|R.A. Washington, in a 2012 photo.|
"The police did not interrupt the forum," R.A. Washington, the bookstore's owner, wrote on Facebook today. "They simply sat in their cars with all eyes on our tiny storefront."
Washington tells me a police car sat outside the bookstore from about 6:20 p.m. (before the 7 p.m. forum) until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Seven or eight other police cars stopped by in rotation, checked in with the standing car and drove off -- an abnormal police presence for the Gordon Square area, Washington says.
Some forum attendees said they felt intimidated, Washington says. He didn't, but he says he was concerned.
The watchful eye, which came mere hours after the Justice Department released a sweeping report on a pattern of excessive use of force among the Cleveland police, raises questions about whether surveillance of public meetings about policing might chill free speech.
"Police had information regarding a planned protest at that address," Cleveland police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia wrote to me in an email. "Zone cars were sent to give special attention to the area."
That's normal for a street protest, like the one going on downtown right now. But a discussion at a bookstore?
“I don’t see how a community forum could ever be construed as a protest,” Washington replied when I told him the police's explanation.
Washington, also a local activist, protested for police reforms at Monday's city council meeting and was quoted in cleveland.com's story and video on the protest. He was a guest on WCPN's Sound of Ideas yesterday.
He announced the bookstore's meeting on Facebook last week as part of its Dialogues series. The invitation asked police not to attend. "The police have generated a lot of fear in this community, and we need the space to discuss this question without the fear of retribution," the invitation read.
By coincidence, the event fell on the day of the Justice Department's announcement. Washington says about 150 people crammed into the store's basement theater space for the talk, which was standing-room only for four hours.
Washington, who posted on Facebook to refute online rumors that police had interfered with the event, told me he’s making no assumptions about why the police stopped by. He says he doesn't want people to feel discouraged from speaking out about police reform.
"The good cops -- and there are good cops -- they intersect with the community," he says. "I just think there’s become a disconnect. There are more systemic problems than just police brutality. [We need a] citywide plan and a frank and honest, uncomfortable talk."
Update, 5:15 p.m.: Councilman Matt Zone, who represents the neighborhood and chairs council's public safety committee, says he spoke with police second district commander Thomas Stacho about the police presence last night. Zone says Stacho heard about the bookstore forum from the city's emergency operations center, which monitors public video cameras and online traffic.
"He had detailed a car to make sure people who were assembling were safe," Zone says. "It wasn't about preventing people from gathering."
Zone's answer suggests that police were watching the city carefully last night to see whether news of the Justice Department's findings led to unrest.
I asked Zone if the city has any rules restricting surveillance of political meetings. He says he's not aware of any.
"I believe sincerely that police were there to make sure there was peace and order," he says.