AWESOME PROJECT: Providing legal and jail support for people of color in Cleveland

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving last year, Waltrina Middleton, an ordained Cleveland-based minister, was working with activists in Ferguson, Missouri. “There was a great call for clergy to be present,” she explains, “because there was this impression that faith communities had been too silent in the face of racialized violence.” She had felt compelled to give her voice and energy to the movement; so much so that she was, at the time, in the process of trying to permanently relocate to Ferguson.

That’s when Tamir Rice was killed. “It was then that I realized,” explains Middleton, “that those young people in Ferguson had inspired me and equipped me to return to my home base in Cleveland, to try to organize there, and make sure that we recognize that Ferguson isn’t just in Missouri. It’s everywhere.”

When Middleton arrived back home, she found that there were several groups already forming in the Cleveland area, in response to racialized violence taking place across the country. What was still missing though, she realized, was a group whose leaders were predominantly or entirely Black. “There were lots of organizations, and the majority of the persons sitting at the table making decisions and strategies that impacted Black lives were non-Black people,” she says.

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A space where people of color speak for themselves

And so Middleton set out to meet that need in her community. “Cleveland Action creates a space for those that are disproportionately impacted by racialized violence to be the leader and voice and face and visionary for their own movement,” she explains. She sought out Black community leaders who lived every day with the fraught and complicated issues that so many of their well-intentioned, non-Black partners simply didn’t understand. Leaders who knew instinctively, for example, how to use video cameras in such as way as to highlight abuses of power in a community, without putting Black lives even further at risk.

“Secondly,” Middleton says, “Cleveland Action is a place of solidarity and collaboration for a wider community that’s concerned about justice and equality.” That means everyone, from those concerned about Black youth and education to groups concerned about LGBTQ issues in the Black community, particularly the rights of transgendered women.

“When it’s time for us to call for justice, we won’t lose our respective identities,” says Middleton, “but we’ll have a neutral space where we can all come together at the table.”


Why are legal and jail support needed?

Though Cleveland Action responds to any urgent need in the Black community – helping with everything from shelter for activists, to funeral costs for families of those lost to racialized violence – their current ioby campaign is geared toward meeting the most urgent, constant need of all: legal and jail support. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with their rights,” explains Middleton.

To that end, Cleveland Action works with volunteers trained, for example, to call community members when their court hearing is coming up. “A lot of times people have warrants out for their arrest because they’ve missed a court hearing, “says Middleton, ” So we make sure people get support, make sure they know they have a court appearance, we make sure that they know what their options are, make sure they have a lawyer.” Volunteers are trained not just to know their rights, but also to effectively participate in nonviolent direct action. How to engage in a protest, for example, and stay safe.

In providing legal aid, Cleveland Action also works with the Black Movement Law Project. BMLP is a fantastic organization that works in hot-spot areas like Ferguson, putting together coalitions of Black lawyers who make sure that local organizations like Cleveland Action are equipped to effectively support their communities.


Holding faith-based communities accountable

Cleveland Action is in not a religious organization, but it is a personal mission of Middleton’s to bring faith-based communities to a place of accountability. “Too often,” she admits, “we preach a good sermon and sing a good song, but the church doors are not open to these activists. We’re not making ourselves a resource to support the community in their unrest and in their lament.”

What does it mean to keep the doors open, exactly? Middleton says that it means providing “a safe space, a place to go for medical care, for food, for shelter, for safety. To turn myself in, or to get help because I’ve been falsely accused. Whatever that looks like, the church should be available, without judgment. Opening your door, in a very figurative and literal sense, simply means being visible, and making sure that those that are the most vulnerable and directly impacted understand that they have solidarity, that there is an extension of the community that sees them as human beings and cares about their rights, their liberation, and the voice that they’re lifting up.”

To donate towards legal and jail support, or to learn more, click over to Cleveland Action’s ioby campaign page.


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