CLEVELAND—Thousands of activists will be in downtown Cleveland protesting the Republican National Convention this week, but one group you won’t see is Black Lives Matter Cleveland.
The chapter doesn’t believe its organizing power will best serve black Clevelanders by protesting Donald Trump, a man who has shown no real interest in ending racist policing—the signature goal of Black Lives Matter chapters nationwide.
Instead, representatives of BLM Cleveland told Fusion that its 10 core members are instead focusing their organizing might on the incoming Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Michael O’Malley.
BLM Cleveland trained its attention on ensuring that the current prosecutor, Timothy McGinty, would be voted out of office in March. It worked. Not only did O’Malley win the election 55% to 44%, he won 70% of the black vote.
McGinty was a target of black activists and local politicians alike for his handling of the Tamir Rice case, in which Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed the 12-year-old boy within seconds of encountering him at a park on the west side of the city.
McGinty was accused of blaming Tamir himself for his own death because he was “bigger” than most kids his age and having experts testify along the same lines. A grand jury declined last year to bring charges against the officer.
A man in such a pivotal role who botched a case like this had to go. Someone else had to take charge. But BLM tried to make sure that no one would get the full support of the Cuyahoga County leadership.
Alana Belle, 25, one of the key organizers in BLM Cleveland, said that she and other members worked with community groups to persuade Democratic county ward leaders not to endorse any candidate for the prosecutor’s race.
It worked. Neither candidate got an endorsement, and BLM Cleveland established itself as a political power broker in Cleveland.
Kareem Henton, another BLM Cleveland member, told me it was important for O’Malley to know that activists in the city had worked to ensure he would not get an endorsement from ward leaders.
“By doing that, that means he gets no campaign money because now the Democratic power machine was not going to put any money into his campaign, so now he can’t neglect us,” he told me. “So, guess what, he really had to work hard for our vote. He was at every church. He spoke to everybody he would have never addressed before. That was the empowering thing. That’s how we were able to go to him and say, ‘Hey. We put you in.’ And that’s why he’s here.”
Another reason BLM Cleveland will stay clear of the convention is fear of arrest. Some people who would otherwise show up to support BLM Cleveland have warrants and other pending legal issues that could keep them jailed indefinitely if they were arrested.
But Belle said the chapter also realizes that, for black people in Cleveland, the person in charge of prosecuting abusive cops is more important than the person who ends up in the White House.
I was here in Cleveland in June when O’Malley, the newly elected prosecutor, attended a community meeting on the east side. Henton had reached out to O’Malley’s campaign to set the meeting.
The incoming prosecutor and his campaign manager, Ryan Miday, arrived at a small church to hear community members’ concerns about policing and questions about what he’d do differently from McGinty.
O’Malley was attentive. When people spoke about not trusting police, not only did O’Malley sympathize with them, he suggested that McGinty’s prosecution of Tamir’s case favored the cops who killed the 12-year-old boy.
“Prosecutor McGinty, I think everyone in this room would agree, he was selective releasing information to his friends in the media to push that case in the public opinion in a particular matter,” he told the small group of people.
“There were Saturday night releases so the Plain Dealer could have it in the Sunday morning paper. The stuff that was going on, it’s never happened before. And he did it under the guise that he was being transparent, but I think the transparency was selective.”
U.S. Rep. Marsha Fudge, a Democrat, told me she respects Henton and BLM Cleveland, but she said that persuading ward leaders to endorse neither O’Malley nor McGinty was a mistake.
Speaking of McGinty, she told me over lunch in Cleveland: “If we would have made it clear right then, under no circumstances, that this guy can’t come back, it would have been easier to beat him.”
I told Fudge that, from Henton's perspective, it was wise not to endorse anyone because they didn’t know O’Malley’s intent.
“Maybe we don’t,” Fudge replied. “But my position is that, because he is my guy, I have some influence over my guy. None of us have an influence over that guy (McGinty). So, after the election, Kareem was one of the first people who said he wanted to talk to him. I made it happen.”
The Black Lives Matter movement is not known for having a significant impact in engaging the political process. As The Washington Post pointed out, while the movement has powerfully drawn attention to police brutality, that activism has not brought black young people to the ballot box in large numbers.
Black Lives Matter Cleveland's political engagement of O’Malley, however, debunks the notion of some critics that the organization and the larger movement only focus on street protests.
BLM proved, at least with this election, that it has electoral influence, and this chapter plans to keep pressing O’Malley on his promise to be more critical of policing than his predecessor.
This is a much better use of time, the organization believes, than engaging with a presidential nominee whose indifference to black people will resolve none of the issues that led to a Cleveland cop killing Tamir Rice.
“Focusing on Michael O’Malley offers us the opportunity to hold somebody accountable on a very reasonable level,” Belle said. “It’s a lot easier for us to remind him of what he said he would do than it would be for us to remind Trump.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.