Report From Cleveland

From July 24-26th JFREJ sent me and Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship (GPOF) mentor Shoshana Brown to the Movement For Black Lives Convening in Cleveland, OH. This unprecedented gathering of Black Lives Matter activists from around the country was an incredible opportunity to learn and bring back lessons to inform JFREJ’s police accountability and anti-racism work. And also to make Black, Jewish identity visible as a vital part of this amazing movement. We were humbled by the outpouring of financial support from the JFREJ community to make our participation possible and couldn’t be more grateful. Thank you.

We began the long drive from New York City to Cleveland on a Thursday afternoon, and had many little adventures along the way. After getting a good night’s rest we set out for the campus of Cleveland State University, the conference location, on Friday morning with important work to do. We planned to hold a Shabbat at the convening and meet up with another contingent of Jews of Color who we knew would be attending. This would mean doing some last minute organizing that could only happen on the ground in Cleveland.

Walking into the registration area was wonderful and overwhelming. Seeing hundreds, and then hundreds upon hundreds of activists all arriving with the same wide-eyed look, and the same thrill of recognizing old friends from another corner of the movement, and potential kindred spirits from across the country was amazing, and that was just the first few minutes.

Shoshana left to attend early workshop sessions on resiliency and healing and then met up with me to help me plan our Black & Jewish Shabbat. Soon we were joined by the rest of our JoC crew — Yavilah McCoy, April Baskin, Atarah McCoy and Amani Hayes-Messinger. They jumped into the planning and preparation, helping to make signs, distribute flyers, Tweet and post on Facebook to spread the word throughout the conference. We found kosher food, wine and grape juice in Cleveland and got back to the venue in time to make it to the opening ceremony!

We all filed into the main auditorium along with everyone else to participate in the opening. I, along with virtually everyone else there, was moved to tears and rage as family members of black people killed by the police took to the microphone to tell us what was special about the child/sister/brother/mother that they lost and ‘WHY THEY FIGHT!” Michael Brown; Eric Garner; Tanisha Anderson; Tamir Rice; on and on the tears and testimony flowed. I’ve never seen so many of the families in once place, and at was incredible to witness the bond they shared with each other — united in loss and clarity of purpose: this stops today.

Next we heard from civil rights leaders across generations who told us about their work and our current moment with the highlight possibly being Trans-justice-and-prison-justice-activist legend Miss Major.

After the opening was our Black & Jewish Shabbat. And it was wonderful! With a special shout-out to Yavilah’s cheerleading on behalf of our Shabbat, scores of activists from around the country from various faith and cultural traditions joined us to eat, perform ritual and build community in the beautiful courtyard of Trinity Church across the street from the university campus. For many attendees, it was their first exposure to Jews of Color, and so there were lots of questions and dialog. For others, it was a chance to connect with a community they were excited to partner with. A good time was had by all and a few real friendships were formed. And we left no doubt about the presence and power of Jews as active participants in the Movement for Black Lives.

On Saturday we attended workshops all day. First there was a presentation to the entire conference and then we went to the trainings and workshops that we chose from among the dozens on offer in each slot in the schedule. I attended sessions on leadership development and on the analysis of anti-Blackness — both informative and thought provoking and already proving useful in my work. Shoshana went to sessions on the surveillance state and on an initiative in Jackson, Mississippi to apply many of the best practices in the promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economy, and sustainable development and combine them with progressive community organizing and electoral politics.

That evening the Jews of Color gang got together for our own lovely and intense Tisha B’Av ritual.

On Sunday, the final day of the convening, we lamented all over again at having to leave this amazing community and return home. The day started with another all-community strategy session. After that the JOC crew joined an action that was taking place on the shore of Lake Erie to honor our debt to the land and to the local anti-racist organizing and struggle in Cleveland. Being out in the water felt meaningful and centering and gave us another opportunity to build strong relationships with other organizers. We then rejoined the rest of the conference for the closing ceremony.

The closing was an incredible performance by a local youth ensemble that mixed African drumming, hip-hop, spoken word and singing. It brought the entire convening to our feet and to tears. It was almost the perfect way to end the weekend.

I say almost because of what happened next — an incident that you may have seen on the news or on social media. After many attendees had left but a few hundred were still there, waiting for buses and flights or packing up, the Cleveland police violently arrested a 14-year old Person of Color right outside the conference center, allegedly for possessing an open container of alcohol. Conference attendees who were right there witnessed this and intervened, challenging the arrest and videoing. The police — and one aggressive officer (since suspended) in particular — responded by pepper spraying an entire group of non-violent activists. As you can imagine, word of this spread like wildfire and within a few minutes hundreds of Black Lives Matter activists arrived on the scene, protesting the arrest and the brutal response of the police. At the time, Shoshana and I were already in the car. We had stopped to get water from a deli before getting on the road for the long trip back to New York. A group of conference goers ran into the store saying that they needed milk — the universal remedy for pepper spray exposure. Shoshana immediately sprang into action, paying for all of the milk herself so that our friends could rush back to treat the injured protestors. We then ditched the car and ran back to the scene to join them.

Over the next hour or so I witnessed the very best of our movement and our people as leaders blossomed out of the crowd, strategizing, negotiating, interacting with police, the mother of the arrested child, the media and the rest of the assembled community to demand the release of this young person. We chanted, sang and held firm to our deep understanding of the gravity of what could and would happen to that kid if he ended up in the clutches of the criminal justice system. The Cleveland police picked the wrong moment and the wrong place to stage an arrest. Because of our combined, beautiful bodies and voices in action, the police released the young person into the custody of his mother and allowed them to leave the scene. No one else was arrested or injured and in the following days the officer who pepper-sprayed the activists was suspended. I have never been more blown away by the power of collective action for justice, or more clear about what liberation can look like when a brave people come together, bound by deep love and clarity about the value of their own lives and freedom.

After helping some folks with rides to catch buses and whatnot, Shoshana and I got back on the road and drove the 8 hours back to New York City, exhausted and elated; profoundly moved and deeply grounded.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to be alive at this moment, and doing this work with the support of JFREJ and this amazing family of Jews, Jews of Color and Black Lives Matter activists — all of us joined by our vision of community, safety and liberation for all.

Yours in Struggle,
Leo Ferguson

Community Organizer
Jews For Racial & Economic Justice