Of Mayors, Marches and Muck

It’s been exactly one week since Beachwood’s Rally for Racial Justice, an event I organized here in my little corner of northeast Ohio, where I have been weathering the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 15, I sat in the backseat of my daughter Sarah’s car while she drove her brother David, me and of course, my dog, Sammy home to the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. Bill joined me two days later, and until this week, our life was a pleasant routine of taking care of the adorable Glickman grandchildren in my home every weekday morning while Rachel and Raffi taught remotely from their home, with Shabbat lunch at their home and then even Sunday night sleepovers at Grammy’s. In the wake of the Rally, however, despite my best efforts to social distance and keep my mask on, I was in the mix of demonstration, protest, song and silence. I took a health risk for racial justice and now I am thrown out of the family pod until the end of this month. While the personal price is high, and the learning process in the aftermath of the Rally has been agonizing, I am grateful that my activist soul called me to action. In collaboration with a resourceful group of affluent high school students, we planned a social justice event, which included a march that crossed over a bridge, symbolic of Selma, that brought together a diverse crowd of over 1,000 people on a beautiful June evening in bucolic Beachwood.

As the civil unrest following George Floyd’s brutal murder began to mature into civil protest, and especially after Trump’s clearing of Lafayette Square, I needed to take to the street, in a safe manner, to add my voice to the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century. So it was that just two weeks ago I began the process of getting a sense of the community (social media), reaching out to members of City Council (e-mails) and connecting with the Beachwood Chief of Police Gary Haba (phone calls). During the course of the very short week in which we planned the Rally for Racial Justice, I became friendly with the Chief, the Council President James Pasch (whose “day job” is the regional direction of the Anti-Defamation League), two other members of Council (one being the mother of the main student organizer), and of course, Mayor Marty Horowitz. 

Mayor Marty is a Jewish white man, 5 years older than me, who simply wants to do the right and just thing in the City of Beachwood, caring about the general welfare and common good of the residents. It was obvious that most of the Beachwood city leadership was thrilled that a known activist had stepped forward to organize a demonstration of some kind. We all agreed that building an event that families and older people would come out for, during the pandemic, was my goal. Last Thursday night, Mayor Marty, felt great pride at what we had achieved that evening. It was a historic night for Beachwood.

What was not obvious was that the students, whose platform is rooted in their rage, guilt, sense of disgust at the system and youthful zeal, were looking for an event with a more “revolutionary” feel and a distinctly Black Lives Matter voice. So it was that during the event and in heated exchanges afterwards, I became the voice of the privileged Jewish white woman who enjoys the Blessings of Liberty. As some people came expecting to hear a Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police message, they were not happy when a Jewish white woman spoke, and they really got mad when I complemented the Beachwood Police. Speaking from my own limited experience as a civic activist who received the utmost respect and cooperation from the Chief to hold this event, I acknowledged his assistance. Throwing flames on the fire, those who had already decided I was offending black people failed to hear that the Pledge of Allegiance that I chanted to the trope of Echa, Lamentations, was a rewrite. At the end of the Rally, when the tone had been changed by a group of black activists from other parts of Cleveland, one of those voices took to the microphone to yell “f-ck the police.” Unfortunately, yet fortunately,  I had an ugly confrontation with those protesters who imposed their view of what protest should be on to ours. And so, once again, I find myself right in the muck of social change. Frankly, given the state of our country, there is no other place I would want to be.

Experienced activists know the power of music to convey the essential messages of social justice.  So it seemed to be another one of those sacred synchronicities when on the morning after Chief Haba gave me the OK to plan an event, as I was walking Sammy around the Village lake, I met a fellow Michigan graduate who belonged to my beloved Sigma Alpha Mu, the fraternity of my family and college boyfriend. As he was wearing a Michigan cap, I called out “Go Blue”, and our conversation began. When he mentioned that he was a Sammy, I shared my disgust that my son was one of the bad boys who trashed the ski resort in January of 2015, avoiding serious consequences simply because they were for the most part, Jewish white boys and girls (my sorority SDT was also involved), a gross example of white privilege. I then told Alan I was planning a rally of some kind next Thursday and he asked if I would like a black band to play for free! He told me that the group, AfterThought and the NuSoul Band, made up of this short older Jewish guy and a group of older African-American singers and instrumentalists, has performed in Beachwood before and he knows the set up. Clearly, Alan was thinking of a concert in the pool area, which is closed due to Covid-19. No, what we were planning was something much bigger. Having done Sacred Rights, Sacred Song concerts, I knew that once we had a band, we had to have the right stage and sound. One of the ironies of this experience is that it was that stage and sound system, which allowed each speaker and singer to be seen and heard in the huge crowd, that seemed to anger young black activists who were determined to impose their style of protest on the Beachwood event.

Several hours later, Chief Haba connected me to the student leader of Beachwood High School who happens to be a Jewish biracial young women, a rising senior. Being born to two accomplished professionals and being raised in Beachwood, she is able to enjoy the Blessings of Liberty denied to others because of systemic racism, and she knows it. Like me, she is determined to use her resources, those blessings, to undue the systemic racism that keeps the residue of slavery alive in our civil society. It seemed to be a perfect match – a seasoned Jewish activist with a young leader who demonstrates that the color of one’s skin need not be a barrier to success in life. She is outraged that, in fact, the color of one’s skin has an impact on how one is treated by the police power of the state. I thought that she too sees the activity on the streets, as well as the response by state and local governments, as nothing short of the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century.

What I learned this week, however, is that some in their teens, 20’s and 30’s, don’t see the bigger picture. Rather, they are calling for a revolution that defunds the police as well as the silencing of allied white voices. The first indication that the Rally for Racial Justice would take on a more angry Black Lives Matter tone was when the graphic artist, a passionate and talented young man, took my concept of Lady Justice with her blindfold off, holding it instead of the sword, looking very sad and modified it for the young revolutionary protesters. So it was that the Grammy-award winning rapper Tyler the Creator, retweeted our poster for the Rally for Racial Justice with the Angela Davis version of Lady Justice, complete with the signature hair and earrings.

The Rally began promptly at 6 pm, under clear blue skies and perfect temperatures. The student leader welcomed the crowd and then the three black female vocalists opened the Rally with the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Until last week, I am embarrassed to say, I was unaware of its existence. When I asked Alan if the band would open up the rally with our torn and tattered national anthem, he said no, the women won’t sing it (hello Fran). Wondering if the trio would sing a rewrite of “O say can you see,” I reached out to one of the women and began a very instructive dialogue. I was humbled to not only learn about the Black national anthem, but to learn it and sing it at the beginning of the Rally. Maybe if those who attacked the Jewish white woman knew that it was a collaboration between a white and black woman that brought that perfect opening moment to the Rally, they would not be so judgmental of me.

When 12 year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a Cleveland policeman on November 22, 2014, I was devastated that a young life had been taken by unacceptable police brutality. Having just relocated to New York City, the story was not local news, yet I knew that Tamir’s death had become one of the catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement. I suggested to my student partner that it would be quite powerful if we could bring Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, to the Rally. All activists know the power of a speaker telling her story in person, face to face. Having a connection, the student leader reached out to Samaria’s assistant and on very short notice, Samaria agreed to address the Rally. Her comments were painful, raw, and realistic. She told us how she is not able to heal from her loss because each time there is another unjust killing of a black person, she is called to action. 

Samaria did not chose to be an activist; her life story has thrown her on the stage of modern American history. She has learned how to use the broken system to create something good out her tragic loss. In Tamir’s memory, she is building the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, “which will provide artistic, educational and civic programs for youth while celebrating the history and culture of people of African descent…..serving as an enriching space to keep children safe from unjust harm” (Tamir Rice Foundation website). For those of you looking to support a cause that will move our civil society toward a more fair and just distribution of the Blessings of Liberty, I urge you to join me in supporting this living legacy to Tamir Rice, z”l, who would be turning 18 on June 25. As I said to Samaria from the stage, Tamir’s memory is a blessing as his short life and brutal death call us to demand racial justice. Connecting with another social justice activist is one of the positive takeaways from this experience. The irony of being fiercely attacked for providing the sound and stage so that Samaria Rice’s voice could be heard in the heart of Beachwood is not lost on me. If those who judged me only knew.

After I delivered my comments, having no idea that the voice of the Jewish white woman was angering some, we began our march. Leaving our rallying place in the parking lot of Beachwood City Hall, a diverse group of young protesters, families and older people of all races walked 2 miles, crossing over the I-271 bridge and back to City Hall for the second half of the program. I was up front with the students, marching with them to the music they had chosen to play for the march, when all of a sudden I was confronted by two very strong and forceful young black women, law students I later learned, who asked if I was the lady in charge of the music and if so, I should be aware that there was a crowd of people behind me who were not happy with atmosphere of the community-based Rally for Racial Justice. Rather, these protesters were offended by the music and somewhat festive nature of the walk. Their pained and angry voices, fueled by their resentment of the Jewish white woman, demanded that the music be turned off and that the crowd start yelling their names – Say his name – George Floyd. Say her name – Breonna Taylor. Say his name – Tamir Rice.

By the time the marchers returned to our rallying point, the tenor and tone of the Rally for Racial Justice had gone from a broad-based cry of concern to a loud, fierce focus on Black Lives Matter. As a planner, I was shocked when all of a sudden a young black man, who organized a peaceful march a week earlier in Cleveland Heights, took to the Beachwood stage, unplanned. Clearly, the two black female law students and their crowd did not trust the Beachwood planners to tell a black enough story. A biracial girl of privilege and a black boy who attends an elite private boys school (the same one my son David graduated from), in their opinion, would not be loud  enough. So not only was an unplanned speaker at the first-class podium, using the stage and sound system, there was also a group of black activists who joined the Beachwood group on stage. Unknown to me, the revolutionary planners, those who tweeted out the Angela Davis version of Lady Justice, were thrilled to have those other voices on that stage, where they could be plainly seen.

The plan was that after the students spoke, Bill and I would sing a mash up of Ozi v’Zimrat Yah and Amazing Grace, introduced to me by Shaarey Tikvah USYers many years ago at a Shabbaton when they sang with a Christian group. Then, the master orator the Rev. Dr. Daryl Ingram from Saint James AME Cleveland would speak, followed by the sacred 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. The student planners, reading their crowd (not the general community), decided that the Jewish white woman would not sing and all of a sudden, Dr. Ingram is speaking in a style reminiscent of the late Martin Luther King. As his voice thundered “Justice shall roll down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” I took great pride that our Jewish text is still a source of inspiration for the faith leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century. At the end of Dr. Ingram’s powerful prayer, the crowd of over 1,000 took a knee, laid down, sat down, as one united group, the only sound disturbing the silence being the cooing of the mourning doves. 

As the crowd started to get up, I sensed the uncertainty in the air, and took that opportunity to close the Rally with songs of prayer that reflect the historical connection between Jews and African-Americans. That was the final straw for the young black activists. They were not going to let the Jewish white woman and the older white man end what had become their Black Lives Matter protest on that note. So it was that a young black female activist took to a mic and yelled, “F-ck the Police.” Mortified that a Rally I had a major hand in planning and under the false impression that the Beachwood planners didn’t want the revolutionary tone to prevail, I yelled back, distinguishing the Beachwood police simply because this event could not have been the huge success it was without their assistance. I was also enraged because people in the crowd thought I was the one who yelled the closing profanity. And so it was that I got into a very heated encounter with the younger generations of activists who are on the front lines of the movement here in Cleveland. It was far from my best moment and I been severely criticized from those who don’t know me well enough to judge. In the end however, the two law students took my phone number and I am waiting for their call so we can continue the conversation. As far as the unplanned speaker from Cleveland Heights, I did my research and discovered that he, like my student partner, has been able to enjoy some of the Blessings of Liberty. This young black man is studying acting at Ohio University, graduated from a Lutheran high school and worked at the Beachwood Recreation theater camp last summer. No wonder he was able to speak in front of a crowd of over 1,000 people at a moment’s notice. And because we both value the power of theater to tell the most important stories in life, we have started a friendship and are working on a collaboration. That rewrite of the Star-Spangled Banner that I thought the trio might sing.

Due to the fallout over my apparent cluelessness about the state of race relations and police misconduct in Beachwood, there was no basking in the afterglow of the Rally’s success. Despite glowing praise from all the adults in the room, the youthful planners were furious with me as I discovered at our debriefing meeting Tuesday afternoon. In what can only be described as a clash of the generations, I was yelled at by young people in a way that made me grateful I did not send my children to the Beachwood schools. While the student leader has reached out to me to make amends, the utter absurdity that I have become the face of the establishment, the archetype of why systemic racism still exists in America, the punching bag for guilty white children of privilege who think that revolution is the only way to change the world, stings. Again, making false assumptions happens all the time. That is the essential nature of prejudice. If we are going to move the needle, we all need to do better.

Last Thursday, as Bill and I were getting ready to go to the Rally site and check out the stage and sound,  Sammy went on an adventure. While I was on the phone in the backyard, Sammy ran down to the Village lake and decided to take his first swim. When I spotted him, his little head was bobbing as he frantically dog paddled, heading toward the south shore where the organic debris surrounding the lake collects and turns into thick, smelly muck. Sammy found his way into the muck and finally, with our encouragement, found his way onto the shore. The shore is the back yard of my neighbor the former mayor of Beachwood, Merle Gorden (yes, same name as Dad). Sammy was black and smelly and luckily Bill was there to carry him home. Of course, we used the hose, and a lot of baby shampoo, to wash him off. In that metaphor a moment way, I reflected on how last century, the Police Power of the State used hoses to disburse peaceful civil rights protesters. At that moment, before I fully dove into the muck of this historic moment, I felt good knowing that, working with the city powers that be and the leaders of the future, we had created a place where peaceful protest would be protected by the police. For someone who sees the big picture, that is progress. 

In the week since the Rally, I have learned firsthand about the anger, the rage, the guilt, the pain, the shame, the outrage and the degree of distrust Black Lives Matter activists feel toward the system and those of us who represent the failure to secure the Blessings of Liberty for all. I have learned that not all is well within the Beachwood Police Department and that people have stories to tell. The people need to be heard. I have also learned that the youngest generation is exactly that – very young with a lot to learn. While I was initially honored to guide them, in the end, they didn’t want the guidance of this Jewish white woman, but they were stuck with me.  I jumped into the muck of this moment because as a Jewish white woman, I scream enough is enough and demand that the time for racial justice is now. Yet I know that in our civil society, true change comes through effective reform, not revolution. The process is organic, dynamic and sometimes it stinks but with that decay comes the material that natures new growth. For the sake of our democracy, and for all those entitled to Equal Protection under the Law and the Blessings of Liberty,  may these civil protests, the difficult discussions they stir and these new ways of seeing the other, be the muck that nourishes the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century. 

A Reformed “Pledge,” Sung to Echa trope: – Lamentations for our Land, the United States of America. A republic, does it stand? Sick Nation. Help us G-d, so divided. We demand liberty and justice for all.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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