Prosecutor’s ‘disrespectful’ treatment of Cleveland legislator investigating justice system shortcomings is a familiar refrain for black women leaders

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — As a member of the Cleveland City Council Safety Committee, Councilwoman Stephanie Howse has used her seat in recent months to point out what she sees as a pervasive flaw in the criminal justice system: a lack of understanding – and insufficient effort to even try to understand – the trauma and the root causes that lead people to become involved in crime.

As she had done in previous committee hearings, Howse continued that line of thinking again during a May 11 hearing on trends in juvenile felony charges, which was attended by the county attorney. of Cuyahoga, Mike O’Malley, and the Juvenile Court Administrative Judge.

She asked about both the assessments their offices do to understand what happened in teens’ lives that may explain why they turned to carjacking, for example. This information, if indeed collected, could be used to help prevent crime in the future, Howse said.

“We can’t even begin to change the trajectory of this city because we can’t fundamentally ask the question ‘What happened to you? “Howse said at the meeting. “You can’t change something you don’t understand.

What followed was a jarring exchange: O’Malley, a white man, repeatedly ordered Howse, a black woman, to speak to him “professionally.” He interrupted her several times, called her “Mrs”. Howse, and accused the Ward 7 council representative – who served seven years as a state representative – of not understanding the role of the district attorney’s office. He also accused Howse of continuing his line of questioning because his office sued his cousin.

Howse, at a recent board meeting, offered to take over the interaction:

“I tend to have controversial interactions with many…powerful men, just because I have the audacity to ask them about their work. And that’s my job.

Howse – one of two black women on the board – said it’s a phenomenon black women know all too well, especially those in positions and situations where they’re a super-minority. “OK[ing] with blatant disrespect… when you only work to do your job,” she said.

On Friday, State Sen. Nickie Antonio, Rep. Juanita Brent and Sen. Sandra Williams sent a letter to O’Malley saying his actions were “disrespectful and condescending.” They asked him to publicly apologize to Howse.

“[Y]You’ve belittled her for her lack of professionalism while showing a gross lack of professionalism yourself…Furthermore, Councilor Howse’s personal family matters have no place in a committee hearing to attempt to discredit his line of questioning. specify the letter. “This behavior is beneath you and your office. Frankly, this is unacceptable. »

O’Malley told The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com he “couldn’t have been more diplomatic or professional” in the exchange. The prosecutor, also a former city council member, accused Howse of yelling at him and interrupting him in a way he said was unprecedented at the committee table.

In the days following the exchange, Howse said people reached out to her to support her.

The music video circulated on social media, where some users criticized O’Malley’s approach as racist, disrespectful or appalling.

Board Chairman Blaine Griffin and some of Howse’s other board colleagues also weighed in at a May 16 meeting:

“Several of us had conversations to make sure we had our colleague’s back. I also want us, on our side, to make sure that we conduct ourselves with decorum as well. But I definitely agree with all of my colleagues that whenever anyone comes to our table they should respect our bodies and we will never allow what happened last week to happen again,” Griffin said.

The clip also made its way to Ohio Rep. Emilia Sykes, one of the most senior black women in state politics, who considers herself a friend of Howse and was until recently the Ohio House Minority Leader. She said the swap wasn’t a surprise.

“It’s a narrative and an interaction that happens on a daily basis, especially if you have the nerve to be a black woman showing up in a space,” Sykes said in an interview. “Any black woman in any position where you don’t usually see us is constantly hit with these micro-and not-so-micro-aggressions.”

Such interactions, she said, are meant to “discourage us and prevent us from truly standing up for our communities” — something Howse said won’t happen.

Howse, at the council meeting following the exchange, went on to explain how the criminal justice system fails to understand why criminals are drawn into crime in the first place.

Speaking about four winter carjacking incidents in Cleveland involving minors, Howse said: “When the criminal justice system can’t tell you why a 14-year-old would do carjackings and shoot someone – it’s ours. To make people get angry and ask questions like [O’Malley did] is mind-boggling. But I’m not going to stop until we do better with our children. We want to stop the violence? Let’s do the work.

Howse spoke about her cousin’s lawsuit which O’Malley had referred to, noting how the 26-year-old was sentenced to four decades in prison, for what court records show were two armed home invasions in the suburbs wealthy from Gates Mills. Howse acknowledged that such actions were wrong, but she also pointed to the trauma he suffered as a young child when he watched his teenage uncle kill himself. She also challenged the idea that perpetrators of similar cases — had they occurred in predominantly black areas like Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood or the Garden Valley public housing complex — would have received such harsh punishment.

“It’s based on race and it’s based on your economy. And as a black woman… I had the audacity to challenge him to do better? You will never shame me for that,” she told cleveland.com.

Howse raising those kinds of points is why more black women and women of color need to be elected, Sykes said. That’s why Sykes started the “We Belong Here” movement, which includes a currently dormant political action committee aimed at bringing more black women to seats of power.

That effort, in part, came from her experiences at the Statehouse, where she publicly described being harassed by security guards, and at one point being told she didn’t “look like a legislator.” .

“We will continue to take these beatings, but the people who are hurting the most are the people who elected us to push back and fight against systems that harm our citizens,” Sykes said, noting it’s important lawmakers stand up. , speak up, and stand up for your co-workers the moment such interactions happen, not after the fact.

Howse faced similar treatment in 2018 when she served at the Ohio House and spoke out against a controversial “Stand Up” bill that she said would have “disparate impacts on people of color.”

Then-president Ryan Smith, a white man, struck the gavel and cut off his microphone. Sykes said the Sergeant-at-Arms then approached Howse as he was looking for his gun.

“Now here she is again speaking out to end violence in a major urban city, a goal we all have. And instead of saying, ‘Yeah, let’s figure it out, maybe let’s think about it differently’, the answer is to put it down and put it down,” Sykes said.

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