CHAGRIN FALLS — More than 70 people gathered in Riverside Park on Tuesday for a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. The group ranging from teenagers to older citizens gathered in the park to demand justice for George Perry Floyd, 46, a black man who died on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after a police officer held his knee on the man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, according to reports.
Protesters returned to Chagrin Falls on Thursday gathering at the high school and then marching down East Washington Street eventually ending up at Riverside Park. There they heard motivational speeches and continued to mourn the loss of Mr. Floyd.
In anticipation of possible violent protests similar to the riots that occurred in Cleveland and other major cities over the weekend, businesses in the village prepared for the worst before the Tuesday rally. The main drag through town was unrecognizable, with many of the most well-known stores boarded up, including Yours Truly, Heinen’s, Sanity, Hedges and Fireside Book Shop. Dewey Forward, owner of the Popcorn Shop, boarded up his windows shortly before the protest was scheduled to begin, kept his shop open and later rallied with the young people.
“This is how America is supposed to work,” Chagrin Falls Police Chief Amber Dacek said of the peaceful protest at Riverside Park. “People can gather together and say what they need to say and it’s peaceful and it’s good.”
Business owners said they began to worry when they found out about the protest planned for 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Kenston High School rising sophomore Chase Tuller, 15, of Bainbridge planned a rally to raise awareness about Mr. Floyd’s death and police brutality. The rally was going to have a stage, a pastor, a church choir and a motivational speaker. On Sunday afternoon, Chase called it off after receiving death threats and after seeing the rioting across the U.S.
“Me and the other co-organizers got calls and threats from people. They were calls like ‘If I see you guys I’ll be sure to have a rifle aimed at your head,’” he said. “A lot of the phone calls were star 67 unknown calls. Some we have their numbers and we just don’t know who it was.”
But despite the cancellation, teens and young people in their 20s came to Chagrin Falls anyway, centering themselves in lines near the front of the park facing Main Street. They held signs with messages such as “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace” and “Racism is a pandemic, I stand with you.” The group also chanted, “Love one another” and “I can’t breathe.” At one point during the protest, they laid face down on the stone walkway, hands behind their back and continued to chant. That was the position Mr. Floyd was in when he died in police custody.
“Everybody that I saw at the protest [was] really positive and had the dialogue. We wanted to make a statement,” Derek Carter, 48, of Cleveland Heights said at the protest. “You know, since Cleveland shut down, it’s like shutting down the voice of the people. So my friends and I came out to Chagrin’s today because we can’t protest in Cleveland.”
Peaceful protests in Cleveland over the weekend soon turned into riots, including setting cars on fire and looting stores, including the downtown locations of Heinen’s and Geiger’s, businesses that both have stores in downtown Chagrin Falls.
“We’re kind of just cleaning up and assessing the damage,” co-owner Jeff Heinen said Monday of the downtown Cleveland store. “That’s all we know at this point.”
Mr. Heinen said that there were broken windows, vandalism and theft at his store on Euclid Avenue, but it is difficult to determine how much damage because access has been limited. The city of Cleveland put a curfew in place for the business district that ended on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Larry Shibley, co-owner of Yours Truly Restaurants, also boarded up his store on Main Street in Chagrin Falls in anticipation of violence. He said that one goal of his restaurant is to serve and take care of the livelihood of its employees. If the windows were broken and the restaurant was looted, he could not accomplish that mission.
“I’m happy if there’s a peaceful demonstration in any place and I support the cause, but I don’t support the destruction as a message,” he said. Yours Truly remained open on Tuesday until 2 p.m. with the boards in the windows. Mr. Shibley said it was a little dark on the inside. The store planned to reopen Wednesday morning with business as usual.
Police officers were visible throughout the business district of Chagrin Falls. Chagrin police had mutual aid from South Russell, Gates Mills and Warrensville Heights. There were no counter-demonstrators or vocal opposition in the park during the protest. A pickup truck stopped briefly as the driver yelled out the window and a Trump 2020 flag waved on the back of the truck.
Robert Darden, 53, of Chagrin Falls sat near the park with a sign that read “Where are all the food trucks?”
“I’m just here to lighten the mood and tension,” Mr. Darden said. “There seems to be a lot of that around here lately.”
Kingston Burks, 18, of Bainbridge led the rally and explained his fear while living as a person of color.
“I have no words. All my life I struggled with the police and everything; it’s just a lot that’s going on,” he said in an interview. “Every single time the cops have been called, they’ve treated me [with disrespect]. At one point they had threatened to tase me and I was scared. It’s gotten to the point where I am scared for my life and for everybody that is of color.”
Chase, the original event organizer, came to the park even though the rally that he planned was supposed to be called off. He said that it was “spontaneous” through social media conversations. He was going to turn protestors away with Chief Dacek.
“I’m very surprised by this because the rally was canceled,” he said. “But I’m impressed.”
Kelle Deboth, 39, of Auburn and Matt O’Brien, 40, of Hudson were holding signs that read “#EndWhiteSilence” and “#WeAreListening.” Ms. Deboth said that people with white privilege have been called to action.
“This can’t be the end of the process. It has to be the start of social and political evaluation, how we as a society can move forward and address some of these systemic problems that have existed as long as the nation’s been around,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Brandon Peck, 25, of Cleveland is a black photographer for the Cleveland Print Room and took photos at the rally in Cleveland. He said that he has experienced racism the few times that he has visited Chagrin Falls, but said that the Tuesday Falls protest was different from the one in Cleveland.
“Polar opposites, I wouldn’t equate them at all,” he said. “It’s not even apples to apples, it’s like comparing two different planets.”
Jamie Carlton, 49, of Twinsburg said that he had a change of heart regarding the protest. His 85-year-old parents live on East Orange Street, he said, and the park is in the backyard of their house. He originally planned to attend to protect his parents. Mr. Carlton, who served as a Marine, said that originally he did not like the Black Lives Matter movement and said that all lives matter.
“Before I debate with them, I need to understand them,” he said. “Once I accept them, maybe they’ll accept me.”
Instead of coming to the protest armed with a gun, as he originally planned, Mr. Carlton said that he would come “armed with the Bible” by bringing love and support. As soon as the young people arrived to protest, he welcomed them and offered to assist them in any way they needed, such as bringing water in the heat of the day.
The rally went on for an hour and 45 minutes before the protestors moved up to the sidewalk holding their signs and chanting to be seen by traffic on Main Street.
Police Chief Sheila Mason of Woodmere found out on Saturday that a group of protestors from downtown planned to come to the Apple store at Eton Chagrin Boulevard. Apple closed early that day and the tall glass windows that line the storefront were boarded up by Monday.
“Everybody is aware and we are making sure that we protect our properties,” Woodmere Mayor Ben Holbert said on Monday. Alson Jewelers and Orvis, a sporting goods store, also boarded up their windows.
Chief Mason said that the police department switched to 12 hour shifts last Friday and added more officers on patrol. She said that there are only four entrances into the village, which houses many high-end stores, and police are strategically placed to be visible to the motoring public.
“We haven’t received anything but we’re not going to say it couldn’t happen here,” she said.
Chief Michael Cannon of Hunting Valley also serves as the president of the Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association. He said that each agency works with their neighboring communities to provide mutual aid if needed. Chief Cannon also commented on the actions of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who held his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck before he died.
“I would have arrested the policeman myself,” Chief Cannon said. “That’s nothing that we teach, that’s nothing that we do. I haven’t met a policeman yet that thought that was sound tactics.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of damage or violence in the Chagrin Valley.
Barbara Christian, Samantha Cottrill and Collin Cunningham contributed to this story.