Good Kids Bad City
Kyle Swenson
Contributed by Greta Venegas

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Chapter 1
Summary

In this chapter, the author showcases Cleveland’s chaotic history, specifically in the 1960s and 1970s. Ronnie Bridgeman, a young boy in his early teens, started to witness and comprehend police brutality within his neighborhood. Swenson starts by painting a picture of a young ten-year-old Ronnie playing with a friend when a fight between the police and a local African American militant group erupts, leaving six people dead and scores injured. The event is portrayed as being a common occurrence for the locals. When Fred Evans, the leader of the African-American militants, is later captured and asked why he had attacked the police, he explains that the police had bothered them for too long.

To explain the racial divisions that were characteristic of Cleveland during this period, the author describes that in the 1850s, the city had embraced equality and anti-slavery sentiments, which encouraged minority communities and families see the city as a promising place to live — including those from other cities, as well as immigrates from Europe and even further afield. However, each community settled in different parts of the city, resulting in its divided racial pockets. Swenson describes how racial segregation was so rife throughout the early 1900s that some institutions, including hospitals, would only admit African Americans on special days. The most significant exclusion was the ban of all African Americans from unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, a move that kept a lot of Cleveland’s African American population from working in the city’s many factories. In the 1960s, under the banner of the United Freedom Movement (UFM), black activists began to protest against these restrictions. 

The author describes the relationship between the police and Cleveland’s African American community in the 1960s as having been “at its all-time low” (Swenson, 2019). The police department, mainly composed of Caucasian officers, was extremely brutal towards African Americans. Swenson states that “black men and women in the city knew that if a police officer saw a black suspect running from a crime scene, he would not hesitate to unload his service weapon at the fleeing target” (Swenson, 2019, p. 33). When Carl Stokes, an African American, assumed office as Cleveland’s Mayor in 1967, police reform topped his list of priorities. He also pushed for a liberal agenda that included public housing and equal opportunity employment. However, Stokes’ effort to recruit more African American police candidates, as well as bring wholesale reform to the police system, was fiercely opposed by the politically powerful white population. His political enemies would later use his open face-off with the police department to their advantage, by describing him as “pro-black militant” (Swenson, 2019, p. 36). In reality, the white community had wanted to maintain control of the local government so that they could always manipulate tax policies. Swenson explains how every agenda put forward by Stokes would be politicized, which frustrated Stokes to the point of opting not to run for re-election in 1971. He would later say that police reform in Cleveland was “my greatest frustration, my greatest failure” (Swenson, 2019, p. 37).

Analysis

In this chapter, the author is painting a picture of Cleveland’s controversial history. Swenson showcases how the vice of racial discrimination had been deeply entrenched throughout the city, even within government institutions, and portrayed the African American community as having been the most negatively affected. The author has also addressed the issue of police brutality towards African Americans, which is deemed to be extremely violent — and explains why the likes of Evans had joined militant groups to fight against the police. 

Swenson portrays Cleveland’s local government as having been fraught with corruption and negative politics. For instance, when Stokes — an African American — won the mayoral election, he was constantly frustrated when he attempted to promote equality, as well as bring wholescale reforms to the the police — an experience that forced him to opt-out of seeking re-election. Caucasian politicians and those in positions of power had wanted to maintain control of the local government so that they could continue manipulating the city’s financial policies. Just as McIntyre (2019) illustrates in an article titled ‘Good Kids, Bad City’ author says wrongful convictions reveal systemic problems, Swenson is of the opinion that Cleveland’s systemic failures are the reasons for Ronnie, Rickey, and Wiley’s wrongful convictions.

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