Taking the struggle forward in Columbus

October 12, 2016

Will Myers and Haley Swenson write from Ohio's capital city on a surge of protests against police violence--and the questions about strategy now facing the movement.

IN SPITE of the movement-withering heat of election season, Columbus, Ohio--the political center of a swing state--has seen an upsurge in the struggle for Black lives.

The demand for justice for Tyre King and Henry Green, two of the most recent victims of the Columbus Police Department, was at the heart of two simultaneous direct actions that upset business as usual in Ohio's capital city on September 26.

One protest--organized by the People's Justice Project (PJP), a nonprofit organization that is part of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative--took over a city council meeting, leading all council members to exit their own meeting.

The other demonstration, called by the Ohio State University Coalition for Black Liberation (OSU4BL), a campus-based coalition of student and alumni, stopped traffic on a major street near the OSU campus during the evening rush hour.

The two actions were some of the most confrontational and confident the city has seen in the history of Black Lives Matter organizing. They show that many people believe justice can't wait, even during election season, and that Black Lives Matter is a movement with the power to mobilize people in unlikely places.

Protesters speak out in the Columbus City Council room
Protesters speak out in the Columbus City Council room (People’s Justice Project)

But for those committed to opposing police violence in Columbus, the newfound strength of the struggle has led to questions about strategy and tactics after the city's Democratic Party machine tried to corral the movement into a non-threatening source of votes in an upcoming election for Franklin County prosecutor.

HENRY GREEN was shot seven times on June 6 by plainclothes police officers Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen, who, according to the surviving victim, didn't identify themselves after jumping out of an unmarked van and confronting the two.

According to police, Green drew and fired his weapon first. For months, police refused to release any details about the shooting, including how many times Green was shot, even to the victim's mother.

The escalation of resistance to police brutality in Columbus came after 13-year-old Tyre King was shot three times on September 14 by officer Brian Mason. Mason chased King as a suspect in an armed robbery in which $10 was taken. An independent pathologist's report concluded that it was "more likely than not" that King was shot while he was running away. According to initial police reports, King drew a BB gun that looked like a real gun.

No officers have been charged and no independent investigation is underway in either case. The only person facing criminal charges in either case is 19-year-old Demetrius Braxton, who was with Tyre King the night he was killed.

On September 19, a delegation of faith leaders delivered five demands crafted by PJP to the Columbus City Council, calling on its members to defund the police department in multiple areas:

Discontinue the Summer Safety Initiative, a supposed anti-gang initiative, and reinvest its budget into community-based violence prevention strategies, trauma services and youth programming.

Allocate at least half of the $300 million police and safety budget to prevention, intervention and community-controlled policing.

Reallocate the $33.4 million bond package that the city is floating to pay for police facility improvements and substations, and use the funds instead for trauma recovery services in neighborhoods hardest hit by violence.

Work with a task force that includes community members, experts in criminal justice reform and violence prevention, and family members of the victims of police shootings to reinvest the funds.

In addition, the delegation called for independent investigations and transparent prosecutions in the deaths of King, Green and all future victims of police.

Given the evidence that initial police reports are filled with misinformation meant to justify police actions rather than accurately inform, the call for independent investigations opens up a necessary alternative to allowing the cops' story to stand unchallenged.

But even in cases with strong evidence of police wrongdoing, killer cops are rarely prosecuted--so the call for independent investigations is fundamentally limited.

Coupling this final demand with the call for the city council to reallocate tens of millions of dollars from police to low-income communities is an appropriate strategy in a city that dedicates one-third of its budget to police, while nearly 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The city's investment in police militarization has led to disinvestment in public services that most benefit poor and Black neighborhoods.

ONE WEEK after this initial airing of the PJP's demands, close to 250 people filed into the next city council meeting to send their message again.

This time, the anti-police violence opponents focused on ending the "Summer Safety Initiative," which was responsible for the presence of the plainclothes officers who shot and killed Henry Green.

As Green's mother, Adrienne Hood, wrote in a letter to Columbus's main newspaper, the Summer Safety Initiative "has a long history of being implemented strategically in gentrifying areas. Poor people and Black people who live in or near neighborhoods targeted for development are not only priced out of their homes, but policed out of their neighborhoods."

But it was clear that City Council had no intention of addressing community members' concerns. When protesters interrupted the meeting to ask City Council President Zach Klein to answer to the demand to end the Summer Safety Initiative, Klein evaded the question and threatened to have everyone escorted out.

Ignoring this threat, a group of activists approached the front of the room and unveiled a banner. Police filed in, but made no threats, and the city council members packed up and left the room. For 20 minutes, protesters controlled the council room, their chants of "No justice, no peace, no racist police!" echoing through the building.

At the same time as the city council occupation, hundreds of Ohio State University students, alumni and campus-area community members led by OSU4BL marched through campus to protest police brutality and raise awareness of King's life and tragic death.

When the crowd reached a major intersection nearby, people entered the street and formed a large square to block traffic in all directions. They held the space for 13 minutes--one minute for each year of King's life--in the middle of evening rush hour, despite pressure from police and racist jeers from some drivers.

The group then proceeded to march to the OSU student union, where protesters staged a 13-minute-long die-in. The protest concluded with a rally in the same space, where members of OSU4BL spoke about King and other victims of police brutality, and the importance of continuing the movement and building independent political organization.

FACED WITH this unexpected upsurge of protest while elections for key public offices were approaching fast, Democratic Party leaders in Columbus scrambled to respond.

One week after the occupation of the council room, Zach Klein and every member of city council posed with members of PJP at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Klein and fellow council members promised to re-evaluate the Summer Safety Initiative--and little else.

On the one hand, the city council's embrace of PJP organizers shows the power of the direct actions the week prior. Yet there is little reason to believe there is anything behind Klein's words except damage control and electoral ambition.

Klein, a former Republican and ex-member of the Federalist Society, is the Democratic candidate for county prosecutor, running against a Republican incumbent who has held the office for a decade and a half. The need for votes explains why he would stand with Black Lives Matter protesters.

But it's clear that Klein and Columbus' Democratic machine in general can't and won't challenge police killing Black people with impunity. After the PJP press conference with Klein, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, also a Democrat, came out against discarding the Summer Safety Initiative, showing quite clearly that even if city council members have sincere hopes of changing policy, other forces will stand in the way.

Years of effort by Columbus activists to get the city to establish a civilian review board for police misconduct haven't resulted in any progress, even though Columbus has the second-highest rate of police shootings per capita in the country. And Democratic leaders in Columbus have a long history of covering up police brutality.

Supporting a Democrat as a progressive alternative to a Republican on the issue of police brutality is a strategic dead end--that reality is underlined by the fact that in cities with Democratic prosecutors, the police still virtually never face criminal charges for killing people.

Plus, in this coming election, a longtime anti-racist activist in Columbus, Bob Fitrakis, is also running for county prosecutor as a Green Party candidate and with an explicit Black Lives Matter agenda. Unlike Klein, Fitrakis has promised to appoint independent prosecutors in cases of police shootings; to stop jailing individuals for drug-related crimes and provide treatment instead; and ultimately to jail killer cops.

After the friendly press conference with PJP organizers and city council members, a crowd of about 150 marched to the current Republican prosecutor's office and protested outside--a further symbol of a shift away from the direction of the protest one week earlier that shut down a city council meeting.

PJP organizer Tammy Fournier-Alsaada promised the crowd that activists would not continue to work with the city council if they felt it wasn't serious about meeting activists' demands for a changed Summer Safety Initiative.

Meanwhile, other forces in the city have continued meeting to discuss next steps for grassroots organizing in Columbus--with many activists determined to keep the pressure on Columbus officials and ensure that the Democrats' political ambitions don't crush the momentum and potential they've seen in the past weeks.

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