Cleveland police tried to give peaceful protesters the space to exercise their First Amendment rights following the Michael Brelo verdict, but some of them crossed the line several times, resulting in 71 arrests, city officials said Sunday.
Demonstrations were peaceful earlier in the day, but they grew more aggressive in the afternoon and evening when most of the arrests occurred, Police Chief Calvin Williams said in a news conference.
His officers were tolerant of protesters who expressed their anger and frustration in a constructive manner, he said.
“We allowed people to express their First Amendment rights,” he said. “We gave people the space and provided a safe environment for them.”
Some exceptions: A protest shut down state Route 2 before police convinced those blocking the highway’s 60-mph traffic to disperse; demonstrators became “disruptive” at the mixed-use Tower City Center, resulting in arrests and businesses closing their doors; a protester threw a restaurant sign at a bystander and other protesters stepped in when police tried to arrest the sign thrower; and protesters pepper-sprayed patrons dining on restaurant patios, Williams said.
Those arrested included 39 men and 16 women, with juveniles and “other adults” filling out the arrest tally, the chief said.
The charges include felonious assault, aggravated rioting, unlawful congregation and failure to disperse, he said. The misdemeanors will be charged within 24 hours of the arrests, and the felonies within 36 hours, he said.
“We only moved in to make arrests when things got violent and people refused to disperse,” Williams told reporters.
Unlike protests in other cities, where violence has resulted in curfews and certain areas being shut down, in Cleveland the mayor said residents and visitors should carry on normally without worrying about the protests.
“If they cross the line, we will deal with them accordingly and the citizens should not be concerned about that and they should come downtown and enjoy themselves,” Mayor Frank Jackson said.
Protests erupted in downtown Cleveland on Saturday after Judge John P. O’Donnell acquitted Brelo, a police officer who stood trial in the 2012 shooting deaths of two unarmed people, on charges of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault.
CNN video showed police in riot gear moving down East Fourth Street, a strip of restaurants, and pushing back protesters. The officers yelled, “Move back!” in unison as they advanced.
A CNN crew saw at least 15 people being taken into custody by police in riot gear, accompanied by troopers.
Three people were arrested for aggravated riot, felonious assault and obstructing justice after an object was thrown through a restaurant window, injuring a patron, police said in in a tweet.
Multiple arrests were made at East Fourth Street because of “unlawful behavior by large crowd,” another tweet said. Police appeared to greatly outnumber protesters.
The crowd assembled outside the judicial center in Cleveland for two hours following the announcement of the verdict. Law enforcement officers formed a line and kept them from entering the judicial center.
Some chanted “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter,” words heard in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, where sometimes-violent demonstrations occurred after African-Americans died at the hands of white police officers.
Cleveland streets calm a day after protest of police officer's acquittal http://t.co/fplqpHkOFn
— TIME (@TIME) May 24, 2015
— The Independent (@Independent) May 24, 2015
As a precaution, two schools, Shaker Heights High School and St. Ignatius High, relocated their weekend proms to venues outside the downtown, CNN affiliate WOIO reported.
Brelo, 31, was accused of firing the bullets that killed Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, on November 29, 2012, after a 22-mile police chase ended in a middle school parking lot. Brelo stood on the hood of the car Russell was driving and fired 15 shots through the windshield, authorities said.
Though about a dozen officers fired a total of 137 rounds at the car, no other officers were charged with manslaughter.
In explaining his verdict, Judge O’Donnell said it was reasonable for Brelo to think Russell and Williams still posed a threat to officers. The chase started after the car driven by Russell backfired — a noise officers mistakenly thought was caused by gunshots. The judge also said he couldn’t be sure Brelo fired the fatal rounds.
Relatives of the slain citizens had harsh words for police and the court system Saturday.
“We were expecting him to be convicted of at least one of the charges,” said Jackie Russell, sister-in-law of Timothy Russell, said on CNN. “We feel as though basically the judge gave him a pat on the back and said good job for shooting those people.”
The family later released a statement.
“The judge began the explanation of his ruling by pointing to the countless instances across the nation where racialized policing has occurred and resulted in the untimely deaths of Black and Brown women, men and children. Even as Judge O’Donnell acknowledged the disproportionate killing of people of color, he failed to hold Officer Michael Brelo accountable for his reckless and cruel actions,” a line read.
Social media buzzed with reaction, mostly against the verdict.
So because we can't determine that this cop killed the victims in a hail of bullets, then none of them is therefore guilty? #BreloVerdict.
— Michael Eric Dyson (@MichaelEDyson) May 23, 2015
@MichaelEDyson tweeted, “So because we can’t determine that this cop killed the victims in a hail of bullets, then none of them is therefore guilty? #BreloVerdict.”
— jesse Williams. (@iJesseWilliams) May 23, 2015
@ShaunKing tweeted, “7 officers who SAW Officer Michael Brelo fire all 49 shots into their car have each REFUSED to testify,” while posting a picture of the bullet-riddled car.
Mayor Jackson called for peaceful demonstrations Saturday, and during the Sunday news conference applauded the majority of protesters who provided the nation with an example of how Cleveland vented its frustration with peaceful demonstrations and dialogue.
Many things to protest
Cleveland has avoided violent protests so far, despite several incidents that raised concerns about excessive use of force by police. A 2014 Department of Justice report that found that Cleveland police had a pattern of using excessive force.
On Saturday, a protest was held to demand action in the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot last November by a Cleveland police officer, according to CNN affiliate WEWS. The event had been scheduled before the Brelo verdict was announced.
About 200 people carried a coffin from a park to the home of prosecutor Timothy McGinty, WEWS reported. No charges have been filed in that killing, though Sheriff Clifford Pinkney recently said the investigation of the case is almost finished.
Darren Toms, the Cuyahoga County Courthouse spokesman, said authorities tried to release the Brelo verdict at a time that would cause the least disruption. He sent this statement:
“The prime consideration was to not delay the reading of the verdict any longer than necessary. While the wait was difficult for many, it was especially hard on the parties involved in the case and their families. Once Judge O’Donnell reached his verdict and finished writing his opinion, he and the court wanted to let the parties know the decision as quickly as possible.
“It was agreed that by announcing it on a Saturday morning, the potential for downtown traffic issues and the resulting impact on the community could also be lessened.”