Why Cleveland Will Be An Awkward Backdrop For The First GOP Presidential Debate

A protester is arrested after the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Cleveland. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TONY DEJAK
A protester is arrested after the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Cleveland. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TONY DEJAK

As the Republican presidential candidates descend on Cleveland on Thursday for the first debate, the city is preparing for police protesters to share the spotlight. The GOP candidates have been more open to discussing criminal justice reform this election cycle, in large part because of support from financial heavyweights like the Koch brothers. But when it comes to addressing the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, the candidates have been resistant.

Cleveland — the city which recently hosted the Movement for Black Lives national conference — will provide an uncomfortable backdrop for the Republicans’ first political face-off after a recent high-profile shooting placed the city in the middle of ongoing confrontations about policing.

Since 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police last November, just four miles from the arena where the debate will take place, policing in the Ohio city has come under question and federal scrutiny. More than eight months later, the investigation into his death is still ongoing. And the city remains under a consent decree after a U.S. Department of Justice report found that police brutality and the use of excessive force by police are pervasive in the city.

Rice was killed by police who thought the toy gun he was carrying on a playground was real. His death led to mass police protests and the calls for change across Cleveland joined the wave of cities demanding the same thing across the country. But while other police killings in Baltimore or nearby in Cincinnati led to indictments against the officers involved, Rice’s case remains ongoing.


The problem in Cleveland extends beyond Rice’s investigation — the DOJ’s report on the Cleveland police department, released in December, found that incidents of excessive force may have flourished in the city because the department’s mechanisms for investigating and disciplining officers were entirely inadequate.

Cleveland’s consent decree, an agreement with federal government, focuses on creating a department that is more accountable to the people it serves. The agreement includes the creation of a community police commission, improved training and policies that will tackle the excessive use of force.

“As we move forward, it is my strong belief that as other cities across this country address and look at their police issues in their communities, they will be able to say, ‘Let’s look at Cleveland because Cleveland has done it right,’” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said when the agreement was announced in May.

The Black Lives Matter movement is looking for the presidential candidates to get involved in discussions about police reform as well, but they have not been so receptive. Ben Carson recently called the movement “silly” and “divisive” while others like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush see no problem with saying “All Lives Matter.” Bush suggested at a recent campaign stop that those who use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” believe that white lives do not.

Kasich, who will be debating from his home turf, has spoken about how the community wants police and also wants to be respected, but like his competitors, he has yet to discuss it as a national campaign issue.


On the left, Martin O’Malley has proposed a comprehensive criminal justice reform package which includes police reforms like establishing a national use of force standard and requiring law enforcement agencies to report data on all police-involved shootings and use of excessive force. He would also expand community collaboration and civil review of local police departments. And Hillary Clinton has spoken out about the need for better community policing and body cameras for all police departments.

But the Republicans have stuck to broader criminal justice reform issues. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been the most vocal, calling for efforts to roll back minimum sentencing laws and introducing a bill to give those convicted of non-violent crimes access to federal benefits like food stamps. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has criticized the high costs of prisons and Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed prison reform legislation to end the “disgrace” of incarcerating the mentally ill. Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have both supported “ban the box” legislation to make it easier for those indicted of a felony to find a job.

When the Republican candidates attempt to address the racial disparities in policing and what can be done to ensure that African Americans do not continue to be killed in police custody, their messages fail. Not a single Republican has been able to say “Black Lives Matter” and as a result, the movement has become angered by their rhetoric.