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Council tackles fallout, continued disagreements over May 30 riots

Downtown Cleveland businesses suffered damage and looting after May 30 riots.
Posted at 6:35 PM, Jan 13, 2021

CLEVELAND — More than seven months after the May 30 protests-turned-riots, which caused millions of dollars in damage throughout Downtown Cleveland, the City Council's Safety Committee held a hearing to discuss what transpired and the continued disagreement between public safety leaders and community activists on what caused the peaceful demonstrations to devolve.

The peaceful protest that turned to violent riots on May 30 in Downtown Cleveland was one of many mass demonstrations nationwide during a summer of unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In December, the city released a 50-page after-action report, providing an hour-by-hour summary of May 30 from law enforcement's perspective. In addition to summarizing and detailing the death of George Floyd, the report also provided contextual and historical information about other protests in Cleveland that followed other high-profile deaths.

In summary, the report found the Division of Police failed to adequately plan for the demonstrations on May 30, including understaffing. By midnight, roughly nine hours after the riots began, the Division of Police, Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office and partner agencies from around the region had finally quelled the mass rioting and looting, according to the report.

Community activists Julian Khan and Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter-Cleveland criticized the division's handling of the demonstrations. During Wednesday's hearing, Henton also alleged that it was police that escalated the demonstrations.

"The unrest that you saw, I don't want outsiders to be used as a scapegoat. It happened as a result of people being treated inhumanely and people not being heard," Henton said. "One has to understand that people who are treated humanely don't just go out and destroy property and show their anger in a way that we saw happen."

Police Chief Calvin Williams and Public Safety Director Karrie Howard challenged those claims. Citing the after-action report, Chief Williams said officers withstood a barrage of projectiles, including rocks, frozen water bottles, fireworks, bricks and other items, for as long as an hour before the final dispersal order was issued and munitions, including pepper balls and chemical agents, were deployed.

Although he repeatedly conceded that the division made mistakes that day, Chief Williams was clear in his assertion that police did not start the riot.

"I just have to strongly push back on this narrative that the police department started this and had they not did what they did, it would have been a peaceful event," Chief Williams said. "Trust starts with the truth."

Khan told the Safety Committee members that as the crowds began to swell on May 30, he began seeing a "noticeable number of folks that were moving at their own pace and with their own priorities." Community activists and police officials have largely agreed that a number of the agitators that wreaked havoc and looted storefronts downtown had intentions of rioting -- not peacefully protesting.

Khan said the riots have unfortunately tainted what was otherwise a peaceful assembly.

"It's disgusting and it threatens the organized efforts of residents in the future and it has strong reverberations beyond what we can encapsulate in this small meeting," Khan said. "When I think about all the folks that were the cause of violence and who burned buildings, cars and demolished property... they weren't folks that I knew from the community. A lot of them had a blank stare like they were there with a specific purpose."