Listening to Our Land: a conversation about community policing

The best way to find out how people think about certain things is to talk to them, and listen. That may seem self-evident, especially when coming from a journalist, but it’s not.  One of the casualties of the technology race to social media is the ability to read someone’s presentation of themselves and believe you now know their perspective.  You don’t. Skimming a Twitter feed or Facebook page gives you nothing more than a snapshot of a moment in that person’s life.  If you want to better understand a person’s perspective, you need to connect in a different way.

I don’t want to move, it ain’t about moving.  It’s about change—trying to change it, so I won’t be a drive-by incident.

Ms. Kim Benefield in the ‘Our Land’ radio special

Cleveland has been mentioned among cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, in the national soul-searching over police-community relations.  Heated debates and efforts toward police reform have been spurred by cases like the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who had a pellet gun; the death in police custody of Tanisha Anderson who was suffering from mental illness; and the verdict of Patrolman Michael Brelo for firing the final 15 of 137 shots fired by police at a car after a high-speed chase; among others.

The Department of Justice, separately, found Cleveland police in the past to have exhibited a pattern or practice of excessive use of force, leading to a consent decree dictating reforms.  The mayor has mentioned that the Division of Police was already modifying its procedures before the agreement, so the process will now have added elements and oversight.

Screenshot of TV footage of police on E. 4th in Cleveland, following the Brelo verdict.
Screenshot of TV footage of police on E. 4th in Cleveland, following the Brelo verdict.

Cleveland had seen a number of protests, legal actions, rallies, funerals, and memorials in the wake of the cases mentioned above, and many that I didn’t mention.  By-and-large the gatherings were always peaceful–emotional and passionate, but largely peaceful.  Local and state officials had launched various listening tours to talk to the public about community-police relations, which also drew passionate testimony, but I didn’t feel satisfied as a journalist.  I had heard many soundbites, but I hadn’t often been able to listen to various stakeholders at-length.  I began to wonder if there was a way to speak about many of the cases, issues, concerns, hopes, and fears that Clevelanders were feeling, while still giving a space to explore some of those issues more deeply than to which we’re accustomed.

This is how the Our Land series was born: through a desire to listen longer to more people, all kinds of people, about their views on Cleveland’s police, neighborhoods, and future.

In any project you need to narrow your focus, and that’s what I did with my editors.  Our public radio DNA naturally pushes us toward bigger picture projects, with a community service focus.  Because interviews about police can go in so many directions–and they did–it was important to have a common starting point for each interview.  We settled on two questions: what should ‘community policing’ look like in your view, and how far are we from that ideal?

As the series took off, starting in the Cudell neighborhood where Tamir Rice was shot, continuing to the police commander who oversees community policing, and ending up in a public housing development with many, many perspectives, the project was clearly no longer just about community policing.  From the very first interviews, I heard concerns about community-police relations, sure, but also about neighborhood cohesion, economic development, gangs, perceptions of an ineffectual political process, and more.  A perceived uptick in violent crime, including a string of shootings which led to the deaths of a number of children, all influenced the series’ tone.

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Cleveland is sometimes called “The Land” or various nicknames playing off “land,” like “Believeland.”  So in naming the series I wanted to emphasize a sense of community, first and foremost.  There are many opinions, many perspectives, but Clevelanders are all stakeholders in the future of Cleveland–our land.

The series included video elements, occupied an episode of The Sound of Ideas call-in show, and connected the views of many kinds of Clevelanders with each other.  I might hear one thing from a writer, and pose the question to a police commander, or ask a local pastor to comment on it all.  And throughout the process the conversations were authentic, respectful, and I believe incredibly relevant and valuable.

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In my work as a journalist I’ve found ‘listening’ to be one of the most powerful tools in my toolbox.  Some journalists think they need to perfect the art of interrogation and accusatory questioning to gather powerful news material.  Those skills have a place.

But so many people I have encountered in various states of distress, or joy, or business, or whatever, just want to be listened to, understood, and have their perspective fairly and accurately conveyed.  It may sound like a given, but it’s not as present in modern journalism as it should be.  The times we are in with respect to the issue of community-police relations and many others, demand that we up our games.  As journalists we need to strive toward careful reporting and authentic depictions of our communities today.  And as readers, listeners, and viewers, we must demand higher quality journalism.

We cannot have a dialogue if we instantly turn-off or tune-out views that oppose ours.  I hope this series accomplishes at least that–that you don’t want to tune out if you hear something you don’t like.  Maybe you want to keep listening, to better understand where that person is coming from.  And maybe with that understanding, the path forward might be even a tiny bit easier.

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Please consider listening to the series, or downloading on iTunes.

Scooter pt. 2: A rough week on public transportation

That week began with long walks up and down snowy hills, and it ended with two men wanting to fight.  That week began with cold, relentlessly snowy days, and it ended with me reeling in memories of other public transit experiences I’ve had in my life.  I touched on some of those feelings in Scooter pt.1, but that week–that week was something else.

Before we discuss that week, I have to provide a kind of counterbalance to what can be seen as pure negativity about Cleveland’s public transportation reality.  Many days, the buses run more or less as they should.  Many days I arrive at work, and arrive back home relatively on schedule.  Many days there is nothing out of the ordinary to report, although there is plenty that is out of the ordinary, like the people.

There was the man who stepped onto the Healthline holding doughnuts and speaking on the telephone.  He looked toward the front of the bus, saw a Muslim man with prayer beads, and shouted, “As-Salaam-Alaikum” or peace be upon you.  The man replied, as expected, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.”  The man on the phone then spoke loudly into the phone something to the effect of, “…and if he messes with me I’ll **** him up.”  Peace.

There were the two men who knew each other from prison, or from common friends who did time. They spoke about being at the same correctional facility, talked about inmates who were serving a long time, and talked about certain guards. “You don’t want to **** with that guy.”

There was the man with a bag of candy bars.  He had boxes of candy bars, in bags, selling them 2/$1.  There was no organization for which he was selling.  There was no pitch to help kids, or softball teams, or whatever.  Just a man with candy.  And he made some money.

The eclectic mix of passengers does make public transit interesting, and as a journalist it lets me hear what people are worried about.  These can lead to further reporting later, and I can help address some issues overheard on the bus.  My point: there are positives to riding public transit.  Which brings us to that week..

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When the weather turns bad in Cleveland, the public transit system suffers. Bus and train delays are regular.  And on this point, Cleveland is not alone–even the Swiss had frozen rail switches and snapped overhead power lines every once in a while.  But the distances covered by Cleveland’s transit system cause difficulty for commuters like me.  If one connection is missed, sometimes there won’t be another connection for an hour.

The Healthline is a bus system that runs along a major Cleveland thoroughfare, Euclid Ave.  It goes from downtown to East Cleveland, and it’s supposed to run every 6-10 minutes.  After my shift I have two possible Healthlines to catch to make it to my transfer bus on time…if all are running as they should.  If I miss my transfer, I can wait an hour, or walk 40 minutes up a relatively steep hill.  If the Healthline doesn’t come, I can take a train, and then walk the 40 minutes.  So during that week…

Feb 4: From 6:45 pm until 7:20 pm there was no Eastbound Healthline along Euclid.  I began at 14th/Euclid, and walked to Tower City to catch a train, and didn’t see any Healthline along the way.  This made me miss my connection…and had to walk.

Feb 5: From 6:45 pm until 7:05 pm there was one full Eastbound Healthline at 14th/Euclid. There were four Westbound Healthlines. When I arrived at my transfer stop, there were now three Eastbound Healthlines all bunched together, two of them were empty. My connection left just before the Healthline pulled up…and I had to walk.

Feb 7: The Healthline ran as expected. But from 7:10 pm, there was no connection (scheduled at about 7:20)…I had to walk, and didn’t see the bus along my way.

Feb 9: My transfer bus broke down.  The replacement was spotted about 50 minutes later.

Feb 11: Two passengers on the Healthline began to yell, then stood to fight, apparently because someone touched someone else’s bag?  One man yelled, “That’s some penitentiary **** there, I done that.” Other passengers separated them.  The driver maneuvered through intersections before stopping safely at a stop, and got out to call police.  One of the men disengaged, so no call was needed.  The remaining belligerent continued to yell even though the other guy was gone.  He then put on his music, loud, and aggressively banged his head to something similar to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.  You know, happy music.

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Things happen.  Nothing’s perfect. Most days are not bad days on public transportation.  But I’ve experienced a lot in my year+ of commuting by bus/rail to work, including fights, a purse snatching, drunk teens, and a lot of walking.

I still ride, and I am still a proponent of public transit.  But I look forward to warmer weather, and switching to two wheels, and taking a few variables out of the commute.

Reflections on the Nile: The Hustle

It’s been more than a year since my troupe moved back to the U.S., but the adventures of our last 5 years still all seem very close and tangible.  These adventures touched us deeply, and as we face new challenges, it’s good to reflect and remember the past.

We were lucky enough, as a family, to travel to places like Athens and Crete, Britain and France. And I spent a brief time in Egypt on a reporting trip–a trip that was filled with discoveries for me.  Much of my reporting was meant to give a snapshot of that time in Cairo, which was (is?) still figuring out where it was heading in its revolution.

But in this post I wanted to jot down some of the money-making observations I made while hoofing through Cairo. I hesitate to call them scams, because most of them were just ways people had inserted themselves into the tourist economy to make a few bucks. (Egyptian Pounds.) For most of these observations ‘scam’ is too strong. ‘Hustle’ might be closer to what I mean. And in a lucky break, my identifying the hustle helped me leave Egypt with a little more money in my pocket than I expected.

Hustle 1: The Underground

The first hustle isn’t so much a hustle as it is an illicit market.  In my reporting I relayed the items that were appearing in stalls in the famous bazaar–knives, stun guns, Chinese cigarettes, fireworks. The calls from the stall barkers represented well what the mindset was: “I don’t know what you need, but I have it.”

HAMED SELIM: “Yeah okay, I didn’t see electro-shock before, you know, in the street.”

TONY GANZER: “Stun guns and things like that?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I didn’t see this, or these knives. Farther, before the revolution, if you walk with a knife in your pocket, and a police officer stop you, you are in a big problem until jail, you know? But now you see, they sell everything.  You couldn’t see it before.”

IMG_0307Hustle 2: Check Your Camera

Something I never quite figured out in my brief time in Cairo was who was a legitimate authority and who wasn’t.  I realized the military was not to be crossed for any reason, but police were less obviously still in charge of order. And the plain clothes policemen, or who I assumed to be plain clothes police, were hard to read.  I erred on the side of being respectful, but skeptical.

The “camera check” hustle was employed at both the national museum, and the pyramids.  At the museum, I walked in and was told at the security checkpoint that no cameras were allowed–I had to check it at the shack across the courtyard, still in the museum compound.  I took out the memory card, and handed over the digital camera (I was prepared to never see it again) to an attendant who gave me a wooden ticket.  I went into the museum, enjoyed the time, and went back to the shack.  I took out the ticket, and the man looked at me for a moment before saying something like “Oh, yes, um, let me see if we can find your camera, sir.”  I took this as a hint, and took out 5 EGP, less than a dollar.  He found my camera right after that, if you believe it.

At the pyramid the situation was murkier.  A guy who could be legit, could be just a guy, blocked the entrance of the pyramid and said no cameras were allowed.  Again I took out the memory card, and prepared myself to never see it again.  When I came down, again, there was a hesitation in trying to “find” my camera.  5 EGP later, it was again found as if by a miracle.

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Hustle 3: Pyramid Guide

One hustle I had been warned about was the camel and horse ride hustle–tourists are offered a ride, and then not allowed off until payment is made.  Or maybe you’d be taken in the desert.  But I wasn’t warned about inside the pyramid.

As I climbed upward toward an ancient room, a man in slacks stood holding a flashlight at the top of the stairs.  He motioned for me to go into the room, with him in tow.  His motion bordered on an order.  I waited for my companion, an Egyptian, as the man with the flashlight grew impatient.  My companion came up and asked the guy what the problem was–nothing, he just helps tourists with the flashlight and then demands payment.  Before we left, a young man was seen pulling bills out of his wallet and paying for flashlight service…

egypt-moneyHustle 4: The Airport

I’ll go ahead and call this one a scam, and I’ll defend my little white lie because of it.

I knew cash was king when going to Egypt. I brought U.S. Dollars, Swiss Francs, and Euros.  The dollars were highly valued, and I paid for my tourist visa with them…it was a better price than the other currencies, despite the others worth more.  I also exchanged a fair amount for Egyptian Pounds to pay for food and other services, like renting a car and driver for a day. (though the foreign currency was still more helpful)  Suffice it to say, in pockets, shoes, pouches, and other spots, I had enough money for various purposes.

My driver brought me to the airport after a long day of reporting, and I paid him in Euros from a batch of cash in my shirt pocket.  After paying him, I had 5 EGP (a helpful amount, eh?) left in that pocket.

Inside the airport there was a security checkpoint and metal detector right away.  I walked toward it and an airport employee grabbed one of my bags from my hand, without asking.  I looked at the police officer and he didn’t react.  The bag went through the x-ray machine (or rolled on a conveyor, at least.)  I said to the police officer I had keys which would set off the metal detector.  He took them from me, looked at them, and then pretended to shoot me with them, laughing all the time.  Guns were his concern, not keys.

On the other side of the metal detector, which I set off, the airport employee had my bag.  He looked nervously around, and said, “You have money for me now.”

I said, “What?”

“Money, now,” he said.  I patted my pockets.

“I don’t know if I have Egyptian Pounds…” I said.

“No, foreign money. Now, please.”  I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out…5 Egyptian Pounds.

“This is all I have left, sorry.  I spent all my money,” I said, handing him the 5.

“Fine,” he said, and he gave me my bag.  I found my way to my gate and waited to go home.

When I counted my left-over cash, I had about 900 Egyptian Pounds on me…roughly $125.

IMG_0312Cairo was an amazing place, and I was fortunate to briefly visit and report from there.  It was a foreign environment for me; a place still very much in flux.  But most of my interactions were greatly positive, and the few instances of a hustle I witnessed didn’t do any real harm.  I didn’t mention the times that a cab driver would just say an amount because he thought I wouldn’t know how much it should costs, or the other times 5 EGP or some Swiss chocolate made an interaction move a bit more quickly.

As surreal, and as special as that adventure was, I still draw from those memories in my current life in Cleveland, and will likely do so for the rest of my days.  Sometimes I wish I didn’t see so many connections between Cairo-in-flux and an American city.  But I hope reflecting on, and savoring, my past experiences help make for a more enriched present and future.