One afternoon this April, I strode briskly through a chilly wind of downtown Cleveland, where it somehow still felt like early February, until I found myself standing inside City Hall with a crowd of thirty or so fellow activists. We were gathered to apply pressure to City Council. The previous week, they had roundly rejected a petition with over 10,000 signatures collected in just a month and a half to support a ballot measure requiring Cleveland landlords to ensure that their units are lead safe.
According to the City Council, our petition books were invalid because they lacked one of the two mandated warnings regarding fraud—just thirteen words, which were already included in nearly identical language elsewhere in the booklet.
In reality, we had tripped over a stumbling block deliberately put in place to stymie such efforts at shaping the law from the bottom up. We were challenging vested interests in the city that would very much prefer not to shell out any extra cash to renovate housing—even if such measures were necessary to protect thousands of children from lead poisoning.
But we were not giving up, if we could get over 10,000 signatures in freezing weather, we could certainly do it again in the summer sun. As former councilman Jeff Johnson handed out t-shirts bearing the logo for Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH), I reflected on how I had witnessed my comrades in Cleveland DSA rise to the challenge of spearheading this effort, and anticipated the battles still ahead.
The Lead Menace
In 2016, the federal government declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, where over 100,000 residents were exposed to lead poisoning as a result of the state's attempt to cut costs by redirecting water pipelines. A 2015 study by the Hurley Medical Center found that the change in water sources led to the average proportion of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels rising from 4% to 10.6%.
The crisis became a major issue in the 2016 Democratic primary, has remained a political talking point until today, when many Flint residents still rely on bottled water. But similar problems exist around the country, and have received much less media attention. In Cleveland, 16% of children surpass the EPA threshold for lead poisoning, and 80% show some level of exposure. And yet the response of many Cleveland residents when asked to sign our petition was been either confusion or stunned disbelief.
Why has Cleveland's even worse lead problem received so little attention when Flint's crisis sparked such a national fervor? One reason may be the chronic nature of the problem versus the sudden spike of cases in Flint. Cleveland, seen as one of the most tarnished studs on the Rust Belt, has long been a symbol of the effects of industrial malfeasance, and is home to the Cuyahoga River, which infamously caught fire on 13 separate occasions in the 20th century. (That's right, the water here caught fire.)
Unlike Flint, where the lead issue could be directly tied to a recent government decision, Cleveland’s lead-poisoning problem has been ongoing for many decades. In addition, Cleveland's dominant source of lead poisoning is not in the city infrastructure, but in the lead paint still covering the walls in old housing stock all across the city. Defenders of the status quo would have you believe that silly children eating paint chips account for most of the problem, but studies have repeatedly shown that most exposure comes from microscopic particles in the air that residents inhale or ingest.
On a surely unrelated note, Cleveland houses the headquarters of paint-supply giant Sherwin-Williams, which just this last October lost an appeal in a lawsuit filed by ten California municipalities requiring that the company pay over four hundred million dollars in damages for knowingly advertising lead-based paints for decades after company leaders were aware of their toxicity. Sherwin-Williams also continues to market lead-based paints in other countries to this day. But if only we could get kids to stop eating paint chips, surely the problem would go away!
Lead is an extremely harmful neurotoxin that can never be removed from your body. According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning in children leads to developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss, seizures, mood swings, lack of impulse control, and other behavioral problems. When you consider that roughly four children a day test positive for lead poisoning in Cleveland, some of Cleveland's other chronic problems, like mass incarceration and a notoriously bad public school system, appear in a different light. And like most problems in this country that are seemingly easy for the powerful to ignore, lead poisoning disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color.
Addressing a Failed Status Quo
Current laws in Cleveland fail to address the scope of the problem. Landlords are required to notify tenants of “known lead hazards,” but are not actually required to test lead levels, much less make any renovations to address them, unless a child resident of one of their units has already tested positive for more than ten micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. Even then, should the residents decide to move, the Cleveland Department of Health is not required to follow through. And none of these rules do anything to address the levels of toxicity in unregistered units, in a city with an extensive black market for housing rentals. In other words, the only recourse for working families in Cleveland is to get their units tested after their child has already been poisoned, and even these provisions are seldom enforced.
Cleveland DSA first got involved with this issue in the spring of 2018, when several members began attending meetings of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network (CLSN). Founded in 2017 by Yvonka Hall, the director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, the CLSN formed to raise awareness of the crisis and begin drafting potential legislative solutions. In the summer of 2018, after a preliminary bill had been drafted, DSA members went with CLSN to meet with the City Council. All of the members present agreed that lead poisoning was a serious issue and that a solution was necessary, but not a single one of them agreed to support the bill or propose an alternative plan of action. Here's another tangential fact: several members of the Cleveland City Council happen to be landlords.
Frustrated by the total lack of initiative on the part of the city government, CLSN decided to take matters into their own hands. In spite of its numerous ills, Cleveland is actually a fairly friendly legislative environment for ballot initiatives. To get an issue on the ballot, residents only need to submit 5,000 validated signatures from registered Cleveland voters to the council at least 6 months out from the date of the election. CLSN and DSA immediately began organizing the coalition that would collect those signatures. The resulting consortium of local activist organizations was dubbed CLASH (Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing), and included CLSN, DSA Cleveland, Black Lives Matter Cuyahoga County, Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, Organize Ohio, End Poverty Now, and Single Payer Action Network.
Organizing to Meet the Challenge
Through the end of 2018, CLSN met multiple times a month to hash out the particulars of the bill, while CLASH met concurrently to strategize around the signature campaign. Meanwhile, Cleveland DSA voted to create a dedicated lead safety committee to discuss our place in the campaign and how it could be used to build working-class power in Cleveland. The lead campaign came at a crucial time for Cleveland DSA. Like many chapters across the country, our growth was quickly outpacing our ability to organize our membership effectively. On paper, we had over three hundred members, but we found that outside a core group of 20 or so, it was difficult to mobilize anyone to show up for actions or even general meetings.
Nonetheless, we were feeling emboldened by the success of our first Brake Light Clinic in September, and in a somewhat terse organizing meeting, the core membership agreed that the lead campaign could serve as a kind of unifying effort to funnel all of our committee work into one initiative and collaborate more effectively with other activist organizations around Cleveland. We acknowledged that to be effective in the campaign, we would need to learn how to mobilize our greater membership better.
Fortunately, 3 members of our steering committee had just been hired as organizers with the United Steelworkers, and had been trained in union organizing tools. We power-mapped our membership, dividing them into core members who always showed up, those who could be relied on when asked, those who showed up to general meetings, and those who paid dues but whom none of us had ever met. We divvied up the list of names among ourselves and reached out to have one-to-one organizing conversations with members we believed could become more active if directly asked. Over the next couple of months, we were all a little surprised to see how well the strategy worked. Our general meetings started growing, and new members were showing up with exciting ideas.
The lead campaign committee met over the first few months of 2019 to begin strategizing and providing input to the members meeting with CLASH and CLSN. The bill was an obvious positive, but there were some concerns. We wanted some kind of provision for funding renovations so that the bill didn't create a city-wide rent hike, effectively instituting a “lead tax” on the people of Cleveland. We also wanted to find some way of ensuring that the legislation would be enforced. It would not be enough to just get it on the ballot, or even to win the election. We had to make sure the city government would actually uphold the law. We decided that the solution was to have similar organizing conversations with members of the community while we petitioned them, with the long-term goal of organizing a tenant's union that could provide the political pressure to ensure enforcement. Thus the lead initiative would be just a first step in building real working-class power in our city.
The Capitalists Fight Back
The city council was getting wise to our little insurrection, in no small part due to increasing press coverage of the lead crisis. They voted to create their own “Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition” consisting of representatives from local business interests and nonprofits, who would surely find a way to solve the problem through “synergy” and “public-private partnerships.” The trustworthiness of this group to institute the necessary changes could be summed up by one fact: Sherwin-Williams was listed among the partner organizations. This was a fairly transparent effort to scuttle our grassroots organizing effort and be seen “doing something” by the media. We were not dissuaded.
As spring 2019 rolled around, we had the plan in place, and were ready for the nitty-gritty work of bothering people in the street to tell them about poisoned kids. We officially began collecting signatures with CLASH in early March. As for me, I was skeptical that we would be able to collect the necessary number of signatures. The 5,000 figure came with a fairly large asterisk, in that the board of elections would meticulously strike any signatures that were not clearly legible and easy to validate. Realistically, we would need more like 10,000 or even 12,000 signatures to compensate account for all of the ones that could be thrown out. We had about 5 weeks, and there was still snow on the ground. It sounded impossible.
And yet, when our deadline arrived, we had over 10,000 signatures, with over 6,000 certified by the Board of Elections. Over 3,000 of these were collected by DSA membership alone, by far the largest share of any of the organizations in CLASH. It was a full-chapter effort, with phonebanks and canvass events nearly every day of the week, and even “paper members” showing up to check out petition books from the CLASH office. We had made our grand entrance into Cleveland politics.
And then they threw out all of our signatures on a bullshit technicality.
But as I lined up outside the council chamber with the rest of CLASH, waiting for the council members to walk by and smile sheepishly as we implored them to reconsider their decision, I did not feel defeated. I knew that we were only just getting started, and that we were now part of something much bigger than DSA. Although our signatures had been rejected, we had still done the legwork, and we could do it again—this time with BOTH warnings on the petition books. We were all ten times as effective as organizers as we had been just the summer before. Our chapter was coming into its own, more active than ever and working in coalition with many other groups across the city. This battle was never going to be easy, but we're growing stronger every day.