The fault line: Cleveland’s dividing lines over race issues come to light under Trump

The Ohio city is one of America’s most racially segregated and under Trump, many fear a conflict between the black community and mostly white police force

by Chris McGreal in Cleveland, Ohio / The Guardian / Friday 3 March 2017 06.00 EST

It’s not easy being a black cop in Cleveland. During his 23 years in uniform, and now as a detective, Lynn Hampton has weaved a tricky path between the city’s African American majority and its overwhelmingly white, sometimes trigger-happy police department. Some in the black community called him a sellout. A few white colleagues regard him as an infiltrator. But Hampton did not give up working to bridge the divide.

Then came Donald Trump.

“We’re trying to keep a lid on this thing here. You’ve got people in this city saying the police department is racist, that we are neo-Nazis,” said Hampton. “Now with Trump coming on the scene, spewing out these bigotries, my community is quite frankly saying this dude is a racist. Then he’s talking about bringing back law and order again, and we know what that meant in the past. What’s that saying to the black community? We’re opening back up open season on African Americans. That’s what people are thinking.”

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Hampton, wearing a brown trilby and a gold detective’s badge on a chain around his neck, added that it was bad enough that Trump used the election campaign to push for a return of discredited “stop and frisk” policies, and to accuse Black Lives Matter of being responsible for the killings of police officers.

Those “reckless” pronouncements did not go unnoticed in a city marred by two of the most notorious police shootings of recent times, including the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice. But then, Cleveland’s overwhelmingly white police union piled in by taking the unprecedented step of endorsing Trump for president.

“Bad move. Horrible move,” said Hampton, who is a member of the union. “A slap in the face to the community which you serve. What message does that send to black people about the attitude of the police?”

Now the 57-year-old detective finds himself caught between an increasingly alarmed African American community, and a department he fears will retreat to a mindset more akin to military occupation than policing.

“What kind of society does he want to create? Where we headed? You can’t continue to back people into a corner without anybody eventually getting tired and striking out. Are we going to have more violence against police officers? Is that what he wants? That’s the very thing that I’m trying to avoid,” he said.

Some of Hampton’s black colleagues have had enough and are talking about quitting. That’s not for him: he says he will stay and fight.

Brian King keeping in shape, playing basketball in his back yard.

Brian King keeping in shape, playing basketball in his backyard. Photograph: Paul Sobota for the Guardian

On the other side of Cleveland, Brian King, a retired sales engineer for a steel company, knows what kind of society he wants and what he expects of Trump.

“We need him to clean up the inner cities. The crime and the drugs. Clean up some of the people in this country that are causing troubles. The illegal immigrants. The terrorists,” he said.

King said he has plenty of doubts about Trump but they are not the same as Hampton’s. “I don’t think Trump’s a racist at all. I believe that if everyone hates him he must be doing something right,” he said. “Trump was my first choice because I’ve read his stuff and I thought he was an asshole. He’s a shyster. He’s a crook. But I want him to be a crook for us. For the ordinary guy.”

Cleveland voted solidly for Hillary Clinton, although her numbers were down on Barack Obama’s victories. It has among the highest poverty rates in the country, with one in three of the population living below the poverty line, rising to 43% among African Americans.

Trump is a shyster. He’s a crook. But I want him to be a crook for us. For the ordinary guy Brian King

Cleveland is also among the most racially segregated cities in the country, a divide reflected in its police department, where just one in four officers is black in a city where more than half the population is African American and little more than one third is white.

The force is under federal court oversight after a group of 13 police officers fired 137 shots into a car with two unarmed African Americans in 2012. Officer Michael Brelo was filmed leaping on to the front of the car and firing at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams through the windscreen after fellow officers stopped shooting. He was acquitted of manslaughter on the grounds that the pair was probably already dead by then. To his critics, it looked a lot like Brelo thought he was back fighting insurgents with the US army in Iraq.

“A lot of white officers believe that once you run all bets are off. I can do anything to you,” said Hampton. “What criminal do you know just gets in the car? It’s their job to run. Your job is to chase ’em. A lot of officers are too quick to use their weapons.”

In 2014, a Cleveland police officer shot dead Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child carrying an airsoft gun. The city council paid $6m to the boy’s family but the officer was not charged. Justice department intervention forced the department to increase training on bias and use of force, and to place a greater emphasis on community policing.