How Tamir Rice Made It Impossible to Joke About Cleveland Anymore

I think I might be done with Cleveland jokes.

I still think Mike Polk Jr. deserves the key to the city for putting Cleveland on the map with his “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” and “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, 2nd Attempt.” I get the appeal of “Rust Belt Chic” and the self-deprecating humor of living in “The Mistake by the Lake,” telling stories about the Cuyahoga River catching fire reveling in the defiant blue-collar anthem “Cleveland Rocks” by Ian Hunter.

But more and more it seems to me that joking about this shit is missing the point—and often it’s a deliberate missing of the point, joking about the stuff it’s fun and safe to joke about so we don’t confront the stuff that isn’t.

See if you can make a joke out of this: A police officer (who came to work for the city of Cleveland after leaving the Cleveland suburb Independence after a "dismal” performance in firearms qualification training) shot and killed a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun two seconds after pulling up in his squad car. The grand jury declined to indict, saying Officer Loehmann was not guilty, and that his actions didn’t even merit a trial.

There’s nothing new to say here; nothing we didn’t already say after Tamir Rice was killed a year ago, nothing that hasn’t been said every other time a cop walked away scot-free after killing a black civilian in cold blood. Nothing to do but stand in the sleet and freezing rain repeating, over and over again, “No justice, no peace.”

I could point out that a county prosecutor had the gall to say it was understandable to shoot a 12-year-old boy for having a toy gun in a city that puts on a gushing torrent of tributes to a classic Christmas movie filmed in Cleveland that completely revolves around an iconic toy gun as a symbol of boyhood. (The house from A Christmas Story is about five miles from the Cudell Recreation Center where Tamir Rice was killed, about 11 minutes’ drive without traffic.)

I could fall back on the corny jokes I used to tell about northeast Ohio and how much Ohioans love their guns, and how unnerved I was when I first moved here. How almost as soon as you hit the suburbs of Cleveland you can find avid hunters with deer carcasses hanging in their yards; how I live within easy driving distance of a shooting range; how when we got pranked once by kids shooting paintball guns a neighbor casually told my wife, “If I’d had my real gun on me I’d be shooting back.”

But for me it’s just an unnerving story about culture clash. For Tamir Rice's mother, Samaria Rice, itchy-trigger-fingered white dudes with guns are the reason her son is dead. Her son was killed holding a BB gun five miles from a museum where a BB gun sits on display as a cultural icon, and it’s not really funny, it’s fucking awful.

When we joke about how much Cleveland sucks, we’re joking about stuff that’s survivable. We’re telling the jokes to congratulate ourselves on surviving a dreary winter that seems to last most of the year, an equally dismal football team, a bumbling city government, a stagnant economy and a reputation for chintzy flyover-country classlessness.

These are all sucky things to have to live with. But you can live with them. And truth be told, half the people telling these jokes aren’t even really affected by the things they joke about; they’re comfortable members of the middle or even upper classes who think by living in the same city as blue-collar strivers they can get some of that blue-collar striving authenticity to rub off on them. (I readily cop to this.)

But the declining Rust Belt economy doesn’t affect all of us the same way. Some of us aren’t really affected by it at all. Some of us are affected enough that they can make self-deprecating jokes about. And some of us are shot dead by police in the streets.

Mike Polk’s comedy is self-aware about this. His Cleveland tourism videos juxtapose his hilariously specific complaint that West 6th Street (complete with shots of mediocre chain pub/restaurants) is “the perfect place if you’re a douchebag” with “Don’t slow down in East Cleveland or you’ll die.” The imaginary person he’s speaking on behalf of is someone whose major complaint is that the bars they can afford to go to aren’t as cool as the bars they wish they could afford to go to in LA or New York. The imaginary person freaks out because he lives near a notoriously dangerous, crime-ridden suburb but not in it, and thanks to Cleveland’s lack of highway infrastructure on its east side, he sometimes cannot avoid driving through it.

I get it. I get that Polk is aware of his own privilege and he’s poking fun at it. I don’t begrudge him that. But the news since 2009 when those videos were made makes it harder to laugh.

America abandoned vast swathes of its population in the great decline of the American manufacturing base, the “Rust Belt," in the past couple generations. Some people were in a position to bounce back from that, quite a few of them in Cleveland, and they are now busily reinventing Cleveland as a center for the medical-services industry or as a cheap alternative place to launch tech startups.

Other people bounced back less well, the people whose stagnant wages and vanishing pensions were fodder for the familiar Cleveland jokes on “The Drew Carey Show” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

And then there are the people who are dying in the streets.

If you ever want to get to know a cross-section of a community that cuts across class divisions, I recommend going out for community theater—not just sticking with the troupes and venues you’re familiar with, but really being one of those people who shows up to every audition. You end up meeting a lot of people. I’ve heard Cleveland stories from lawyers and city councilmen, and Cleveland stories from people working dead-end cubicle jobs self-consciously comparing themselves to Drew Carey’s character on his show, and from people scraping by to make ends meet by stacking part-time jobs together (and still making time for their artistic passions, a level of drive I can’t say I share).

I’ve heard Cleveland stories from the black dude directing my show who grew up in East Cleveland and talked about how his 10-year high school reunion had as many In Memoriam photos on the wall as another school’s 50-year reunion. He talked about the people he knew who were shot by criminals, shot by cops, who just disappeared. 

I heard a Cleveland story from a good friend I worked with a couple of years before he told me that as a young man in the 1980s he’d been brutally beaten by cops in lockup for a minor offense. He said they beat him within an inch of his life to “teach him a lesson” and their fellow cops laughed in his face when he tried to report the assault.

The mass lead poisoning of poor children in Cleveland is a Cleveland story, less colorful but more significant than that time the river caught fire. Two years before Tamir Rice, police officers fired 137 shots into the car of an unarmed couple, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. That’s a Cleveland story too.

When I tagged along for the protests in 2014 and 2015, I heard a lot of Cleveland stories from the veteran organizers there—stories going back to the Hough riots and the death of Bruce Klunder, stories that aren’t the typical Cleveland stories you are ritually fed by your neighbors when you move here.

If there are Cleveland jokes worth telling, humor to somehow lighten the pain from these wounds, that has the power to bring light to these issues without trivializing them, I don’t know how to tell those jokes. I’m from the wrong Cleveland.

People like the number two—two Americas, two New Yorks, two Clevelands—but there are really more than two identities to each of those places—probably many more.

There are at least three Clevelands. There’s the yuppie Cleveland of the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland’s trendy downtown and Cleveland’s nascent tech industry. It’s the Cleveland that’s mostly comfortable most of the time, but embarrassed that it’s nowhere near as fancy as the New York or San Francisco it fitfully pretends to be.

Those Clevelanders tell jokes about the other Cleveland, the Cleveland of laid-off steelworkers and dockworkers, the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, an image of the lost dignity of the American blue-collar working class—an image that, it bears noting, is an image of a white man. We yuppies try to link ourselves up with the image of the defiant Rust Belter so we can think of ourselves as hardworking union men who made good (as absurd as that association might be for our actual personal histories), rather than failed members of the bicoastal elite.

Then there’s the third Cleveland, the one that the real Harvey Pekar spent a great deal of his time worrying and writing about but which his Rust Belt-chic imitators seem keen to ignore. It’s the Cleveland yuppies don’t aspire to imitate or identify with, that they’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist except when they’re forced to drive through it. It’s the place where some kids are brain damaged by lead poisoning before they hit kindergarten. It's a place where an understaffed, underpaid Cleveland police officer—who identifies with and is identified by the media as part of the Rust Belt-chic working class—can gun you down in a moment of fear, or break three of your ribs in a night of unleashed frustrations. It's the place where the dull and stagnant retail jobs “The Drew Carey Show” made fun of are something to aspire to to keep yourself alive; a place where most of the remaining faces are brown or black, and where the white blue-collar strivers abandoned as they steadily migrated outward to the suburbs.

I remember being at the protests after Michael Brelo, who emptied the magazine of his gun through Timothy Russell's and Malissa Williams' windshield, was acquitted. I remember the arrests that took place at East 4th Street, a slightly more upscale version of West 6th Street in Mike Polk’s video, a cluster of restaurants and bars on a street closed to vehicle traffic so it can pretend to be a walkable slice of Manhattan. I remember the sense of dislocation I felt, watching people being rounded up and arrested and watching the couples sitting at the cafe tables cheering the cops on, thinking about how often I’d been one of those people lounging around after a hard day of work just trying to have a good time at a good-but-not-great Cleveland establishment on one of Cleveland’s precious few days of weather warm enough to sit outside. I remember wondering just how little about my life would have to change—what books a different version of me wouldn’t have read, what people a different version of me wouldn’t have met—for me to be one of the people clutching my beer pissed off at my night being ruined.

You could hear it shouted at the protesters or muttered to each other, you could feel it in the way they stared. The eternal, self-justifying refrain of the self-pitying Clevelander: “Don’t I have to put up with enough? Now this shit, too?”

Sure enough, I heard the story of the protests come back to me from certain acquaintances as yet another Cleveland story. A story about how long rush hour traffic was backed up by the protests, what an ugly spectacle those riot cops made on the news, about how in New York or DC they have competent police departments that can nip this kind of thing in the bud. The rage, the fear, the anguish of the protesters doesn’t fit into the narrative of a Cleveland story, not until it was transmuted into another story of irritated frustration at yet another humiliating inconvenience of living in flyover country.

I don’t say this to dismiss other people’s troubles. It sucks to be poor no matter what your race, and it still sucks to be in the rapidly degenerating rat race of America’s middle class, even if you’re not poor. Life can still be hard even if you’re not being shot dead in the streets. 

But people in Cleveland are being shot dead in the streets. That ongoing story, that horror, is what gets hidden behind jokes about the potholes and the chintzy architecture and the Browns.

The driving force behind all of these things is ultimately the same: the police violence and the potholes and the architecture and even the Browns, all symptoms of the relentless hollowing out of the American economy, the redistribution of wealth that’s sucking the life out of American cities.

But there are certain symptoms it’s easier to look at, to laugh at, to hyperbolically complain about, until we almost convince ourselves that those are really the worst problems we have. We joke about the military wasting our money on the F-22 so we don’t have to talk about the military successfully using our money to kill thousands of innocents. We joke about how ridiculous Donald Trump’s candidacy is so we don’t have to talk about how deeply ingrained subtler racism and xenophobia are in people who already hold power.

And we joke about Cleveland being a dark pit of despair for us average schlubby working stiffs, to avoid talking about all the people in Cleveland and in cities that have been abandoned even worse than Cleveland, who know what despair really means.


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