The Cleveland Shake Down

In Cleveland we visited Katie’s former supervisor and colleague in the Industrial Areas Foundation who is now the lead organizer with Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC).

GCC is a non-partisan coalition of faith communities and partner organizations in Cuyahoga County working together to build power for social justice. The organization unites people across lines of race, class, religion, and geography to promote public, private and civic sector actions which strengthen and improve the quality of life of our neighborhoods. Here’s a great profile of one of GCC’s clergy leaders, Rev. Colvin, and his work against police brutality.

When we got into town, we had fun afternoon helping train a new GCC organizer. We headed to a local school where we worked with him on having open ended conversations with parents lining up to pick their kids up from school. We focused on the skill of striking up cold conversations and how to learn the power map of a community (who knows whom, who has a following, etc) and its issues.

We were also looking forward to hearing about GCC’s fight with Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans, over the renovation of the Cavs arena, the Quicken Loans arena, aka “the Q” (Gilbert began to be a theme in the Midwest; he popped up again, nefariously, in Detroit). Here’s the brief version of what happened.

GCC had been opposed to the original deal for renovating the Q from the beginning. Community leaders knew that the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland have never benefitted from downtown development deals. The deal would cost $160 million (though it could as much as double). The Cavaliers proposed to pay half, with the rest financed by the county and the city. No Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) was offered, nor was one demanded by the city or county governments. As we’ve seen in stadium deals across the country (and the world) when owners shake down cities for public subsidy, Gilbert was demanding a huge amount of public investment with no real benefits for the people of Cleveland. GCC’s goal was to improve the deal and get the county and city to invest equally in Cleveland neighborhoods at the same time through a strong CBA.

The campaign took many turns starting with by targeting the City Council and the Cavs. The grassroots campaign was led by Clevelanders who had been directly impacted by violence and poverty that continues to plague the poorest neighborhoods in as downtown develops. The Cavs agreed to build 100 new homes, renovate the basketball courts at all Cleveland public schools and rec centers, and reduce the likelihood of the city incurring debt from the deal.

When the deal passed through the City Council, GCC organized to put the deal up to a vote on the ballot in November and let the people of Cuyahoga County decide if they wanted to pay that much money for the renovation of the glass facade of the Q. Along with ally organizations, GCC collected around 22,000 signatures in 26 days – an unprecedented show of organizing and people power in Cleveland – giving them an significant amount of leverage over decisions makers.

When the group went to deliver the signatures and register the ballot petition there was a confrontation the president of the City Council who refused to accept the petitions. (You can see a video of the confrontation that went viral here.) In response to this blatant act of voter suppression, GCC sued the city  to accept their petitions and put the question on the ballot. The city responded with some bizarre legal side stepping and decided to sue itself (the Council vs the mayor’s office) in a case that was decided by the Ohio Supreme Court. The court decided that the petitions should be accepted, and the campaign continued.

The Q deal had consistently polled poorly with voters in Cuyahoga County and the vote in November was likely to kill the deal. In response to this possibility, Dan Gilbert, who had refused for months to negotiate in good faith for a Community Benefits Agreement, withdrew his participation in the deal. This meant that there would be no vote on the deal in November and took GCC’s leverage to negotiate for a strong CBA away.

In response to Gilbert’s withdrawal, the business community decried GCC for “shaking down” the city and corporate executives in Cleveland set out to tear GCC apart for daring to challenge the way businesses are publicly subsidized in their city. They pressured two synagogues and two black churches to publicly withdraw from GCC and criticize the organization.

Knowing that the City Council would likely resurrect the deal in January and that the attacks from corporate executives would continue, meaning another long and costly battle, GCC was forced back to the table to negotiate, but with a publicly wounded reputation and much less leverage than before.

The deal at the end of the day is not the win that GCC had hoped for at the beginning of this campaign and in its courage it may have bit off more than it was yet able to chew. The County Executive has pledged to fund two new mental health crisis centers, but neither the city or Dan Gilbert contributed anything back to Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Moral of the story: corporate power is very, very strong and you don’t quite know the power dynamics of a place until you get into a fight like this, in which people, power and relationships really start to reveal themselves.

You can read a few articles on the Q deal here: in Crain’s Cleveland Business, Vocativ, and Clevescene.

The real highlight of the trip was getting to hang out with James and his family, including his two adorable kids who enjoyed reading with Katie, play fighting with Sam and riding on his shoulders.


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