The press conference in October followed a well-worn script. This time, community leaders and police brass gathered on the sturdy stone steps of City Hall, as they took turns at a microphone pleading with Clevelanders to abandon a “code of silence.”
Once again, a child had been gunned down. This time, it was a first-grader who’d been sleeping when a torrent of bullets tore into a South Collinwood home. Six-year-old Lyric-Melodi Lawson’s life was senselessly cut short; her blood left spattered on the faces of the other children sleeping around her. The community needed to step up, abandon a “no snitch” rule, to work with the police, to care enough about the next victim to come forward.
“You are just as bad as the folks who committed these crimes if you stay silent and stay quiet,” one Councilman exclaimed as television cameras documented the indignation. Lost in the speeches, the unspoken accusations of moral failing, is an important question, one worth exploring.
Why don’t the streets speak?
In this often simplified narrative, there are two camps with views that are boiled down into slogans. There’s the “See something, say something” camp, which is undergirded by the conviction that violent crime witnesses have a duty to speak up – regardless of the consequences. Then there’s the “Snitches get stitches” camp, rooted in silence, abiding by a code that relies on the streets, not police or courts, to mete out justice. It’s the space in between those two slogans that will be the focus of a new collaboration called The Witness Project.
For the next six months, collaboration members will be working with the community to examine the calculations people have to make if they witness or have information about a crime. Decisions they must weigh about safety, family, work and health that often aren’t given close consideration. Some of these choices are known but unspoken in Cleveland neighborhoods where shootings have become routine and not understood by those who lack proximity to the realities of violence. We know there’s no one perspective, there are many, and so we hope to gather many – crime witnesses, victims and family members, police officers and prosecutors and incarcerated citizens.
The Witness Project is a first-time collaboration between WOVU 95.9 FM, a community radio station that serves Cleveland’s Central and Kinsman neighborhoods; The Ward Seven Observer, a monthly community-based newspaper that serves the Hough, St. Clair-Superior, Asiatown and Midtown neighborhoods; Reading Ramm, a music, arts and learning academy; and The Plain Dealer and Eye on Ohio, a statewide investigative news non-profit. The Witness Project collaborators, with the help of a $12,000 grant designed to provide neighborhood-level basic information needs, in this case safety, is supported by the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, the Center for Community Solutions, the Akron Community Foundation and the Knight Foundation.
We hope to not only tell stories about these choices, but to also bring facts to the table and ask important questions, like:
Does the perception of risk to those who cooperate match the reality? What rights do crime witnesses have? Are there places that provide more assistance to keep crime witnesses safe? What can be done to reduce the chasm between the two systems of justice that have emerged?
Most importantly, this project will be driven by the community’s need for information. We’ll be reaching out at neighborhood meetings, on social media and through each of our publications to learn what else we need to be thinking about and considering for our stories.
Here’s how you can reach us:
The Witness Project is a first-time collaboration between WOVU 95.9 FM Burten, Bell, Carr Community radio station, which serves the entire city of Cleveland; Ward Seven Observer, a monthly community newspaper that serves the Hough, St. Clair-Superior, Asiatown and Midtown neighborhoods; Reading R.A.M.M, a multimedia learning initiative; Briana Oldham, a Cleveland State journalism student; The Plain Dealer; and Eye on Ohio, a statewide investigative news nonprofit.