Civil Rights

The silence of friends

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

On a recent evening, I stood in the middle of the basketball court behind the McDonald’s at 390 W. Market St. The rectangular court has two hoops on each of the long sides and one at each of the shorter sides.

At 9:30 p.m. bright lighting floods the court in an otherwise dark parking lot, making it difficult to see much outside of the court, which is entirely enclosed by a high fence, 10’ in some sections, 12’ in others.

The only usable entrance into and out of that rectangular cage is in the northwest corner. The people playing basketball in that court on the night of June 2 were shot at with rapid-fire water pellet guns like fish in a barrel. In order to escape their assailants, they first had to move toward them.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, was an ardent opponent of the death penalty. He once wrote, “I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge.”

There is a particularly painful grief that comes with burying one’s own child. It’s not the natural order of life. But it does happen. Untimely deaths due to disease, auto accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, drownings—at my age I’ve known them all.

And, of course, there’s violent death. In 2017, a friend whom I first met in the fifth grade was killed by her husband of 30 years. I still easily cry when thinking what her family lost with one gunshot.

“This society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments,” was Cuomo’s response to what he knew would be his own desire for revenge.

From the beginning, the language surrounding the events at that basketball court on June 2 has been loaded. The police said race wasn’t involved and then proceeded to publicly judge the three Black suspects they eventually arrested.

The New York Post reported that “[The three] allegedly ‘punched’ and ‘assaulted’ each of the four victims.” How is it that the four who started the altercation are the victims? Did they shoot at the unsuspecting three and then just stand there? Of course not. They allegedly recorded it for a TikTok challenge and, rather than fleeing, fought with those they’d assaulted.

When the Firestone students (who, along with Ethan Liming, broke multiple laws that night during their water pellet shooting spree) called 911, they said nothing of Liming being beaten to death. But they used that term in their later affidavits, and it has stuck.

Given the factual evidence that’s been presented, what occurred that night was a deadly fight among seven young men. Liming’s autopsy results do not comport with being repeatedly kicked as his companions later claimed. Yet the media persists in misleadingly calling it a “beating death.”

A grand jury recently lowered the charges for brothers Shawn and Tyler Stafford and their cousin Donovan Jones, all of whom have been held in the county jail since June 11. The new charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault are more appropriate than the original murder charges.

The county prosecutor’s office stated it has more information it has not yet made public. For now only one side of the story, and little else, has been readily available, which is why I reached out to the families of the three in jail. I’ve also spoken with neighborhood residents who witnessed various portions of the night’s events.

Among other things, I was told that Shawn Stafford, who is 5’5” and 135 pounds, was punched and knocked to the ground by Liming, who was 6’1” and 165 pounds, as the two fought one another. The grand jury findings seem to support this account for Shawn received the most serious indictment—two charges of involuntary manslaughter.

The three basketball players’ accounts of the events should be given the same weight as those of the Firestone students, but few have been interested in finding out that information.

I’ve received many emails telling me I am brave to have written my last two columns. I don’t consider examining the prejudgment of the police and the lopsided reporting by the media as inherently brave, so the encouragement begs the question: What there is to fear?

We live in a society with a criminal justice system that is not uniform, but instead metes out different treatment based on ethnicity and wealth. And pointing out this wide-open secret, like the elephant in the room that it is, riles up the enemies of equal rights.

Yes, I’ve also received plenty of emails that are slurries of racism and misogyny.

More concerning are people who don’t see their own bigotry when they refer to the Stafford brothers as “thugs.” Or when they tell me I’ve vilified the Firestone four by pointing out that they broke laws, initiated the night’s events and willingly engaged in a fight when their final victims (they’d shot at others that evening) refused to be bullied.

The letters that concern me most, however, are by White people who tell me my last two columns put to words what they’ve also thought, but can’t tell most of the people they know.

The late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis encouraged folks to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” There remains much work to be done, much necessary trouble to cause, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, to make ours a nation that treats all citizens equally. Silence in the face of unequal justice is complicity.

Postscript:

This column was submitted to the Akron Beacon Journal on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. Later that day I was told they would not run this piece because they don’t want to “poke the bear.”

On Thursday, August 4, Summit County Judge Tammy O’Brien, a Republican, reduced Donovon Jones’s bail to zero (he was required to sign a letter stating he’d return for trial), Tyler Stafford’s bail to $5,000 (of which he needed to pay $500 to be released), and Shawn Stafford’s to $25,000 (of which he needed to pay $2,500 to be released).

The false narrative on the fight created by Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett and promoted by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan never added up under the slightest inspection. But the media, including the Akron Beacon Journal, didn’t ask the obvious questions and simply reported the false narrative as though it was fact. The same day the bail was reduced for the three arrested in the case, I learned that the reporter on the story for the ABJ still had not visited the scene of the fight, did not know the court was enclosed by a fence nor that it has only one entrance.

Without giving it a second thought, far too many found it acceptable to sacrifice the lives of three Black men as payment for the life of a White man who attacked the three without provocation and from whom they defended themselves.

Uncategorized

Diverse, welcoming Akron now openly divided by race

All cities have personalities and for more than 20 years I have told anyone who will listen just how friendly Akron is. People from all backgrounds and ethnicities regularly engage with each other in their neighborhoods, jobs and stores in ways you don’t see in all cities. 

African Americans account for just 13% of the nation’s population but comprise nearly a third of Akron’s residents. It’s statistically likely for Black and White Akronites to have the opportunity to get to know one another. 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. In 2011, a secretary at Firestone High School told me that the student one of my sons, who was then in the eighth grade, would be shadowing was Black and asked if that was OK. 

“Why on earth would you ask me that?” I demanded. 

“Because other parents have complained in the past when we haven’t told them,” she replied. 

Recent events have exposed deep racism in Akron

Yet, unlike Akron’s Black community, I was surprised (and deeply saddened) when horrific events in our city this summer exposed a deep vein of outright racism in some White Akronites and far too much White fragility in others. 

My last column was about the deadly fight on June 2 in my neighborhood. I pointed out that the police and media prejudged the cases of the three young men arrested in the death of Ethan Liming, without acknowledging the alleged crimes Liming and three others had committed when driving down West Market Street shooting water pellets at unsuspecting strangers in multiple locations. 

The U.S. Marshals, however, created an online poster that makes it seem like they hunted down three scary criminals (according to their attorneys, none of the basketball players have criminal records) when all they did was arrest the basketball players in their homes. 

Furthermore, little information has been given about the lives of the three who were simply playing basketball in the West Hill neighborhood. 

According to a relative of the three, Shawn, 20, and Tyler Stafford, 19, are brothers and Donovon Jones, 21, who has significant hearing impairment, is their cousin. Shawn is a prior shooting victim with pins and wires in his leg where a bullet was removed. He is also his mother’s caretaker. 

The way someone views the deadly fight seems largely dependent upon the color of their skin. 

On the Akron Beacon Journal’s Facebook page, most of the hundreds of comments to my last column are by White people, many of whom describe the deadly fight in ways that are impossible to know, if not completely false. Many also share grotesque notions of what they think should happen to the three basketball players being held on $1 million bonds

Conversely, nearly 200 Black folks shared the same column on their pages with comments like this one: “Perspective! This article was definitely needed.” 

I’ve raised five children in the neighborhood where the fight occurred, three of whom graduated from Firestone in the past decade. I’ve thought long about that fight. The narrative started by the police, promoted by the media and exploded by social media mobs does not add up. 

There were four young men in the Firestone group who attacked three young men playing basketball. Four to three, not three to one. 

The Firestone youths’ activities that night are remarkably similar to yet another godforsaken TikTok challenge. After pulling up in their car after dark, some of the four from Firestone group ran at the three unsuspecting basketball players while shooting them with pellets.

What did the others do? I suspect they filmed it for TikTok

When the basketball players realized, after first running away, that it wasn’t metal bullets hitting them, they turned around and immediately understood they had been assaulted as a joke. 

The basketball players then approached their assailants, but the Firestone teens didn’t hop in their car and drive away. A fight broke out.

What exactly happened in Ethan Liming’s death is unclear 

What happened next, and this is very important, is unclear. Attorneys say that at least one of the basketball players was injured when his face was smashed into the asphalt. A Firestone teen called 911 and said a friend was knocked unconscious during a group fight — not a beating or stomping death — and was still breathing. 

preliminary autopsy report listed the decedent’s injuries, including a broken occipital bone (the only bone broken in his body), black eye and a single footprint on the chest wall. This list leaves open a number of ways in which the injuries could have been sustained. 

If video of the fight exists, perhaps who did what in that fight will soon be learned. But it won’t explain why four young men launched a surprise attack on three strangers, a violation of several Ohio laws including aggravated menacing, disorderly conduct and inducing panic. 

A little over three weeks after the fight, eight Akron police officers shot 46 bullets into the body of an unarmed Black man who is accused of firing one shot from his moving car as they chased him for purported traffic and equipment violations, neither of which are capital offenses. 

Akron, we have a serious race problem and it runs from the top on down. Now what? Consider South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It taught the world that healing racial divisions only happens after systemic racism is addressed head on, eyes wide open. 

I pray that we here in Akron have the courage to face our systemic racism head on and make desperately needed changes to our laws, policies, minds and hearts. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 24, 2022.