The police practice of murder, brutality and harassment of Black communities is not a new phenomenon. Nor is resistance to it.
On July 23, 1968 — the night of what is known to history as the Glenville Rebellion — Black revolutionaries fought back in self-defense.
Glenville is part of Cleveland, which, as in 1968, is a flashpoint in the struggle against racism and the police.
Some of those joining with youth in the streets demanding justice for Tamir Rice were in the Black Liberation movement at the time of the rebellion. Workers World spoke with Don Freeman, co-editor and co-publisher of Vibration Magazine. Now in its 47th year, Vibration “focuses on the exploitation and oppression of all oppressed people on the earth, especially African-Americans in the USA.”
In 1967, Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, making him the first Black mayor of a city its size. A year later the mayor’s brother, Louis Stokes, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to Stokes’ election, Flint, Mich., and Gary, Ind., elected their first Black mayors. The period was one of ascendancy of African Americans to political office.
“Mayor Stokes had already developed relationships with several people on the East Side, folks from the ‘hood,” Freeman explained. The Cuyahoga River divided the highly segregated city’s east and west sides.
The mayor was able to call on volunteers to patrol the streets after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “In fact, Cleveland was one of the few cities in the country not to erupt. Leaders in the community knew this was the best way to save lives.”
Corporations — through their “philanthropic” arms, by which they return a small portion of the wealth created by workers back to those they have impoverished — had a stake in keeping the city rebellion-free. They gave massive funding to Cleveland Now!, which Mayor Stokes initiated to combat poverty, encourage Black cultural pride and promote a sense of empowerment.
One of the community leaders to receive Cleveland Now! funds, having been part of the mayor’s peacekeeping after the King assassination, was the Black Nationalist leader Ahmed (formerly Fred) Evans. Evans’ Afro Culture bookstore and cultural center received a $10,000 grant for an African crafts program.
Evans: ‘We were ambushed’
Cleveland police, however, had harassed Evans prior to Stokes election, repeatedly threatening to shut down his bookstore. The election of a Black mayor only intensified police antagonism toward the Black community and to Evans in particular. Evans and his group, the Republic of New Libya, felt increasingly threatened by the regular surveillance of his home by white police. They purchased weapons for self-defense.
The FBI reports — based on the word of a questionable informant — stated that Evans’ group was planning to assassinate moderate Black leaders on July 23. It became a hot topic at City Hall.
On the evening of July 23, City Councilman George Forbes and former Cleveland Browns’ defensive back Walter Beach met with Evans to try to calm down the situation and address his longstanding grievances with the police. As they spoke two unmarked cars faced Evans’ apartment from opposite directions, both full of police, all of them white. Forbes’ attempts to get them to leave were unsuccessful.
Hours later the shootout between armed members of Evans group and police began.
Police claims that New Libya started the fight, firing on the surveillance vehicles and a tow truck, were presented as undisputed truth by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Evans and his associates were alleged to have called for a tow to lure police into an ambush.
Facts contradicting the official version were later brought to light by Louis Masotti and Jerome Corsi in their report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which later became the book, “Shoot Out in Cleveland.”
“We were ambushed, not the police,” Evans told Masotti and Corsi. By his account the Nationalists did not open fire on police until police killed Amer Iber Katir. Other witnesses concurred that Katir was the first fatality. Malik Ali Bey and Nondu Bey were later killed in battle.
After the shooting stopped, three policemen and a bystander supposedly aiding them were also dead and 15 others — police, Nationalists and those caught in crossfire — were wounded. Independent journalist Roldo Bartimole, who covered the events, cites a higher civilian death toll, eight, or possibly ten, as two individuals were never found.
By 11 p.m., Ahmed Evans had surrendered.
Police behave mercilessly toward the community. Activists Wilbur Grattan and Albert Forest were beaten severely when they attempted to rescue a wounded Lathan Donald, brother of Nondu Bey, and told to “Leave that —— here to die.” Dick Peery, then a reporter for the African-American weekly Call and Post, observed that occupants of the nearby Lakeview Tavern were roughed up; men were prodded with rifle butts, while women had their clothes ripped. A Black man driving through the area was pulled from his car, beaten and called slurs, according to Peery. A white news cameraman covering the situation was beaten to a pulp.
Mayor Stokes’ strategy to prevent further loss of life, however, was a unique example of community control. On July 24, after discussions with Black leaders in his periphery, he ordered all white police and nonresidents, as well as National Guardsmen on standby in case of further violence, to stay out of the area where the shooting took place.
For that one night the streets were patrolled by Black peacekeepers. The rebellion raged for five days, with widespread expropriation and torching of white-owned businesses, but there were no more casualties.
“The circumstances that bred racial violence in Cleveland in the summer of 1968 have not changed significantly since then,” Masotti and Corsi concluded when their report was published in May 1969.
How are things different in 2014? “Believe it or not, it’s worse now,” said Freeman, who still lives in Glenville. “There was no killing of 12-year-olds like Tamir Rice. It has taken the three deaths — Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice — to bring the anger of African-American people and our allies into the streets to say, ‘No more.’ Whether it makes a difference will depend on the movement not fading.”
As a child Martha Grevatt participated in the Civil Rights movement in Cleveland. Susan Schnur contributed to this article.