Akronites organize for police reform as protests sweep the country

by Noor Hindi

On May 30 and 31, thousands of people in Akron gathered for protests, marches and vigils for George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. 

On Saturday, hours of demonstration took place. Hundreds of people walked through Downtown, West Hill and Highland Square to protest police brutality. Another group gathered at Second Baptist Church in the evening to march downtown and gather outside the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center. They chanted, read poetry and voiced their concerns to dozens of gathered police officers. 

After the majority of demonstrators had left downtown on Saturday night, another group gathered on High Street. Several of those protesters told The Devil Strip that someone threw a glass bottle toward police officers and several people followed with plastic bottles. (Police told City Council the following Monday that protesters threw rocks and bottles.) Police responded with tear gas, protesters said. Several dozen people reconvened, and police deployed tear gas again about an hour later. Officers marched down High Street in riot gear, pushing the remaining protesters away. 

The police chief told City Council that two city vehicles and 11 businesses “suffered some kind of damage,” primarily broken windows, and most as protesters were leaving High Street after tear gas had been deployed. One person was arrested Saturday and three more on Sunday. The Akron Police Department did not return The Devil Strip’s emails requesting an interview before press time on June 2.

A group of local mothers organized a third protest Sunday, which drew hundreds of people to Hardesty Park in Wallhaven.

Protesters line the streets in Wallhaven. (Photo: Charlotte Gintert)

The Saturday evening march was organized by the The Freedom BLOC, a Black-led organizing collaborative that seeks to “build Black political power and to equip the Black community with capacity building tools on civic education, civic engagement, campaign management and leadership development.”

Founded in 2016, Freedom BLOC is housed under the leadership of the W.O.M.B (the Way of Mind and Body), a community meeting space for Black youth, adults and families. 

At the walk, Reverend Roderick C. Pounds Sr. of Second Baptist Church read a list of demands for the Akron Police Department (APD). Those demands included removing police from Akron Public Schools and replacing them with mental health personnel; mandatory mental health training for all APD offices; and assurances that APD officers patrolling the Black community “are from a similar Black community,” among others. 

The Freedom BLOC and The W.O.M.B. have been pushing for reform in the Akron Police Department for more than a decade, says Ray Greene, an affiliated organizer. Green says they fought successfully for APD to outfit officers with body cameras; to hire a police auditor who takes complaints from residents and communicates them to the police chief; and to launch peace circles for youth convicted of nonviolent offenses in lieu of jail time.

Reverend Pounds says these reforms were “tremendously difficult” to enact. 

Left: protesters downtown. (Photo: Garrick Black)

“It took years of hard work and protests and the normal difficulty that is always involved when you make these kinds of requests and changes,” he says. 

Despite this, they’ve paid off. Today, if youth are convicted of a nonviolent offense in Akron, rather than going to the juvenile detention center, they are enrolled in a peace circle, which they must attend six to 10 times for two-hour sessions. After the peace circle is over, a meeting is held between the facilitator, the guardians, a community member and someone the child trusts to get to the root cause of the behavioural problems and talk about what the child has learned. The program is organized by the juvenile detention center and APD. 

“Normally what you find out is as a result of something that’s going on at home, so you’re able to address it in a holistic way. The community person who is there helps the child understand how this hurts the community, and the support they’re going to give them. And then it creates a place for parents and children to have a safe place to have a conversation about the larger picture and the bigger things that’s going on with the child at home,” says Greene. 

Cir L’Bert Jr., Racial Justice Task Force Co-chair at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, says it’s important for these demands to be pushed for by the entire community, not just Black leaders.

“A lot of times, [Black politicians] will go for something that is a lot less radical because they feel like they have to protect their standing within the majority community. The more voices you can get on their side saying, ‘this would make a difference,’ the better.”

Over the next year, The Devil Strip hopes to use these demands to inform our reporting on the Akron Police Department’s relationship with Black residents in Akron. If you would like to be involved, please email Equity and Inclusion Reporter Noor Hindi at noor@thedevilstrip.com.  

Protesters demanding justice. (Photo: Garrick Black)

Below are The Freedom BLOC’s list of demands: 

  1. State and local lawmakers ensure that the police that are patrolling the Black community are from a similar Black community and/or have intensive and extensive cultural competency training, along with implicit bias training, and have to volunteer in the community that they are patrolling at least 10 hrs a month. 

Greene and Rev. Pounds say that police officers who’ve grown up in Akron’s suburbs are often untrained to deal with Akron’s Black residents, especially if their only interaction with Black people is “through the news,” says Greene. 

“I think it’s important because the language of the streets and the language of the poor, in a particularly urban community, is different. It’s just a different language. It’s their own language. It’s a valid language. By having these kinds of people trained and having more urbanites and particularly Black males in our police force, it would automatically enhance the communication,” says Rev. Pounds. “A lot of what happens is a direct result of a miscommunication. They don’t know how we talk, to put it down and make it plain. And these things will only help ensure good communication and everybody can be on the same page.”

The Akron Police Academy graduated its most recent class on May 29. “This class was recruited and trained under new policies that specifically focused on diversity and increasing access to opportunity for all deserving candidates,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a written statement. The class included 46 graduates, who were 22% African-American, 76% White, and 2% Hispanic, according to the city.

  1. The Deputy Mayor, City Council and Police Chief work with community leaders and Black mental health agencies to develop, provide and make mandatory mental health training for all APD officers in order to ensure that our mental health population is treated with dignity and respect. 
  1. We want 25% of the police budget to go to prevention programs in the inner city and that asset forfeiture programs (money and property seized from illegal activities) be widely publicized to ensure that the folks on the front lines doing the work have the necessary resources to make our community better. 

The Freedom BLOC is proposing 25% of the police budget instead be invested in urban communities to ensure grassroots organizations from the community can properly invest in education and outreach programs for kids. 

“Crime comes from poverty. Crime comes from mental health. So if we use 25% of the police budget to invest in safety measures, opening up the community centers, giving organizations money to continue to do education, to continue to give these kids a place to go after school, you start to create a more holistic person and a safer community,” says Greene. 

Photo: Garrick Black
  1. We are demanding that the police auditor be given the necessary tools to investigate properly and discipline rogue police officers and that a Community Civilian Review Board is made up of civilians from each ward and instituted immediately. These tools include but are not limited to subpoena power and disciplinary power to ensure that the Black community is able to build trust that rogue officers will be disciplined and removed from Black communities where they have done harm. 

Right now, according to Rev. Pounds and Greene, though the City of Akron has a police auditor, the auditor only has power to investigate and bring that investigation to the Police Chief, leaving community members and victims no voting power in how police officers are disciplined. Cleveland and Toledo both have civilian police review boards.

“That is one of our most important demands because it allows them, the citizens, to be involved. And that’s very important. It would create trust when we know we have our own [people] also reviewing. And we’ve really been pushing for that,” says Rev. Pounds. 

  1. We are demanding that the police be removed from all public schools and replaced with mental health trained community resource personnel. 

The Freedom Bloc would like to see more meditation and counselors in schools addressing the intersection between mental health and disobedience in schools.

“We want to criminalize everything, but if that kid had to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, to get his brother dressed for school, his sister dressed for school, his mom’s already going to work, and he had to walk through a drug community just to get to school, and then you wonder why he’s acting up in school,” says Greene. “That doesn’t require police. That requires compassion and understanding and getting that child to open up and talk about what’s going on.”

Additionally, many in Akron are urging the city to follow Franklin County’s lead in declaring racism as a public health issue. On Monday, June 1, some Akronites had already begun emailing their councilmembers to demand racism be declared as a public health issue. 

“Racism is a public health emergency and a public health crisis that we need to take care of,” says Horrigan. 

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus is currently working on legislation to declare racism as a public health crisis. 

Rev. Pounds says this legislation is critical. 

“I think that is crucially important, because it’s about getting the county’s admittance that they recognize the horrific costs and the physical carnage through racism from lynching, to the present day,” says Rev. Pounds. “These are Black bodies and poor bodies that have physically died. And it is indeed a risk to life. And to admit that is to admit also that Black bodies matter. And it does have its health consequences, including death.” 

Use the Find my Ward tool to email your council person.

Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos: Garrick Black & Charlotte Gintert