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Cleveland Transit Officer Pepper-Sprays ‘Black Lives Matter’ Activists

Regina Mahone

The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained a 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis.

A three-day convening last week designed to provide Black organizers and community activists with a space to heal, mourn, and strategize around the Black Lives Matter movement ended in indignation following an aggressive interaction with a transit authority officer.

Participants of the Movement for Black Lives Convening, held July 24-26 at Cleveland State University in Ohio, encountered police violence after the closing ceremony, when a Cleveland transit officer took a local Black teenager into custody. The officer believed the teenager was “intoxicated to the point where he was unable to care for himself.”

Witnesses said the officer slammed the young man to the ground before moving the teen into a police vehicle.

Local law enforcement responded, joining the transit authority officer and other officials on the street as the crowd swelled with locals and activists who had attended the Movement for Black Lives Convening.

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The officer confronted a crowd of activists who had begun locking arms and chanting in protest over the way he forcefully detained the 14-year-old. “The crowd was determined that the youth would NOT be harmed or killed and were fierce, as we know it’s a real possibility,” explained one witness, Kimberly Ellis, on Twitter.

“Conference participants peacefully intervened using classic non-violent civil disobedience tactics, such as inter-locked arms, in order to prevent the police from leaving the area with the child in custody,” said the Movement for Black Lives Convening organizers in a statement.

The officer pepper-sprayed a group of about 30 people, according to reports.

“At some point, based on what I saw, I felt that the police reaction was focused on reacting to the protesters as opposed to deescalating the situation,” Kimberly Ellis, American and Africana Studies scholar and creator of #BlackPoliticsMatter, told Rewire in a phone interview.

While some activists worked to treat pepper-spray victims, the handcuffed teen, with his mother, was escorted into an ambulance by the police to get checked out. A witness said the mother told officers that her son wasn’t intoxicated like the officer had claimed.

Ellis, who said she joined a small group of activists trying to “focus in on the mother and what we could do for the teen,” told Rewire that the officers hesitated to release the teen because of the crowd of people who had gathered around the ambulance.

“I was trying to find out what was happening and how I might be able to help … but everything changed when I heard one of the officers say, ‘Well, even if I were to release him, I can’t because there’s too many people around.’ And I just thought to myself, well wait a minute, I mean, now the dynamics have changed because if you’re even thinking about releasing him and now you’re sort of victim blaming … it’s just kind of like, but the protesters were there because some of them saw what happened and thought the arrest was unwarranted or extreme.”

The officers ended up releasing the teen to his family after the crowd cleared space for a relative to drive her truck to the ambulance, explained Ellis.

The conflict comes nearly two weeks before the one-year mark of 18-year-old Michael Brown‘s death in Ferguson, Missouri, which set off a spate of protests across the country in response to police violence against Black women, men, and children.

It also follows the recent deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, who died while in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and Homewood, Alabama, respectively.

The national convening began on Thursday and attracted more 1,000 attendees, including “movement elders” such as the niece of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and Miss Major, a leader in the trans community; #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; community leaders representing labor unions and international delegations; and families of victims of police violence.

Speakers placed the movement in its historical context, as part of an ongoing fight for freedom that began before the attendees were born and will continue after they have perished.

Along with numerous panels on the various ways in which Black people are seeking justice, the event offered spaces for healing, a Youth Freedom program, which included “activities for children around political education, art and healing,” and tours of the Black-owned Rid-All urban farm.

The event closed on Sunday with a performance by Voices in the Valley youth and chants of “Black Youth Matter.”

Shortly after the closing ceremony, the transit authority officer detained the 14-year-old Black teen.

Following the police attack on Sunday, conference attendees who were still in Cleveland and those who were on their way home responded on social media.

“The whole point was we weren’t going to let another Black teenager be hurt, be abused, be killed, be maligned, be railroaded and swept into the criminal justice system. I mean there were so many reasons to be there,” Ellis said. “I don’t think [the teen] really understood what was going on, but I am sure that he has never had a crowd full of Black people just surrounding him and shouting at him, ‘We love you.’ And like, caring for him and chanting, supporting him the whole way … He had the biggest and the best support group ever.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the tactics used by conference participants during Sunday’s interaction with law enforcement.

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