don’t know where this bout to go. You know what I’m saying? So I pull out my ID, give them my ID. ‘Oh, we thought you was a murder suspect of the 3-year-old that was shot.’”

Toby denies there are real gangs in Cleveland, and even some of the more high-profile groups like the so-called Heartless Felons are not gangs per se, in his view. And he claims such groups are being blamed for crimes and actions that are not necessarily their doing or design. 

Toby says neighborhoods, not gangs, are the support structure for young men, where they look out for each other, vouch for each other, feed each other, when there are scant other options. 

TOBY: “I could go through the projects right now and say ‘I got an opportunity for ya’ll, let’s go and make this money.  You want a job? You want a job?’ Trust and believe it’d be a whole lot of young people following behind me.  Who wouldn’t want a job, getting paid some money, for real? Like I said, no peanuts. Money for real. Peanuts don’t do nothing but start trouble for real. You bring home none. You know, child support; I want to look good, you know; gas money to get my kids back and forth to school; school tuition; food, they can’t go to sleep hungry at night; I got to feed myself; probably some people who ain’t fortunate that go to sleep at night who ain’t been fed in days, I might have to look out for them, for real, you know.  We is a family in the community, that’s why when they say ‘gang’ I don’t understand that, for real.”

Maurice Williams

Sitting next to Toby is Maurice Williams, who says he used to be in the Tribe, a gang in East Cleveland.  Williams agrees there needs to be more opportunity for young people to bring stability to these neighborhoods.

WILLIAMS: “Instead of spending millions on more police, let's get more jobs here.  And us as black people need to just take hold of our community and show these youth today that it's love, unity, and peace will make everything concrete for us.  They don’t know no better, out there, they young, they’re  following the wrong way.  So I call out to like all the older people, all the OG’s from neighborhoods, hoods, from everywhere, it’s time for us to stand up as grown men to let these young men know that it’s a better way.”

For Sulieman Thornton, part of the problem is the perpetuation of negative news and narratives instead of the positive.  By refocusing efforts on hope, neighborhoods can change.

THORNTON: “If you give us opportunities like what the Society 4 Non-violent Change is doing, to be able to go out and get me, Toby, and Maurice, they listened.  I listened.  It’s effective.  These programs are available, but we’re not getting the proper press, or the proper attention that needs to be done, because all the violence is being so perpetuated.  We’re just a small piece of the puzzle, but nobody really knows about us, talking to these at-risk youth and children and whatnot to let them know there’s hope.  There is hope.  You ain’t gotta give—I want the American pie, but just give me some of the crust.  You know what I’m saying? Just give me a piece of the crust. I’ll put it in the microwave, and do something with it, and make it happen. Just give me that.  These guys want that.  They want that.”

Find all of the pieces in this series on community policing here, including with other residents of the Central neighborhood.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.