Cleveland: They’re Not Without Hope

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Cleveland, Texas sign on Washington Avenue

 

 

 “Don’t Paint Us with One Broad Stroke”

By Serbino Sandifer-Walker

 

Painful is one word that the people in Cleveland, Texas are saying a lot these days. Outsiders have come in and tried to paint the town as a “bad” place, locals say.

But the town’s folks want the whole world to know that Cleveland is not bad. It’s a town of just about 8,000 tucked quietly in southeast Texas, right off of Highway 59, 50 miles from Houston.   A welcome sign greets visitors; but you’ll have to pay close attention to catch a glimpse of it off of Washington Avenue.

Throughout the town, residents almost instinctively wave at one another while sitting at red lights or driving down Rachel B. Scott Avenue. If they like you, you’ll know immediately. You’re given a firm hand shake and maybe a hug or little peck on the cheek. However, the eye contact is what you will not soon forget because it pierces straight through to the soul.

Four months ago, the soul of this community was pierced to its core, when residents learned of a crime so graphic they are still questioning how it could have happened here.

Police reports say an 11-year-old girl was raped multiple times between September 15 – December 1 by as many as 19 boys and men between the ages of 14 – 27-years-old.  The case has received national attention, including the fact that the girl is Hispanic and the boys and men charged are black.

It’s a “bad thing” but it doesn’t define a town of people who are trying to collectively wrap their arms around their community to bring some sense of healing and normalcy back to their once unassuming rural East Texas community.

“We’re hurt [and] confused because of so many unanswered questions,” says Linda Clay, community advocate. “We just want the truth to be told.”

Court documents say some of the alleged assaults were videotaped and photographed with cell phones. Cleveland ISD students were talking about the videos and photos of the assaults when a school teacher overheard and alerted police.  The cell phones that the videos and photos were taken with were seized by police.

Court documents say the videos and photos were taken on Sunday, November 28. The 11-year-old told police it all started when Eric McGowen called her and asked whether she wanted to go for a ride. When McGowen arrived at her home, which was eight miles outside of Cleveland, two other young men were in the vehicle, Brad Lewis and Jared Cruse. The 11-year-old said she was taken back to 1614 N. Travis Street in Precinct 20, where Timothy Ellis lives.

She told investigators once she was inside the house Ellis told her to oblige to his sexual demands or some girls would beat her up. She said she did exactly what she was told.  Then more men showed up. The report says she was sexually assaulted at the Travis location; however, when Ellis’ aunt came into the house, she jumped out of a rear window and was moved to an abandoned trailer on 1727 Ross Avenue, where the sexual assaults continued and more males showed up.

In The Heart of the Community

Religious Community Prays For Cleveland

 

At the Rachel B. Scott General Store on Rachel B. Scott Avenue in Cleveland the elder men play dominos.  Common decency and respect are demanded from the moment anyone steps onto the property.  Hand written notes on the building remind visitors that non-sense will not be tolerated.

“Pants up or no service,” the notes read.

Earnest Charles Carrington or “Coach”, as he is affectionately called, knows his community well. His sister, Earnestine Carrington, integrated Cleveland public schools in the 60s and was the first African-American to work at the Cleveland Police Department.  He also knows all of the young men who have been accused in the case.  Some of them, he’s coached at the Cleveland Youth League.

“They’ve labeled some of the boys wrong,” says Carrington, with timbre in his voice that takes one back to simpler and more pleasant times. “But the ones that did it, they should be punished.”

As the blades of a rustic fan pop in the background, he pauses for a moment and wraps his arms around his six foot frame as though to protect each of the 8,000 residents in his small community.

He doesn’t like what’s being said about Cleveland.  He’s concerned that his hometown is being painted with one broad stroke.

“We’re not thugs,” Carrington says sharply. “We’re decent people.”

Carrington says this case has served as a wake-up call to Cleveland.  His community is deeply religious and the churches are doing everything they can to help the town’s folks through these difficult days.  He says there is a lot of crying going on. He doesn’t want rumors and misinformation to shatter an already very fragile situation. He wants the residents of Cleveland to pull together.

“We need to get these black men, these black parents involved,” says Carrington. “We don’t have enough black role models in Cleveland.”

Carrington says this is not the time to point fingers.  He says this is a lesson for some and a warning to others to just simply do the right thing.

“It hurts me to see them [young men] in trouble,” says Carrington. “I hate it for the young lady too.”

Save the Children

New Committee Plans to Help Cleveland Youth 

 

About five minutes away from the Rachel B. Scott General Store, children of all backgrounds and ethnicities play in Stancil Park.  Cleveland city councilwoman Durlene Davis is proud of how well the children get along with one another and agrees with Carrington.  She’s committed to making sure this case does not divide Cleveland.

“We are a community of families…we want justice for all and the whole truth to come out,” says Davis.

Davis, along with Mayor Pro-tem Barbara McIntyre, Clay and other community leaders, has started the Community Rescue Committee (CRC).  This committee is charged with establishing an open and honest dialogue with all residents of Cleveland on issues such as the alleged assaults and creating measurable solutions to social and economic challenges in the community.

“We’re not trying to create a problem or settle this case [alleged sexual assault of 11-year-old]. We’re going to leave that up to the courts,” says McIntyre, while at a community meeting at Samuel Wiley Park.  “We want to save our children.”

Saving Cleveland’s children for McIntyre means developing year round and summer programs to help them remain active, positive and productive. They have done these youth programs in the past. They work, she says.  They are developing a multicultural park that will have softball, baseball and horseback riding.

But that’s not enough says McIntyre.  On average, three out of 150 graduates from the high school go on to college and the average income in Cleveland is $22,000, says McIntyre.

The primary businesses in Cleveland fall under healthcare, social assistance and service sectors, says U.S. Census.

A privatized prison owned by the Geo Group, contracted through the state of Texas, sits right in the middle of Precinct 20 where the alleged crime occurred.

Many residents think it is a “sad metaphor” that a prison sits in the heart of Cleveland’s African-American community.

McIntyre says they need strong business partners, college outreach programs, jobs and community involvement.

“I don’t think we can place blame right now. I think it’s time to come to the table with all of your fears,” says McIntyre.

She adds that media reports purporting racial tension amongst Cleveland’s youth over this case demonstrates some media’s insensitivity towards rural community values.

“They [youth] don’t have these racial issues like older people,” says McIntyre. “I don’t even think that there is racial tension, I just think there is a huge disconnect.”

Tephaine Green, who is a role model to many of the youth, agrees that race is not a factor.  She says that it’s irresponsible for anyone to say this case is about race.

Fifty-eight percent of the people who live in Cleveland are white; 27 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, says the U.S. Census.

Green says everyone gets along just fine in Cleveland.

The hair stylist knows the alleged victim and one of the suspects is her cousin, Devo Green. She says she would often see the 11-year-old in Precinct 20. She’s not one to blame anyone but she says someone has to be held accountable.

“Cleveland failed these kids; society failed these kids and they failed themselves,” says Green. “You cannot fall asleep on your child.  If you take a blink, it’s over.”

Clay is certain that this new coalition, (CRC), will not fail the community or its youth.

“We’re good people.  We drive 40 to 50 miles for a days work,” says Clay. “We’re not without hope. We [will] survive.”

Back at the Rachel B. Scott General Store, Carrington sighs.

“All I want you to do is tell the truth about Cleveland,” Carrington says.

(Reporting by Social Media Correspondents Kenneth Ware, Jr., Dwayne Adams, Sara Carr, Latricia London, Alex Green and Natia Childress)

 

 

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Social Media Correspondents
The Social Media Correspondents use multiple social media platforms to report on pertinent issues. The founding editor is journalist and Texas Southern University Journalism Professor Serbino Sandifer-Walker @sswalker (Twitter). *We are the first team in the nation, with a professional and collegiate news group, to use multiple social media as a reporting tool. We tell stories dynamically using a myriad of social and multimedia platforms. We are especially interested in telling under told stories in underserved communities. We use mobile phones and tablets to capture video, audio, photos and live events in the communities we cover. We live tweet and have a newsfeed on Twitter at #TwitterNewsChat. We're always thinking outside of the box.

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