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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.

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