Black man being handcuffed by cops

To paraphrase from Mr. Donte Woods-Spikes, Columbus documentarian and speaker extraordinaire: to anyone who’s been triggered by their memories on their newsfeed in the last fortnight, I empathize with you.

Three years ago last week on Thursday, May 28th, 2020, this city joined in a national reckoning that we have yet to reconcile.

Three days before in Minneapolis, MN, a Black man named George Floyd was recorded while then-officer Derek Chauvin pressed his left knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds as Floyd pled for his life and took his last breath to call for his mother as he expired.

I watched the last three minutes of the video that had by now gone viral on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27th. That evening – about 7 PM – I walked from my house to the Dollar General on E. Main Street, bought a big bottle of cheap white wine, took it home and drank half of it.

The next morning, horribly hung over and anticipating some national response that might ripple into our city, I awoke to two text messages, one from an elder in the community on the Southside and another from a mother of a martyr slain by Columbus police in 2016.

The latter, from Ms. Adrienne Hood, read “Are you OK?”

Ms. Hood, who lives in Linden, lost her son, Henry Green, who was shot by Officers Zach Rosen and Jason Bare in June of 2016 – five months before Donald J. Trump would shock everyone, including himself – by winning the Presidency on the most xenophobic platform in recent history. Ms. Hood had spent the subsequent years fighting through the courts for justice for her son.

The elder from the Southside – Ms. Debera “Mama” Diggs, who was then a ward representative for Franklin County – was far more instructive: “You better get out there and deal with these kids before they get arrested or killed!”

That evening someone broke a window at the Ohio Theatre. The media reported the vandals had been protestors. Many of the protestors attributed the breakage to the Columbus Fire Department. Rather than acknowledge the years of repressed rage over racialized brutality that had been expressed in actions like that across the country that week, suburbanites took to the internet to complain of broken windows.

I’d gone out the day before – the center of activity was, for reasons I have yet to understand, on East Main Street around the corner from the house where I lived at the time – but I don’t remember recording the video I took that day. I remember the night before – when I drank 2/3rds of a bottle of cheap white wine and the next morning when I received those text messages.

I don’t remember walking from my house at the time down the street and around the corner to East Main Street to document the people protesting the death of yet another Black man, this time in a city 750 miles north of us.

The morning of May 30th (2020), Columbus City Council President Shannon G. Hardin and US Congresswoman Joyce Beatty were infamously pepper-sprayed while standing with protestors (no one mentioned at the time that then-Franklin County Commission President Kevin Boyce, seen comforting Rep. Beatty in the immediate aftermath of the spraying incident, was also a victim of police brutality that day.)

Three years later, on the afternoon of June 1st, 2023, Mayor Ginther announced a series of enhanced surveillance and policing in this city – including “Safe Streets” – that is, an increase of bike police so to curb the increased violence we’ve seen this year.

Those of us with clear memories – many of which are playing out online as I write this – remember that most violence initiated during the summer of 2020 came from the police.

In the aftermath of that summer, debates have ebbed and flowed regarding what to do about police brutality and its intersection with racism with more focus than any period in the last fifty years. For its part, The City of Columbus put forth a motion to institute a Civilian Review Board that would act as a layer of oversight on top of the Division of Police’s Internal Affairs, reviewing complaints that people bring to the newly instituted Inspector General’s Office.

On June 6th, 2020, I joined a march from the Southside of Columbus into downtown attended by over 1,000 people coming from all four quadrants of the city. This was a call of solidarity at the end of the first two weeks’ worth of protests, the first weekend after the incident involving the elected officials, which prompted the Mayor’s office to impose a series of restrictions on the Columbus Division of Police –  including a restriction on the use of pepper spray and tear gas, used liberally by terrifyingly militarized police force until the order had been issued.

Four years before on that date, Henry Green V was shot eight times by two members of the Columbus Division of Police. Ms. Hood – who texted to make sure I was OK the morning after I watched the video of George Floyd gasping for his last breath – is currently running for City Council on a platform of, in part, affordable housing and police accountability. She has not been endorsed by the Franklin County Democratic Party, despite multiple high-ranking members of the party, at least in 2020, having demanded that substantial police reform be enacted.

On June 6th, 2023, the Civilian Review Board (CRB) held its 23rd meeting after already having been marred with controversy. The initial chair, Janet Jackson, had served as City Attorney twenty years ago when, alongside then-Mayor Michael Coleman, she’d worked to avoid the consent decrees that would have forced an investigation into the Columbus Division of Police’s pattern and practice of racialized policing. Months after stalwartly defending the passion and rigor of this newly formed body, she and other members of the Board voted to oust Gambit Aragon, who’d posted statements critical of the police after an incident during which one of the newly minted “Community Liaison” officers was seen high-fiving a Proud Boy at a rally protesting an LGBT event at a church in Clintonville. In a subsequent meeting, all but one of the board members voted to oust Mr. Aragon citing bias against law enforcement.

Ms. Jackson has since resigned and succeeded by Ms. Brooke Burns, the chief counsel for the Juvenile division of the Ohio Public Defender’s office. While best practices of decorum were certainly upheld at this last meeting (because of course decorum is the most important thing in City politics – just ask anyone who works for them) at least two moments from the meeting stood out. They both involved assertions from the sole voter who did not want to oust Mr. Aragon months before, from Mr. Kyle Strickland.

The second was a case with which a subcommittee disagreed with the ruling by the Solicitor General’s office from a complaint issued in February of this year: the complaint had been filed by a nurse charged with taking care of a patient in police custody. An officer had shown a video of this very patient being shot in the back by the Columbus police – a patient who was handcuffed to a hospital bed a few feet away, presumably conscious. The SG’s office found that playing this video – again, to the very patient who had been shot in the back – failed to break any CPD policy and, therefore, declined to recommend discipline for this officer.

As the chair of the subcommittee assigned to the case, Mr. Strickland recommended that the complaint be sustained (read: validated) and that disciplinary action should be taken against that officer (at the discretion of the Chief of Police, as the CRB is, as so many other bodies put together by the Mayor’s office, are purely an advisory board.)

CRB board member Rev. Charles Tatum agreed with this. Chairperson Brooke Burns, echoing the representative from the City Attorney’s office (who was also present) said that the word “sustained” should be substituted with another word. Meaning she wanted some form of discipline assessed against the officer, but not to that level of severity. The CRB has tabled this case for further scrutiny. 

All complaints covered in CRB meetings are anonymized (anonymous); but given the date that the complaint was lodged and the circumstances surrounding it, the victim in this case – referred to as a “prisoner” and not a “patient” in the SG’s report –  is clear.

The man who was shot in the back by Columbus police is still in a hospital bed in police custody. He was shot in the back after a traffic stop for which he’d not been given any reason why he was pulled over. Michael Cleveland, 66-years-old, will probably never walk again.

This writer is unsure whether the officer in the complaint was, in fact, Officer Joshua Ohlinger, but audio from the shooting incident in which Ohlinger shot Mr. Cleveland is clear: Cleveland was targeted. As he was pulled over without cause and got out of his vehicle headed towards a nearby peace march going on a block away, Officer Ohlinger shot him…in the back.

Ohlinger is still, that I’m aware, on patrol in Columbus.

With all that’s happened in this city and country regarding policing in the last several years, it seems clear that the primary lesson the City has learned has been as follows: As long as the City makes the motions toward reform they’ll never have to reform anything at all.

I’m not sure what we’ve learned as a people, but it’s clear that the City and County have learned nothing.