One of the good things about having a blog is that you can use it as an excuse to meet people you admire. That is how I met Mansfield Frazier recently.
Mansfield is sort of a Cleveland celebrity, but unlike some of the regular suspects, he’s actually really interesting and smart. He is a regular contributor at the blog The Daily Beast, the Cleveland Free Times, the Cleveland Leader and also at Cool Cleveland. In addition, he is the tending to a new vineyard on formerly vacant land in inner-city Hough. He’s also an author and national expert on prisoner reentry. Oh, and he served five sentences in prison for counterfeiting, before turning his life around and becoming a successful entrepreneur and businessman.
Beyond all that, Mansfield Frazier is a thinking man — a thinking man who doesn’t hold his tongue. That’s a rarity in Cleveland. (Plus, we both despise the Plain Dealer’s Phillip Morris.)
Anyway, Mansfield was nice enough to let me interview him. I was most curious to hear his appraisal of race relations in Cleveland. The city has always been kind of notorious for racial tension, but it’s not something that gets a lot of thoughtful play in our local media, unless police brutality, bad politics, or some sensational crime brings it briefly to the forefront.
First a little background: Mansfield grew up not far from the Hough neighborhood where he now lives on Cleveland’s East Side. His father owned an after-hours joint and ran numbers. He was a respected and successful entrepreneur in the black community.
Mansfield was working his way up the career ladder at the Illuminating Company (Cleveland) as a young man, when he was denied a promotion based on his race. That’s when he dropped out of the system and started operating as an “outlaw.”
“I just wanted nothing to do with this racist system,” he said. “I lived life on my own terms.”
His last term in prison is where he authored his book: “From Behind the Wall: Commentary on Crime,Punishment, Race,” which reminds me a little bit of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He has since become an advocate for a saner penal system. He edits the national magazine Reentry Advocate.
His more recent foray into agriculture using Cleveland’s stimulus-backed land reuse program, Reimagining Cleveland, has received so much press already, I feel like it would duplicative to dwell on that too much.
Ok, we’re going to do this Q&A style. Here goes:
AS: What is your appraisal of the current state of race relations in Cleveland?
MF: Race relations in Cleveland are reflective of race relations in America. But Cleveland’s worse, by far. I’ve lived all over the United States when I was a counterfeiter. One of the reasons that we’re losing here is because of race relations.
AS: Losing population?
MF: Losing everything. Young people like you look at the situation and think, ‘Why would I want to be there with those knuckleheads?’ Most young people, white or black, are not racist. Older white and black people are stuck in the old way of thinking. Young people say, ‘I don’t want to be bothered with that. I’m not homophobic. I don’t want to be bother with those ‘isms’: sexism, racism.’ You gotta drop those isms. And we’re very slow to do that because we’re so poor [in Cleveland]. We’re afraid if we drop that, you’re going to do as well as me or better.
The area that solves that problem in the Rust Belt will be the one that rises up.
AS: How could Cleveland get a handle on this? Do you see a couple of steps?
MF: Where does democracy start? It doesn’t start with that piece of paper. It doesn’t start with the Supreme Court. Democracy starts right there on the curb when a cop pulls you over. If you don’t get treated fairly there, the rest of it doesn’t work.
AS: Do you think that’s a big problem here in Cleveland — racist behavior by police officers?
Oh my God, huge problem. Huge problem. Huge. Edward Henderson, those four cops are under indictment in Cleveland. The civil rights attorneys called me because they know I have the courage to write about it. The reason those videos are sealed is because they’re so brutal.
We live in this velvet-hand police state. There’s an iron fist and there’s a velvet hand. Police patrol too much of this town and set the tone for what happens. Just like down on West 6th [Street]. Police don’t care if the businesses survive, they just want to be where the action is.
A friend of mine, Robert Smith, he went down to Beale Street [Memphis], what they did is have the police stand down. They’re not aloud on Beale Street unless they’re called. We have our own security because we know you will act out. You don’t want to be in some place, when the bar closes ‘Get out of here, young lady.’ That’s what they’ll do to you. The cities that can solve that first. That’s the most controlling factor.
We have an old west mentality.
Continuing with suggestions …
We’ve got the Welcoming Center coming to Cleveland. So you got someone from India or China, then you’ve got this big red Chief Wahoo. And you say, ‘Welcome.’ So why don’t you get rid of Wahoo? And we say we’re a welcoming people? We’re disrespecting a whole nation of people.
AS: What is going on in Hough? (Hough was the scene of Cleveland’s race riots in the 1970s. It was once the center of Cleveland’s black social upper-crust.)
Hough is strategically placed between University Circle and Downtown. There are more upscale homes that have been built in Hough. If you go that way, you can see two new homes that just got finished. There’s probably been more homes built in the last 15 years than anywhere else in the city. The housing stock is stable.
But I don’t think that Hough can do any better than the rest of the city can. You look down there at that lot [vacant lot, high weeds]. The city can’t afford to cut it. But Hough is probably, there’s probably more green projects in Hough than anywhere else. There’s a lot of people that believe in the process.
I could have built a house anywhere. I picked Hough. I could have picked Westlake or Solon. But I have no political power in Westlake. It will be years before they have a black mayor or city councilmember in Westlake. I’d whether be somewhere where I have clout.
AS: Why you decide to come back to Cleveland?
This is the only place the feds would allow me to go. I was on federal parole. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Miami. There wasn’t no counterfeiting going on in Cleveland. They tend to send you back where the came from. I have family here.
AS: At this point I kinda stopped asking questions because Mansfield was on a roll. But there’s a few other details I wanted to include.
We have to come to this moral awakening. We’ve never done reparations. And I don’t want any money. I want you to solve the problem with the kid that’s dropping out of school. And until we solve that problem, we’re not going to be successful.
These other nations are ready to eat our lunch and they’ve got more people. Instead of universities what are we building? Prisons. But we don’t see it because it’s race based. We’re blinded by this racism. If you wanna keep me on the ground, you’ve gotta stay down here with me.
Many, many thanks to Mr. Frazier for taking time out of his say to speak with us at Rust Wire. Cleveland would be a lot better off if there were a dozen more like him.