Op-ed: Progressive grassroots activism in Cleveland picks up where it left off

The recent fight over the former Q Arena deal is about much more than the arena itself. It is about the return of grassroots progressive activism in Cleveland.

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The recent fight over the Q Arena deal is about much more than the arena itself. It is about the return of grassroots progressive activism in Cleveland.

It is also about building on a previous era of activism that challenged elite power in Cleveland, a legacy that continues to provide lessons for the present movement.   

My book, “Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985,” documents the community organizing movement that did not hesitate to occupy corporate lobbies or otherwise hound the powers-that-be in Cleveland.

It wouldn’t be a history, though, if the movement hadn’t fallen victim to a successful counter-insurgency campaign masterminded by Cleveland foundations, City Hall, and business organizations triggered by raucous demonstrations, such as the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club demonstration in September 1982. The key to that campaign was using foundations to discipline the grassroots.

If you were a grassroots non-profit of the type I worked for, you learned very quickly that your proposals for funding would not be considered by foundations if you mentioned “community organizing.” The only proposals funders wanted to hear were for business and housing development. Bricks and mortar were in. Empowering communities was out. Indeed, one even had to think twice before mentioning the very notion of advocacy.  

These overlords of philanthropy in Cleveland were always ready to yank the leash of anyone who forgot his place or entertained notions that were in any way reminiscent of the old activism. It was only in the past five years that this civic Ice Age began to melt.  

That ice continues melting today. People started poking their heads up from the trenches with the Bernie Sanders campaign. In the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, there was a blossoming of progressive activism that ranged from the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and Black Lives Matter movement to chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America in Cleveland and Akron.

These are not debating societies. They pick fights with a local establishment that has gotten used to having Northeast Ohio jump when it says jump and is dumbfounded to discover that it is not God, after all.

Since 2016, there have been a series of grassroots melees that have rattled business as usual. The first was the “Yes on $15” campaign to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage in Cleveland. The campaign gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters, but Mayor Frank Jackson and Council President Kevin Kelley rushed down to Columbus to appeal to Cleveland’s sworn enemies in the Republican Caucus and preempt such issues from falling under Home Rule rights. Home Rule is a progressive reform that prevents states from micro-managing local governments. Over the last century, states have repeatedly used preemption to override and generally diminish the power of Home Rule.

 The GOP was more than happy to oblige, and the campaign was killed. The regime of cheap labor was saved in the nick of time.

Next up was the campaign against the Q deal. The takeaway from that was that the Cleveland establishment could in fact be challenged on the issue of financing sports venues. Like the “Yes on $15” campaign, a spoiled-rotten establishment hit the panic button when it saw a possible referendum on the deal. Once again, democracy was something is to be praised, not practiced. Though advocates for the deal tamped down the GCC at the last minute, even a local business magazine recognized that the rubber-stamp of downtown development no longer worked as it once did.

Two more campaigns in the last year have demonstrated the power of the new insurgencies to deliver a punch. The first was the “CLASH” (“Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing”) campaign to make Cleveland get serious about childhood lead poisoning. Past programs by the city on the issue were models of municipal incompetence and neglect. Again, with the gun that is the initiative process aimed at its figurative head, City Hall blinked and passed most of what the campaign wanted. The city hasn’t done much in reality to implement these reforms, but nothing ever comes easy in Cleveland. So, the efforts continue.

Last but not least was the campaign of “Clevelanders for Public Comment,” which sought to require public comment periods during weekly City Council meetings. Again, the specter of democracy threatened the status quo. The regime of Council President Kevin Kelley tried to ignore it, but the campaign refused to be ignored. Now, it appears as if, maybe, for the first time in 100 years, Cleveland residents will be able to directly address their concerns to their assembled elected representatives. Again, though, nothing ever comes easy in Cleveland. Don’t uncork the Champagne just yet. 

Those who have always owned and ruled Cleveland still own and rule Cleveland. What has changed is that for the first time in a generation, there is real opposition that can challenge and even get inside the heads of status quo figures. This opposition is starting to put down roots in Cleveland. Its campaigns are both immediate and long term. It is, above all, a community of activists who know each other and often work together. Its task now is to create a new progressive politics and a new governing coalition and consensus in Cleveland. Until then, the same forces that have ruled and owned Cleveland since the mid-19th century will remain in power and real democracy will remain an unrealized dream.

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Randy Cunningham is a Cleveland activist/writer and author of “Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975 to 1985” (Belt Books). He is currently finishing work on a book on grassroots environmental activism. He worked for Cleveland non-profits for over 20 years.  

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