CLEVELAND — Helen Greer-Garrett stood holding the microphone, hand shaking and too nervous to speak. After coaxing from Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, she summoned the courage.
“In our neighborhood we get intruders every day. I go to sleep hearing gunshots. It’s normal to me,” said Greer-Garrett, a John Adams student, said to the panel of first responders and NFL players. “We witness this every day. Our family, our cousins getting killed every weekend. That’s normal for us to be attending funerals every two weeks, three weeks, once a month.
“So I just want to know how can we help change that in our neighborhoods.”
The Browns hosted the second Neighborhood Equality and Unity Summit on Tuesday at FirstEnergy Stadium. The first was in October, also featuring members of Cleveland police, fire and EMS, students of Cleveland high schools and Browns players.
“We’re trying to bridge this gap between police officers and safety forces and community folks,” Police Chief Calvin Williams said.
Kirksey noticed a change for the better Tuesday. The topics addressed were social equality, community interaction with police officers, gun violence and the effects of social media.
“People were willing to ask questions they may not have wanted to ask the first time,” Kirksey said. “It was more of open dialogue.”
Greer-Garrett noted the contrast in the lack of public reaction to her daily situation to the outcry that has followed mass shootings in suburbs. The crowd applauded when she was finished opening up.
“We understand your pain,” police Sgt. Charmin Leon said.
“You started the change already by just showing up to this event,” Kirksey added. “You stood out, you’re a leader. Now it’s up to you to spread the word about how this event went.”
Leon, who works in recruitment, said she sympathizes with the lack of empathy Greer-Garrett perceives. She said training in trauma-informed care has been instituted so officers have a better understanding of what community members have experienced in their lives.
“What you just shared, it’s not normal. It shouldn’t be OK. It’s not OK,” Leon said. “Hold us accountable as adults.”
The Browns are looking for ways to have a positive impact. Kirksey was joined by linebacker Jamie Collins, tight end Seth DeValve, defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun and offensive lineman Victor Salako, who said he wants to be a police officer when he’s done playing.
“You can feel the energy in here. That’s not going to dissipate as soon as we leave,” Leon told The Chronicle after the event. “And now the kids are talking about doing this more often. The players have committed to doing this more often.”
The impetus for the summits was a demonstration during the national anthem by the Browns during a preseason game last year. A dozen players kneeled to call attention to social injustice and racial inequality, which led to the threat of a boycott from members of the police union.
Players met with Williams and other officers and they began working together to take practical steps to address the concerns. They also agreed to stand united for the anthem in the regular-season opener.
Leon loves that the protests during the anthem led to the summits.
“We’re defenders of the Constitution. And you know who wrote the Constitution? Rebels. You know who wrote the Constitution? Protesters,” she said. “So how do we criminalize people who are protesting something now when that is what this country was founded on and that’s what we swore to protect every day?”
The NFL is still trying to come to grips with the issue. The league’s new Social Justice Initiative focuses on education, community/police relations, criminal justice, poverty, racial equality and workforce development. Yet former San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, who were among the original anthem protesters, are out of work and have filed a collusion lawsuit against the league.
Kirksey said he wants them in the NFL but doesn’t know enough about their specific situations to comment further. He said he was worried about repercussions when he kneeled.
“It’s all about taking a leap of faith and doing what’s right in your beliefs,” he said.
While Kirksey thinks globally, he acts locally. He was engaged in the frank discussions Tuesday, which included kids saying they don’t know local police officers well enough to trust them and an officer saying he feels misunderstood by members of the public.
“I love the engagement between the students and the ballplayers, too,” Leon said. “It’s like the ballplayers are giving them the courage to say things to us that they wouldn’t normally say. So that just excites me to no end.’’
An unlikely source stressed the need to develop a relationship with the police. Ru-El Sailor served 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before being released in the last six weeks. He admitted other wrongdoings before heading to prison and wants kids to avoid his mistakes.
“You all are blessed to have this opportunity to have all these people care about you all,” he said. “What you’re all doing right now is a beautiful, positive thing. Keep at it. Don’t let nobody tell you nothing different.”