CLEVELAND — Trying to strengthen the strained relationship between the community and city police, the Cavaliers hosted dozens of area youth for what the NBA team — in its partnership with the Browns and Indians — hopes leads to permanent change.
Cleveland’s three professional teams formed their unique alliance last year to make a larger social impact in Northeast Ohio and Thursday’s event at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse focused on creating dialogue between police officers and youngsters aged 14 to 20.
“We want to have some hard, open and frank conversations,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams told the group in the alliance’s kickoff to “Conversations for Change.”
After a welcoming video from Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and introduction, the students and officers were asked questions and told to stand when it applied to their lives.
Soon, they were standing side by side with the exercise designed to shown their commonality and not differences.
They were then shown a music video by rapper Lil Baby, whose song “The Bigger Picture,” was written following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while being detained by Minneapolis police — a killing that triggered protests across the country and outrage around the world.
The images of last summer’s unrest flashed across the arena’s giant scoreboard, which on most nights shows game highlights.
Following the video, the students and officers broke into smaller groups for 30 minutes to discuss the video and come up with ideas to help bridge the gap between them.
Williams identifies with the kids. He grew up poor in a single-parent home in Cleveland and understands their struggles and frustrations. He knows the first step toward creating trust with the police is by showing how much they are the same.
“I know a lot of what happens in our city because I’ve lived it, and I still live here,” he said. So for kids to actually see, ‘Oh, yeah, I went hungry before, too. Oh, yeah, I’ve been afraid to walk to school before, too.’ All those same things you guys are going through, we’ve been through. We’ve been there.”
Following the breakout sessions, one person from each of the groups presented recommendations. They included: better engagement from police, communication and accountability.
One speaker suggested the possibility of holding an event just to get to know the officers on a more personal level.
“We need to get to know their hearts,” she said.
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff joined the event via Zoom and said he’s had numerous conversations with Williams to educate himself on the city’s struggles — and on ways to help. He urged the students to be active and not to be discouraged.
“Don’t stop,” he said. “Keep going. Keep pushing through it. What you are fighting for is the right thing.”