Racism alive and punching in Toledo, Ohio

We felt really blessed in Toledo, Ohio, where we arrived to a small dinner of eight activists from the Toledo area that had been organized by a friend of a friend in nearby Sylvania, Ohio (pop: 20k; number of trailer parks: 20), to welcome us to the area. (Shoutout to the chef! Fried risotto balls, corned beef egg rolls, shrimp scampi pasta and more – all homemade, so great.) Like most American cities, Toledo is very segregated, so we were glad to be dining with a number of local black activists, many of whom are involved with the local racial justice group Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo (CSRN).

Much of our conversation revolved around race relations in the area, where the Charlottesville car driving terrorist James Alex Fields had been living (in Maumee, ten miles southwest of Toledo) and there’s a not insignificant white supremacist presence. One of the stories we heard was from a black woman who grew up in Toledo. She said many of the clubs and bars in the area find pretenses on which to reject black people from coming inside. One Tuesday night, the woman and a couple friends were trying to go to a bar that was offering $1 shots – seemingly not the fanciest of establishments. The security guard, an off-duty police officer, told them they couldn’t come in because of some of them were wearing white t-shirts and tennis shoes. When she responded unfavorably to that, the officer told her to stop talking back, and tackled her to the ground. Stunned, she got up and asked another officer if he would report the incident. He told her she better get on her way. “Yeah – welcome to the South in Ohio,” she told us.

Our host also told us about experiences she’s faced as one of very few people of color in the company for which she just started working – in a pretty high position for someone her age. Just a few days after the election, she was reprimanded for wearing a beautiful head wrap, which they called a “non-religious head covering.” She’s had colleagues assume that a white man who works in her department, for lower pay, is her boss. She’s also heard about black employees in other parts of her nationwide company being openly undermined by white employees explicitly because of their race. Having come from a coastal city, she said she’s regularly surprised by the levels of racism she encounters. We also learned that the labor unions have a ton of power in local politics but are not all that responsive to their constituents, making it hard for progressive politics to make headway.

At the dinner we also got to meet an amazing black woman named Ruth Leonard, who’s running for the board of Toledo Public Schools. Ruth has been a teacher, coach and librarian, and is running on a platform of racial justice and equity for students and workers in the education system. Unfortunately, racism is rearing its ugly head in her race. Her friend and supporter, Julian told me this story:

Recently, a friend of his, who’s black, had purportedly shoplifted some headphones (though he was never charged) and run from the police. The police caught him and beat him up badly, bloodying him and breaking bones in his face in the process. They cuffed his hands tightly behind his back, and as they were yanking him roughly toward the paddy wagon, he let out, “stop hurting me, bitch.” With the ‘b’ in ‘bitch’ came some bloody spittle. The cops interpreted it as intentional spit and charged him with Assaulting a Police Officer, then according to the arrestee, beat him up again while he was in his hospital bed after learning that he was HIV positive. All of this was on Julian’s mind one day when he and Ruth were driving around posting campaign signs – they were driving by some officers on the side of the road when Julian yelled out “fuck the police!”

The police pulled them over and made Julian get out of the car and sit down on the curb, calling him out by name and deriding his police accountability activism, then charging him with Disorderly Conduct. They told Ruth (who to say the least had not endorsed Julian’s outburst) they would check her record and let her off with a warning if they didn’t find anything. However, the next day she too was charged with Disorderly Conduct, either for slowing down or speeding up as they drove by the police, depending on which paragraph of this Toledo Blade article one reads. Now, though she had previously received a Democratic party endorsement, she’s being pressured by state party leadership to withdraw from the race. If you want to support Ruth Leonard’s campaign, you can donate here.

The housing market in places like Toledo and Detroit is completely alien to us metropolitan East Coasters. Vacant lots and blighted buildings abound, and in Toledo we stayed in a three-bedroom house our friends recently bought for about $25,000, which only needs minimal work. Asian-American and white, they say their neighbors were excited to welcome them to the block, and just want every house to have occupants. One of their neighbors, a super friendly longtime black resident named Clyde Phillips, mows the lawns of vacant homes to keep things sightly, and invites the neighborhood to his annual hog roasts. Along with being unofficial mayor of his block, Phillips is a candidate for Toledo City Council, saying he wants to make sure Toledo doesn’t become like his hometown of Flint – and telling people to keep their money rather than donate to his campaign.


Other people in Toledo (read: mostly white, middle-upper class people) look at our friends funny when they tell them they live on that block. Just one block over from theirs in a historic neighborhood, over an invisible but undeniable dividing line, huge Victorian mansions abound for blocks and blocks (and there are fewer Clyde Phillips signs to be seen). The homes include the truly giant 10,000 sq ft home of the Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson (see pic below; check out this funny article about his decision to leave DC for this mansion), which has signs outside reminding the world about the casualties of our Iraq War.


We finished up our visit at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is huge and truly incredible, and headed up to Detroit.


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