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Government & Politics

Videos show a tense encounter between Cleveland police, armed Black activist

antoine tolbert new era cleveland.jpg
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Antoine Tolbert was arrested on May 23 by Cleveland police while carrying firearms, which is legal in Ohio.

When a 31-year-old Black Cleveland activist named Antoine Tolbert openly carried a shotgun on St. Clair Avenue on Cleveland’s East Side recently, he wasn’t violating any laws.

It’s always been legal in Ohio to openly carry a firearm in your hand or in a holster outside your clothing. Tolbert had a shotgun in one hand and a handgun in a holster on his leg.

He still ended up in jail for a night after a very tense encounter with police. The repercussions that followed completely upended his life.

In video Tolbert made of the encounter, a police officer can be heard saying, "Sir, you can’t walk down the street with a gun in your hand.”

“This is an open carry state,” Tolbert said in response.

“Put the gun down. Put the gun down,” multiple officers could be heard shouting at Tolbert.

Ohio’s Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. According to Buckeye Firearms Foundation Executive Director Dean Rieck, Tolbert wasn’t committing a crime.

“There is no legal reason for the police to arrest anyone for open carrying who is not otherwise committing a crime,” Rieck said.

A spokesperson for the Cleveland Division of Police did not respond to questions about Tolbert’s arrest or whether the department was reviewing the officers’ actions.

Tolbert's walk started at the Rite Aid at the corner of East 105th Street and the final encounter with police was at East 89th Street.

The first call to police was made by someone at that drug store who saw Tolbert take a shotgun out of the trunk of his car. The police report said people were running and screaming when they saw Tolbert wearing body armor and carrying his shotgun.

Tolbert disputes that description of the scene outside the Rite Aid.

“The crazy part is, we do these armed patrols once a week, especially once the weather gets warm.” Tolbert said during a visit to the neighborhood a week after the incident.

Tolbert is chairman of a community organization called New Era Cleveland. One of the things they do is organize armed patrols in neighborhoods with gun violence.

antoine tolbert Cleveland police recruits new era.jpg
New Era Cleveland
Antoine Tolbert (second from left) speaks to Cleveland police recruits during their training in October 2020.

Tolbert’s group, which has been featured by Vice Media and local TV news, began the patrols last year. They usually go out in groups.

Tolbert went out by himself the morning of May 23 — shortly after 14-year-old Abe’bre’anna Jackson was killed by gunfire that hit her home nearby.

That’s what Tolbert told the first Cleveland police officer to pull up and ask him what he was doing.

That officer let him continue on his way.

Another, identified in the police report as Patrol Officer Santa, pulled up shortly after that, and their encounter was captured on video.

antoine tolbert officer santa.jpg
New Era Cleveland
A still from Antoine Tolbert's video of the incident showing one of the officers who stopped Tolbert, Officer Santa, as he walked down St. Clair Avenue. In the video, Santa did not come closer to Tolbert and let him continue on his way after briefly speaking with him.

“Listen man, a lot of people don’t like that you’re kind of walking around with a gun,” Santa said to Tolbert.

“That’s a personal problem,” Tolbert responded.

“We just want to make sure you’re OK,” Santa said.

Officer Santa stayed by her car, kept her distance from Tolbert and eventually let him continue on his way.

Tolbert points out that Cleveland police knew him. He’s spoken to cadet classes about community engagement. Tolbert recognized the officer in the car with Officer Santa from one of those classes.

But according to the police report, things changed when a Sergeant Henderson decided Tolbert would be detained. Detectives and members of the specialized K-9 unit responded.

“At that moment, I was like, wait a minute, something is seriously wrong here,” Tolbert said. “I’m looking around, there’s a K-9 in the middle of the street that was trying to get me. I was not putting my gun down so this K-9 can attack me or so you can shoot me.”

antoine tolbert sgt henderson.jpg
New Era Cleveland
A still from Antoine Tolbert's video of the police encounter on May 23 shows Cleveland Police Sergeant Henderson moving toward Tolbert. With his gun drawn, Henderson takes cover behind a phone pole. Another officer approaches Tolbert and arrests him.

Henderson can be seen in the video blocking Tolbert’s path on the sidewalk, taking cover with his gun raised a few feet away.

Tolbert was initially charged with carrying a concealed weapon and inducing panic. Both of those charges were dropped, but first Tolbert spent a night in the Cuyahoga County Jail.

“Even if the encounter with police itself wasn’t traumatizing, everything that occurred the weeks after most certainly were,” Tolbert said.

After the arrest, Tolbert said he had to move out of his house because his wife’s ex-husband was using video of the encounter to seek full custody of their young child.

He lost his job at the nonprofit community development organization Burten, Bell, Carr. Executive Director Joy Johnson, Tolbert’s former boss, says she found the video troubling.

“He did from what I can see everything that the law allows him to do, but sometimes you just have to think about what’s at stake, besides the letter of the law,” Johnson said. “Do you want to be right and dead or do you want to be right and alive? And so those are the kinds of decisions we have to make in the heat of the moment.”

Burten, Bell, Carr had in the past also approached Tolbert’s group, New Era Cleveland, about providing security at shopping centers, but that didn’t end up moving forward.

Johnson also said her organization wants to stay out of debates over gun rights that Tolbert’s video brings up.

“There are organizations out there that are fighting that fight,” Johnson said. “We are not fighting that fight or Second Amendment rights as a community development organization.”

Tolbert said he’ll keep going out with New Era Cleveland on armed patrols in Cleveland neighborhoods.

He’s considering taking legal action against the city.