The movement began with a series of phone calls, emails and texts, along with a sense of shared outrage at the killing of George Floyd.
But when a petition was posted online seeking the relocation of a Confederate monument that has stood at a location near downtown Cleveland since the Jim Crow era, the scope of the group’s focus changed, according to Olympia Pierce, one of its organizers.
What was once an impromptu gathering of like-minded individuals grew into a movement.
As a result, #Emancipate Cleveland was born.
“I think it's just the natural evolution of just the people being together,” she said of the protests, which have occurred nightly since the petition surfaced not long after the George Floyd demonstration took place.
What has emerged from those assemblies is #Emancipate Cleveland, “a grassroots collective of concerned local residents who are working to create a more equitable Cleveland,” according to a statement released to the Cleveland Daily Banner.
Pierce said the group’s original intention was not to form an organization; however, questions from area residents spurred the group to establish an identity.
“Everyone from outside of the group has been putting pressure on individuals asking, “Hey, who are you? What are you doing? What is your name?’” Pierce said.
The group consists of individuals from every background: city residents, county residents, friends, college students, activists, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, GenXers, Millennials, Black Lives Matter members and its supporters, academics, and people of different ethnicities and races, as well as religious denominations.
The group is not affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter organization.
Pierce said that the goal of the group is to start conversations about white supremacy, which may not have been possible in the past.
“So, maybe five, 10 or 25 years ago, we may not have been able to have these conversations at all,” she said, adding that younger generations are more willing to engage in discussions in order to affect change. “With each generation, as time progresses and things change, we have new opportunities,” she said of the group’s future plans.
The organization’s goals are forthright as indicated by its statement, which explains they “believe that equity in Cleveland means fair and impartial treatment and representation for all.”
“Though we are not affiliated with the organization Black Lives Matter, the message that Black lives matter is central to these goals,” the statement explained. “Working toward diversity and equity means giving our city’s Black community respect and, most importantly, a voice.”
The statement expressed that “every night at 6:30 p.m., excluding Sundays, members of #EmancipateCleveland peacefully demonstrate across the street from the Confederate statue" found at the intersection of Ocoee, Broadway and Eighth streets.
The statement said the group "almost entirely consists of local citizens."
"We are demonstrating to promote awareness of our Black community and are asking that the statue be moved from its current location," the statement said.
“In cities across the country, officials are recognizing the pain these statues are causing — and have caused — since the days they were erected in stealthy support of Jim Crow laws. These emblems are now coming down."
The organization states that its goal is not to destroy the Confederate statue, but to find a compromise regarding its future.
“We would like to see it moved to a museum or cemetery, where it can better serve in the proper context of history,” the group stated.
The statement noted there many outspoken members in the community who are against #EmancipateCleveland and its demonstrations.
"Most are individuals who think this is a brand-new problem. It is not," the statement said. "They think this because they have no experience in driving past the statue and seeing a monument that glorifies men and women who bought and sold their great-grandparents as property.”
The group contends that those who have gathered in opposition to #Emancipate Cleveland’s demonstrations have engaged in threats and name-calling.
“Even more telling is that those in protest of our demonstrations at the statue fail to ever mention protecting the statue’s current location,” the statement said. “Instead, they spend their time shouting threats, racial slurs and bigoted rhetoric in an attempt to incite violence.”
The group said “county officials have encouraged these behaviors."
While not named in the statement, Bradley County Commissioners Bobby Goins, Charlotte Peak and Howard Thompson have attended the pro-statue demonstrations. Peak has been vocal in press reports regarding her opposition to those who seek the statue's relocation.
“County officials have encouraged these behaviors,” the statement claimed. “A former county commissioner with a long police record of theft and assault has even made a public call for violence,” the statement claimed in an apparent reference to former Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who, during a meeting of the Bradley County Constitutionalists, made blistering remarks about the group of anti-statue demonstrators calling them “communists” who were intent on “insurrection.”
Rawls also admitted during the July meeting that he had followed several of the members as they drove home after the demonstrations.
The group’s statement said that Cleveland’s Confederate statue “is a place that showcases the worst of Cleveland’s bigotry and hatred.”
“In the late 1940s, local papers reported the burning of crosses at the statue as part of an initiation ritual for a local Ku Klux Klan society,” the statement read. “Today, protesters continue to try in vain to silence our Black community with fear and intimidation to protect the Confederate values of white supremacy.”
According to an article published in the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1949, "two crosses were burned simultaneously" in 1946.
"One was at the Confederate monument at the junction of North Ocoee and Broad Streets, in the heart of Cleveland's best residential section," the newspaper reported. "The other at the other junction of the two streets in South Cleveland. It was believed at the time the incidents celebrated the initiation of a class of candidates into a Cleveland Chapter of the Klan."
The group, labeling some members opposed to them as “Confederates,” said they engaged in behaviors such as taking photos of their vehicle license plates.
“They follow us home. They drive by our homes in the middle of the night and honk horns that play “Dixie.” They commit vandalism in our yards,” the statement read.
In addition, #Emancipate Cleveland’s statement claims that a local pro-statue organization, The United Daughters of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis Chapter 900, has been complicit in re-writing history.
"The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the racist organization who built the Confederate statue in our Union town, want us to believe their false narrative of the Lost Cause,” the statement claimed. "They paint the picture that slaves were happy and enjoyed serving their masters instead of the reality of bondage, chains, beatings and rape.
“They lie and tell us this statue represents soldiers from both sides, even when the inscription on the statue itself explicitly states it is only for the ‘Confederate dead.’ They pretend the Civil War is distant history, when in fact, the last person to receive a U.S. government pension from the Civil War died only six weeks ago."
The group also said the, “Confederacy and the statues dedicated to it were always about white supremacy," adding that it cannot allow the UDOC to "continue to whitewash our history."
“Our heritage, good and bad, must not be erased by them," the statement said.
Last month, the UDOC issued its own statement, which stated the organization's opposition to relocating the monument. The UDOC, which has owned the plot of land where the Confederate monument has been located since it was conveyed to them by the city of Cleveland 1911, also said it is protected by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.
The UDOC erected the statue in 1910.
Members of #Emancipate Cleveland thanked Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks and Cleveland Councilman Bill Estes for listening to their concerns.
“We are grateful to Mayor Kevin Brooks for his willingness to meet with members of #EmancipateCleveland, and to Councilman Bill Estes for his interest in finding a peaceful resolution,” the statement said. “It is our hope that working with them, and other leaders in our city, will create opportunities to give our Black community a voice at the table — strengthening our great city with spirit and diversity.”
However, the group stressed that “moving the statue will not end racism in Cleveland.”
“The statue’s relocation will, however, send the clear message to the 3,500 Black residents in our community that local officials hear their pain,” the statement said. “It will tell tourists who come to our city that we will no longer tolerate a prominently placed monument to white supremacy. It will inform incoming students to our local colleges and universities that we will not allow an idol to exist for the racists in our community to worship. Finally, it will tell companies and industries seeking to bring their business to Cleveland that we do not glorify the anti-American fight to leave the United States and keep Black individuals as slaves.”
Kezmond Pugh, another #Emancipate Cleveland organizer, said he wants a peaceful outcome to the Confederate statue question.
He also said #Emancipate Cleveland is not connected to the national Black Live Matter movement. While some members of the group may be affiliated with Black Lives Matter or carry signs emblazoned with the phrase, #Emancipate Cleveland is a local, independent organization focused on local issues.
“We created our own group locally,” he said. “We do things a little different than the national organization.”
Regarding the Confederate monument, Pugh said the organization wants to find a solution to its relocation that is acceptable to everyone, without the need for violence or hatred.
“We want to come up with a solution for both of us, without so much hatred,” he said. “Yes, want the monument down, but we need solutions.”
While he said he respects the feelings of those opposed to relocating the statue, their behavior during demonstrations is not setting a good example.
“I respect their positions,” he said. “I just don’t like their behavior. You can believe what you believe, but by cussing and threatening, you are not setting the example. Even though we don’t agree, we can respect each other, because we are all human beings. We can respect each other and get our messages accomplished.”
Pugh stressed that #Emancipate Cleveland will continue to demonstrate peacefully, adding that the demonstrations will grow in number as Lee University students return for fall semester.
“They are gearing up to come here, but we want them here under the assumption of safety,” he said. “I want them to be met with safety and respect.”
However, if anyone on the anti-statue side acts in an aggressive manner, they are not welcome.
“If I see somebody being aggressive on our side, or if I see somebody not following what we're doing, they will be asked to leave,” he said.