Downtown cleanup doesn’t erase larger problem of injustice, volunteers say

Pete Marek experienced a range of emotions over 24 hours in the wake of the Saturday, May 30 Justice for George Floyd march.

Marek, 53, joined the demonstration against systemic police brutality as it reached the Justice Center downtown. Awe and a feeling of solidarity turned to concern as police launched flash grenades and tear gas canisters into throngs of gathered protesters.


Anger then replaced worry as some demonstrators smashed storefronts, set fires, and waved handguns from car windows. Marek, who lives in the Halle Building, did not understand how the destruction related to a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd.


Pete Marek“I mean, I’ve never seen that kind of rage in people before,” says Marek, owner of Dar-Tech, Inc., a Maple Heights chemical wholesaler. “I spoke with protestors who were breaking windows, and I heard a thousand times, ‘It’s only f*cking glass.’ Seeing and hearing what happened Saturday afternoon rocked my world a little bit.”


Marek didn’t sleep much Saturday night, waking at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning to find the shattered windows already covered with plywood and the broken glass in his building swept up—all by city street crews.


Any distress he’d been feeling about the previous night’s damage disappeared along with the debris.


“This is my city, I love this place, but by Sunday I saw it was only glass, and glass sweeps up,” says Marek. “There’s a group of people who are hurting, and that put it into perspective for me.”


For Marek and hundreds of Clevelanders, the next step was determining how to help with the cleanup effort, even if the nation’s racial issues couldn’t be so easily wiped away. Downtown Cleveland Alliance tweeted out an 11 a.m. get-together, while Cleveland-based journalist Hayden Grove organized a meet-up for 9 a.m.—calling for volunteers to come out with brooms in hand.


Marek did this request one better and arrived on PlayHouse Square—where remnants of broken glass still littered the sidewalk—with broom and shovel at the ready. For the next three hours, Marek and his fellow volunteers shoveled glass, scrubbed away graffiti and cleared out debris left over from the night before.


East Fourth Street, Public Square, and Huron Road received similar ministrations from the roving group comprised of a wide swath of residents.


“It was an incredibly positive atmosphere; I needed that very badly,” says Marek. “Human beings are capable of having more than one emotion at a time. I can say to looters I understand why you’re pissed, and any help I can give, I will.”


No ‘mission accomplished’

Westlake resident Sara Sympson watched that Saturday’s protest coverage with a mixture of anger, sadness, and empathy for a city—and a country at large—in dire need of change.


Though she doesn’t agree with protesters who channeled their fury in a destructive manner, Sympson understands how decades of injustice brought those feelings to a head.


“Property damage is unfortunate, but human lives are more important,” says Sympson, 39. “Loving Cleveland doesn’t just mean the shiny downtown part, it’s loving all of the residents. It’s not my place to dictate how far these protests should go.”

Sara SympsonWanting to show support for affected small businesses, Sympson came downtown at 8 a.m. on Sunday, making re:bar in the Gateway District her first stop. There, she and a few other volunteers swept up smashed liquor bottles and fragments of the nightspot’s front window.


Later, Sympson met with a larger group, most of whom appeared in good spirits even as they pondered the possibility of more unrest later that day.


While Sympson appreciated the sunny morning and overall optimistic vibe, she’s not ready to announce “Mission accomplished” when it comes to the underlying issues the protests are tackling.


“This is a historical problem with people at the forefront,” she says. “There’s a ton more work to be done and police reform is part of that. How can I be part of something that leads to a solution? I need to do better, and Cleveland needs to do better. There’s not going to be peace because Cleveland is cleaned up.”


High poverty rates among African-Americans and inequitable school funding are additional problems to address, notes Sympson, who lately has been fielding difficult questions on race from her nine-year-old twins. She tells her kids about Tamir Rice, the boy shot by police in 2014 when he was playing with a toy pellet gun in a Cleveland park, and how the response may have been different had Rice been white.


For Sympson, the protests shaking the nation are a cry for equal treatment and the right not to be brutalized by police.


“Cleveland is a little messy, but the people need to be heard,” she says. “If it happens again, we’ll be there to clean it up.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.