Sunday, May 31, 2020
What we share
As the protests turned into riots last night, with windows smashed and stores looted up and down Euclid Avenue from Public Square to Playhouse Square, I found myself thinking about one of the oldest pieces of tape in our archives. It’s from a forum convened in 1966 to discuss the conditions that led to the Hough Riots. Lou Stokes spoke at that forum, and so did Baxter Hill. Hill led the local branch of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, and when you listen, you can hear the anger and frustration in his voice.
I come here today to say to you that many of you people here are responsible for the recent Hough Riots, in my opinion, by your failures to move on problems of the inner city. Most of you here are of the high salaries, the well-educated bracket. You could have moved on many of these problems, which would have, in my opinion, brought about a change significant enough to hold down the problems in this community. But by your failure to act—and this goes, too, for the Negro members of this club—you are equally responsible for what happens in the City of Cleveland. These are community problems. They’re not Negro problems. They’re problems of this inner city. And this inner city here—the things that happen here, can determine what happens around your homes in the suburbs where everyone retreats and leaves us with the same problems, lingering on and on…
…I want to impress upon you here today that we are going to do something about these problems. And you can either help, or you can keep holding your forums every Friday and sit here until the City Club starts burning. It’s up to you. I’m not threatening you. but I’m telling you. There is work to be done. And holding forums is not even a good start. Most of you here have the power and have the ability to do way more than what you’re doing.
I think about his words often. After all, I’ve devoted most of my professional life—whether as a teacher, a journalist, or an organizational leader—to convening conversations about important issues, and I hear his admonishment as accountability. If the work we do isn’t making a difference in the world, if it isn’t informing better policy decisions, if it isn’t bringing injustice to light, if it isn’t helping people become better able to be citizens, if it isn’t strengthening the community in some fashion, then we’re doing it wrong.
When we are talking about police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Malissa Williams, Timothy Russell, and too many others, we are talking about foundational issues of our country. Our nation’s history is the history of racism and the struggle against it, and what we face today is racism showing up again and again. And while police brutality against people of color is such a clear example of racism, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 is every bit a part of the same structures of racism. Our commitment as Americans is to a free and just society. Our job is to create that. The demonstrations and the riots are a call, to all of us, to continue the struggle, to identify structural racism and white supremacy where we see it, and to work to dismantle them.
Baxter Hill tells us that holding forums isn’t even a good start. He may be right.
Each of us has a role to play, a role we each, individually, get to choose. When the world is broken, saying “It’s not my fault, I didn’t break it” doesn’t help. The morning after the riots, with shovels full of broken glass, none of us was saying, “It’s not my fault, I didn’t break it.” We worked side by side. We cleaned the streets, the sidewalks, and the storefronts.
But even if we erased the grafitti, repaired the windows, and restocked all the shelves, our world would still be broken. So let’s continue the work together. Let’s each of us decide what our role is and commit to it.
Here at the City Club, our work has long been to create conversations of consequence that help democracy thrive. It may not be the work Baxter Hill would choose for us, but it is the work we choose because we believe that the exchange of ideas is always important and the right conversation at the right time can change the course of history. Though we know we have not always done this work as well as we should, we have always been committed to doing it better. It is work we do with you and for you. That means if there are topics and speakers you think the community should hear from, we want to hear from you about them. We can’t always make every idea into a forum, but all of them help us create forums that matter.