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Mark Naymik Reports: Cleveland ready for George Floyd protests

City’s recent history with protests guides the way, says former community relations chief.

CLEVELAND — The death of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd has Cleveland bracing for demonstrations on Saturday against police brutality.

RELATED: Justice for George Floyd: Demonstration planned in Cleveland Saturday

Floyd died on Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer cuffed Floyd, pinned him to the ground and pressed a knee against his neck. The incident, which was recorded by bystander, has sparked days of protest in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, including Columbus.

RELATED: Watch: Protest over the death of George Floyd erupts in downtown Columbus

Cleveland been a city on edge before, having experienced large demonstrations triggered by police shootings and their aftermath.

The city’s largest protest in decades was ignited by the 2015 acquittal of an officer on trial for his role in a chase and shooting three years earlier, an incident involving 12 officers and 137 shots that left two people dead. (Police arrested 71 people during the demonstration but dropped charges against of many of them in the end. It also paid thousands to settle some lawsuits.)

In 2014, numerous demonstrations took place following the police shooting death of 12 year-old-Tamir Rice near a gazebo at a city recreation center. Officers were responding to call about a man with a gun and say Rice reached for a weapon in his waistband. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun.

The city also managed demonstrations against 2016 Republican National Convention.

Each time, demonstrations remained largely peaceful. Part of the reason was the city's effort to connect with local protesters, activists and residents to give them space and a voice.

“The best plan is to start communicating with all party’s involved early,” Councilman Blaine Griffin said. “Way before the protests start, you have to establish a relationship with them on the ground.”

Before becoming a councilman a few years ago, Griffin’s spent 11 years as head of the city’s Community Relations Board, which works to connect with the community and manage neighborhood tensions.

“The hidden jewel that we tapped in to was people in the formerly incarcerated community,” Griffin said. “They really saw this as shot at redemption to really try to work with the young people out there to help the young people that are angry and frustrated to help them channel their energy in a different way.”

The city also built tapped a large list of community leaders, including those who remembered the city's violent Glenville and Hough riots decades ago, Griffin said.

And the city learned leaders and police could not try to tell people how to feel.

“You never tell people to just calm down, or go home or it’s going to be okay,” Griffin said, acknowledging the current protests over Floyd’s death. “This nation just watched a man killed. People are traumatized and angry and frustration, you can’t tell people how to feel.”

The police stayed close but often let demonstrators march, believing letting them move lessened potential confrontations.

 “All of these activists love Cleveland,” he said. “But they also love justice. And they also want to be treated fairly.”

Griffin said city leaders have to acknowledge historic racism makes some people distrust leaders and fuels strong reactions to confrontations between white police officers and black suspects.

In a late afternoon news conference, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams said the support people’s right to protest Floyd’s death. They said police welcome the demonstrations but will not allow people to become violent or destructive. The pair also issued this joint statement.

“As African American men and leaders, we understand the outrage expressed across the country and locally. Citizens have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. 

The City of Cleveland has experienced incidents over recent years which have brought people into our streets in peaceful demonstration. We are proud that demonstrations in Cleveland have largely remained peaceful. Our officers acknowledge and respect citizens’ rights and will take the necessary steps to protect those who choose to demonstrate. We request - for the safety of demonstrators, residents of the areas where these gatherings may occur and our officers – that demonstrators assemble lawfully. We expect that those who choose to demonstrate do so, as they have before, in a way that respects our city.

This is a unique situation, as demonstrators will be gathering during a pandemic. We strongly encourage anyone planning to demonstrate to wear masks and properly social distance. Our officers will also be wearing personal protective equipment.”

Griffin said the city knows how to prepare but the best planning isn’t always enough.

“But I will tell you, it’s volatile and can go any way,” he said. “It’s a pressure cooker.”

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