While national attention has focused on Black Lives Matter movement hot spots like Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore, all over the country people have seized this historic moment to develop organizations of struggle and resistance. This story by Mike Leonardi gives an in-depth view of one such initiative in the Rust Belt city of Toledo, Ohio.
January 15 this year saw the most powerful and effective demonstration that I have ever been a part of in Toledo. The Community Solidarity Response Network, an organization formed only months before in the aftermath of Ferguson, moved to disrupt the city’s official Martin Luther King unity celebration at the University of Toledo’s basketball arena. King Day has turned into little more than a watered down, star spangled, militarized insult to Dr. King’s legacy.
When the arena doors opened, around 50 of us walked in dressed entirely in black and took up a large section of the bleachers to the side of the stage. We waited through the pomp and circumstance of the national anthem, the military color guard and early speakers. We decided to make our move between the speeches of Toledo’s mayor and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.
We rose to our feet and row by row in a single file line walked onto and across the front of the stage. We held up bright yellow signs that have become a signature of our movement. Made by local activist Dan Rutt, they bore slogans such as Black Lives Matter, Justice for John Crawford, Justice for Michael Brown. We stopped, stood and chanted:
Hands Up; Don’t Shoot!
I Can’t Breathe!
Black Lives Matter!
We then exited stage left and walked out of the building for a brief celebration. The crowd response was ecstatic. When we walked back into the arena during Kaptur’s speech and retook our seats, we got big smiles and acknowledgements from both the event organizers and public.
The MLK Day disruption was not without controversy. Before the action, local Black ministers and “civil rights leaders” who have taken, and continue to take, no leadership in this movement called and pleaded with the Community Solidarity Response Network to please not “taint” this event honoring Dr. King. Though some in our group worried that our action might be too radical, the core was confident it would work.
The aftermath proved us right. Our protest made front page in the Toledo Blade and was heralded by the press and the event organizers as something that should have been a part of the official program (which we had asked for but were denied), and that truly upheld King’s memory in his struggle for human rights and economic justice.
CSRN is Born
Before laying out how we have followed up on this success, I want to explain how the group took shape. As in every urban center in America, if you are black or brown in Toledo, you inevitably have a story of police harassment or profiling to share and know of someone being brutalized by the cops. The spark of the Ferguson uprising ignited a flame of resistance. After some informal networking, a talented local hip-hop artist named Jibril Bey called together some of his closest friends and confidants to discuss the crisis at hand and how we in Toledo could formulate a response to it.
On a hot late summer evening at the end of August, a stream of people arrived for an informal get-together at Jibril’s apartment in the heart of Toledo’s Central City. Brother Washington Muhammad, who has been active on many social initiatives locally for decades and is a member of the Nation of Islam, was one in attendance. So was Kumasi El, another young local activist.
“Jibril was the youthful, positive and spirited force that motivated us to come together and respond in a unified way to the ongoing crisis,” said Washington Muhammad. “Like a force of nature he brought us together and started us on our way.” Jibril made it clear that while we were coming up with ways to respond and resist the system and all that it encompasses—from police brutality to the ecological crisis—that we be fundamentally motivated by a sense of love and community and that we carry that forward in all that we do.
After our initial meeting we came together again and a core group led by Jibril and including Kumasi and Brother Washington decided to hold a forum on police brutality on October 18 at the Frederick Douglass Community Center, a symbolic and historic site in Central City. Over 70 people came!
The Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo was born. We did not set regular meetings but did hold a couple formal meetings and continued to meet informally and stay in steady communication. We focused on plans for a demonstration to be held at the Lucas County courthouse the day after the grand jury decision was announced on the Michael Brown case and began publicizing this event through our social networks and through the local media. We also decided to reserve a meeting room at a Central City library for a meeting following this demonstration.
When the decision came down on November 24th we were ready. The next day over 100 hundred peaceful protestors were met by a huge show of police force. The courthouse was shut down two hours early in anticipation of our 5 pm demonstration. Two police helicopters circled us, portable blue light security cameras were stationed on the two corners on either side of us, federal marshals, FBI, homeland security, county sheriffs, a canine unit, and over one hundred riot clad cops inside the courthouse were there to make sure that they could handle us—all on the taxpayer’s dime.
The library meeting that followed drew over 50 people and was very emotionally charged. At this meeting we announced that weekly meetings would be held every Tuesday to plan future events and activities. These weekly meetings, events and activities continue until this day. After the Courthouse demo our core group tripled in size. More veteran activists came out of the woodwork and the meetings swelled to dozens of people at times. A defining feature of these meetings from the beginning has been their diversity with Black, brown and white folks coming together in unity for a common struggle to make #BlackLivesMatter, so that ultimately all lives will matter.
Another defining characteristic is the guidance of the elders, with people like Twila Paige, Rolita Noble, and Brother Washington Muhammad—longtime justice seekers—providing keen insight to guide our path. Socialists have also played a strong role in supporting the movement locally as have individuals from the Students for Justice in Palestine, The Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition, Move to Amend, the UT Feminists Alliance, and the Greens, along with many grassroots citizens. Along with the guidance of our elders this movement has flourished through the dynamic leadership of our youth. Young and powerful spokespeople have emerged from our midst like Julian Mack, Terri L. Davis, Jodie L Summers, Kumasi El, Katrina Bacome, Cherry Foward, and others.
These young and knowlegable leaders boldly carry the banner of Black Lives Matter when our so-called community leaders remain silent and on the sidelines. Several major activities of the Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo since the Mike Brown verdict stand out as helping to define and distinguish the #BlackLivesMatter movement in northwest Ohio.
The first action held after the Ferguson decision was proposed by a young student activist named Cherry Foward. Cherry Proposed a march from the University along one of the highest traffic streets in the city. Again, over 100 people showed up and marched enthusiastically for several hours and several miles at times blocking traffic. This enthusiasm and leadership from a young woman set the stage for actions to come. Then Twila Page, a seasoned Toledo freedom fighter, came up with the proposal to disrupt the official MLK day doings.
Growing the Struggle
The most powerful event that the Community Solidarity Response Network has organized since was more of a celebration than a confrontational direct action. Black Lives Matter Day 418 was called when white supremacist neo-nazis threatened to return to Toledo on the anniversary of a 2005 rally which made international news when they were driven out of town. Our organizing created a broad based coalition in the community, but it did run into some roadblocks.
The location we chose for the event was historic Scott High School. When word got out, all of the sudden several other organizations announced events at Scott on the same day. One was led by Reverend Brock of the local Black minister’s alliance, who also acts as the ombudsman for the Toledo Public Schools. This event was to be called “Unity in the Community.”
We were pissed off at what looked a lot like an attempt to water down the Black Lives Matter message but agreed to attend their organizing meetings. Given assurances that a part of the agenda would be given to the CSRN and our message, we agreed to work with them. However, despite claims by Pastor Brock that he had confirmed Scott HS for the event, it was announced that there would be no event that day at the school.
Our second choice for the 18th was Smith Park in Central City. After the Scott HS fiasco, we were leery of continuing on with Pastor Brock. With only 4 weeks to go, we went back to Plan A and started to organize Black Lives Matter Day on our own. The next week Pastor Brock announced that the “Unity in the Community Event” was going to be held at Smith Park and that all was guaranteed, permits, etc. by a local city councilman. They asked us to participate but we declined and decided to hold our event, once again, at the Frederick Douglass Center.
While it may be hard for an outsider to believe, the promise of Smith Park also fell through, but by that time we were steamrolling to make #BlackLivesMatter Day a big event and had joined forces with the local branch of a national Black record label called BMMG productions and an organization called BRAVE Toledo that is working against youth violence in the community. The week before April 18th, Pastor Brock and his group announced that they would hold their “Unity in the Community” event at the UAW hall. They insisted that this was not an attempt to counter-organize.
Our #BlackLivesMatterDay event was a huge success. Close to 1000 people showed up for a day filled with music, dance, and the powerful and uncompromising message of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. A new slogan also was introduced to the community that day: #JusticeOrElse! Justice or Else is the theme for the 20th year anniversary of the Million Man March slated for October 10th in Washington DC.
The turnout was far beyond our wildest expectations. Toledo’s new mayor, the head of the local NAACP and several of the city’s best known pastors made appearances. They praised Black Lives Matter Day and claimed they are ready for real unity in the community. So far nothing has come to fruition.
Justice or Else!
Key to the growth and success of the Community Solidarity Response Network has been steady work to reach out and unite with others in struggle. A good example has been solidarity and support for the Students for Justice in Palestine and their campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions at the University of Toledo. SJP is a powerful and dynamic organization that got, with eloquent support from CSRN, the student government to pass, by a landslide vote, a resolution calling on the University to divest its investment portfolio of any companies that are directly profiting from the occupation of Palestine.
Our organizing continues. Throughout the past year we have held many demonstrations at busy intersections across the city. We held a Black Friday protest in solidarity with the friends and family of John Crawford, gunned down by cops in the Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio. We held a Memorial Day event for those killed by police violence in America. We co-sponsored a live broadcast of Angela Davis from Ferguson with the UT Feminist Alliance at the People Called Women Book Store. The CSRN is in communication with the family of Tamir Rice, and are following the developments with that case closely. We are awaiting information on a local case where a black man named Aaron Pope died in police custody while having a health crisis. We have continued our solidarity work with BRAVE, SJP, BMMG and others.
Once again, in response to the racist massacre in Charleston, we tried to engage the local pastors, NAACP and others. It has been to no avail. They were unwilling to take an uncompromising stand for justice and to decry this attack as a part of the fabric and history of the American injustice system, so again we are taking the lead in saying #JusticeOrElse and will continue to do so as the struggle expands.
Michael Leonardi was born and raised in Toledo. He became active in the Student Environmental Action Coalition in the ‘90s. After 8 years in Italy, during which he organized the Gaia Conference, he and his family returned to Toledo, where he rabble-rouses and writes, especially about environmental issues.Download this piece as a PDF