Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Tamir Rice

To Our Faculty, Staff and Students:

Six years later, the words are the same.

I can’t breathe.

After all of the mourning and protests, the lawsuits and training, the promises made and lessons learned, nothing, it seems, has changed.

Lying on a Staten Island sidewalk in the summer of 2014, Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” nearly a dozen times as a police officer’s arm stayed tight around his throat.

Last Monday in Minneapolis, George Floyd repeated the same phrase—in his case, with an officer’s knee pressing into his neck.

The local protests that followed have spread across the country, reaching Cleveland on Saturday. Ours opened peacefully, but devolved soon after marchers reached the Justice Center a few blocks away. Protesters pitched water bottles and spray-painted walls, officers released tear gas canisters, and before long, police cars were engulfed in flames.

Today protests continued in communities nationwide—and even extended to London and Berlin. In Cleveland, meanwhile, officials announced a noon curfew for downtown to allow time for clean-up of streets and stores.

But what about the systemic racism cited so often in recent days? How can a city, a country, “clean up” that?

We cannot—should not—ever try to wipe away the past.

We need to know it. Own it. And commit to forging a better future.

Four months after Eric Garner died in 2014, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun outside a Cleveland recreation center.

He was 12 years old.

The following year, the city accepted a 110-page settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The document required sweeping reforms to address the department’s record of excessive force and urgent need to restore community trust.

The monitoring team’s most recent report, issued in September, found force incidents fell by nearly a third compared to 2017.

That team, including deputy monitor Ayesha Bell Hardaway of our law school, still found shortcomings, in particular in terms of resources for training and data systems. Nevertheless, the group concluded the department had made “substantial progress.”

While the medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, the officer who choked him never faced charges. Nor did the one who killed Tamir. On Friday, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder. He appears in court tomorrow.

Small steps, true. But in a moment of so much anger… and pain… and sorrow, they matter.

In the often-quoted words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

As an institution of higher learning, we have a profound responsibility to the future. When it comes to this moment, how can we best begin to fulfill it?

This week, we will provide opportunities to engage, and share resources for those who would like support. Tonight, though, we want to remind you of a part of our legacy: The first Commencement address Frederick Douglass ever gave came at Western Reserve College in 1854.

“The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age,” he told some 3,000 in attendance. “In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have to take an important… part.”

Barbara R. Snyder

Ben Vinson III
Provost and Executive Vice President