Cleveland clergy rally for police reform
In downtown Cleveland Tuesday morning, May 26, United Church of Christ clergy joined their colleagues in a march and rally organized by area churches to protest a not-guilty verdict in the trial of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo.
“Transforming Cleveland’s criminal justice system is the primary unifying focus right now for Greater Cleveland Congregations, a diverse interfaith coalition that includes several UCC congregations,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a UCC national officer and executive of Local Church Ministries.
UCC national staff, community advocates, and members of more than three dozen churches prayed as they processed to Cleveland City Hall and the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, where they called for reform of the criminal justice system that found the officer not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges resulting from the November 2012 police chase and shooting that ended in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
“Cleveland will never be the great city it aspires to be until it takes seriously the overwhelming cry for comprehensive criminal justice reform,” Guess said. “Pervasive and disgusting racial disparities exist throughout the system – disparities in arrest rates, excessive use of police force, prosecutions, sentencing guidelines, mass incarceration and oppressive stigmatization of ex-offenders – that all adds up to a broken, complex system that unfairly targets the civil rights and economic opportunities of our African-American neighbors.”
Echoing a statement from the UCC leaders immediately following the verdict announced on Saturday, May 23, marchers are advocating for change in the system, including improved training for police officers.
“As faith leaders, we are calling for a return to constitutional community policing, a model that focuses on trust-building and improving police/community relationships, in place of the strident adversarial approach we see practiced too readily in our city,” said Guess. “We believe Cleveland can seize this opportunity and become a model to the rest of the nation.”
It’s important for people of faith to hold the city accountable for problems with the justice system “because it’s what Jesus would do,” said the Rev. Ivy Beckwith, who heads up the UCC’s Faith Formation Ministry and participated in Tuesday’s rally. “If we’re trying to be people who follow Jesus, it’s what we should do.”
Beckwith chose to participate in her Pentecost-adorned stole. “I chose this stole because we recently celebrated Pentecost, and I thought the Holy Spirit needed to be in the mix today,” she said.
The rally was held as city leaders prepared to release the details of a settlement between the City of Cleveland and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the New York Times, to remedy a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations by the police department. The DOJ investigation was prompted by the deaths of Russell and Williams.
The unarmed couple was killed after a 22-minute pursuit that began outside of the Justice Center when their car backfired. That noise, mistaken for a gunshot, led to the high-speed chase which involved 62 police cruisers and resulted in 137 shots fired at the people in the car.
“This public witness today is not about any isolated case, or a particular judge’s ruling; it’s about a dysfunctional system that needs urgent, drastic and meaningful change,” Guess said. “We’re not the only ones saying this about Cleveland – the U.S. Department of Justice is saying it too.”
“If we are going to participate in these vigils, we must be intentional and proactive, to be present before these crises happen,” said the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, UCC minister for youth advocacy and leadership formation. “Our participation can’t be symbolic. It must be a prophetic response that calls the system into accountability and action.”
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