Editor’s note: The following is a two-part interview with John Mungai, a Homeless Grapevine vendor. The interview was conducted on April 14, 1995, Good Friday at the county jail. John has endured two years of police harrassment, and is currently represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a case against the City of Cleveland. See article on page 3.
JM: = John Mungai
BD: = Brian Davis, Homeless Grapevine
JT: = Jean Taddie, Homeless Grapevine
Mungai is currently out on bail awaiting trial.
JT: How is it going for you being here?
JM: The first two weeks was kind of hard. But I just said ‘well.'
JT: You’re not getting any trouble here? I mean as far as they’re not giving you any trouble in the jail?
JM: Sometimes, like there is one correction officer who just looks like the man who harassed me. So when I see him I get scared. I know maybe they are not related, but the image, you know...
JT: Yeah, it makes you a little nervous.
JM: Sometime I may feel a little sick. But in general, I just hope that some of the policemen don’t know I’m here. Maybe they know because...I’m scared, I’m fearful.
JT: Well, John, that’s just what we’d like to hear about today. Because it’s so hard to get in touch with you and your story deserves to be told. And if it’s O.K., we’d like to put the whole thing in the Homeless Grapevine newspaper?
JM: It’s all right as long as you don’t put my picture in it. Some of them don’t know me. It’s only when they ask me for my ID, or something like that. I told Kevin O’Neill (legal director of the ACLU), that just six days before I was arrested...I was so scared for the first time in my life. I was scared. I even went to the jazz club on West 6th. And then they followed me and I didn’t know what to do. I called 911 to tell them I’m scared of the police in the car. And they said I must have been kidding, then they asked me the police license number, and I told them. Then they called the police. Then the police came and parked [right there by me]. Then I heard them talking; they were communicating with them. So I was scared and I hung up the phone and I ran to the bar. I told the bartender that I was very scared. You know I even give them my information, who I am and all this because I thought they were after me. So sometimes I even say maybe I’m lucky I’m here.
JT: Why do you think they’re scared of you? Not scared, but obviously they’re worried about you. If they're going to follow you around and, you know, harassing you that way. Why are they doing this?
JM: I think one thing is, how can I say, all these white policemen, I think they resent the way I respond to them telling me to go away. The other people, maybe they just walk away. But for me, they have to give me a reason why I have to go.
JT: So they ask you to do something and you want to know why? And they don’t like that?
JM: No. I think most the time I win it. Because I talk to them [and tell them that] what they are trying to do is illegal and they don’t like that. No. No.
JT: So how did it start? How did you first get to know this police situation?
JM: For me it only started in spring last year —when I used to still be near Tower City. To this one police who was on a bicycle and then the lady [cop] came and talked to me in a nice way — asked me my name and all this. And then he told me from that day, I would not be allowed at Public Square at all. And I asked him why and he told me, well, he had an order from the city. We talked a little bit. He [told] me that it was just political. So that was the beginning. And that was where I used to be. I sometimes question them a little bit. But...I chose not to be taken to jail. So if I see them, I will just walk away. Maybe there is too many of us black people in the flats. That’s how I see it.
JT: So you think it’s a black thing?
JM: Yes, a black thing. Of course it is. It is, no question about that. Even if it were my own mother I was talking to—whom I try never to lie to— I would say the same thing. It was the truth. It’s a black thing.
BD: Was there any harassment by black [Cleveland police] officers?
JT: Never. No. No. Never. Most of the undercover police, they know me. They never even harass me. They just come and say ‘hi’ to me. They know I never do anything wrong. These are detectives. The [police officers] who I believe to get kickbacks from the businesses in the flats —those are the ones who are used as a way to get rid of the people who are...
BD: Well, the Flats does employ four uniformed police officers that walk down the street.
JM: One of which is the one who [harasses me]. I still see them, the short one and the tall. There are some others on duty, too, who get kickbacks. Sometimes I go [down to the parking lot in the Flats by Fagan’s and the Beach Club]. I have papers. I never go into the parking lot. I check to make sure I’m not close to the Beach Club and I’m not close to Fagan’s. I’m in the middle — 25 feet from any business. And still the guys [the bouncers], they come and they kick me away. And I have to walk away because they mean harm. They tell me, you better go now. You walk away or we’ll beat you up.
JT: So what it sounds like you’re saying is that it’s when you sell the Homeless Grapevine that they’re have a major problem with you standing there? That you try not to get in anybody’s way or go on to private property but you do your best to remain where you know it is legal for you to remain.
JM: It isn’t even where there is parking. The guys who are harassing me they even [threatened me].
JT: So these guys by Fagan’s, are they police in uniforms or are they bouncers?
JM: They are bouncers. The owner has come, himself. But when I refused to move, he goes get his bouncers. Then I have to keep going. I have told the police several times but they don’t do much.
JT: The police will not stand up for you if you are threatened by one of these people?
JM: No, I call police after they have gone inside. I understand their relationship. Whatever they get, they don’t care. I’m just a homeless guy. This guy tells me ‘you’re homeless; these people come here to the flats to spend money. They pay taxes. You are useless.’ They tell me that. They are talking to me. They are talking to me because they have frustrations they don’t know what to do with. So they talk like that, they don’t hide it.
BD: So then, last year you filed a case with the ACLU?
JM: Yes, this is another.... I’m there with my paper on the street and these two cars come. There was two people...there is a parking lot owned by the city. So there is this one guy, he is not homeless but he always goes there and tries [to collect money from people who are parking]. So a car comes people and he tells them “there is no charge, why don’t you give me $2 or $3 to clean the windows?” So I ask him, if I’m there with a paper, if he’ll take one car and I’ll take the other. So two cars came. The car just drove in; he went and talked to the driver. So when the other car came, I’m on the street. He asked me how much was the parking. I told him the parking is free. I just tell people it’s free and at the same time I can try to get [money for the paper]. So he said 'O.K.' so I showed him where to could get out the door, the guy [who was collecting money] came again (he had the other car). So I told him, 'why don’t you have shame?’ You just go over to the other car, you know. So we had a little talk. So the guy he had talked to, the first car was a sheriff off duty. So he said, why are you guys talking this way? The sheriff says we cannot even be in the Flats, we have to leave. If he sees us when he’s coming from the bar, he’s going to arrest us. So the other guy left, and we were standing was two feet from the street. So I left the parking lot and went out on the street and he continued to tell me, ‘Hey, you better leave. When I come back after having one or two drinks, I will arrest you.’ I told him I don’t care, I’m legally there on the street, and I’m doing nothing wrong. So he didn’t like [me]. This is like a 23-24 year old young white male, of which he was resenting my way of just trying to tell him [that] I’m here legally and I’m gonna be here. So in the meantime, the police car came. The other guy who left, the one who was washing [windows], tried to be a wise guy and tell the police that I was fighting with the sheriff. So the police car came quickly to help the sheriff. But when they came, there was no fight, they were even mad at the other guy. And they know me. So they said they couldn’t arrest me — that I wasn’t doing anything.
JT: So that’s the police officer who came because the other guy said you were fighting?
JM: With the sheriff. Then we had two policemen. They came and saw it’s me and they saw nothing was wrong. So the sheriff asked me to give him my I.D.. So I gave him my I.D. He told me I wasn’t wanted. So I told him, give me my I.D.., I’m getting tired of this. I want to go. He said, "You better not be like an asshole." I said, how dare you call me asshole. Then he said, 'O.K. I’m going to arrest you.’ The police were standing. They don’t see now why this guy is talking about arresting. He goes to his personal car to get handcuffs to come and handcuff me.
JT: The sheriff did?
JM: Yes, and the police are standing there. They don’t understand what this guy is doing. He arrests me and then he has to call in to the police (they do) to ask them to authorize the police to use their car.
JT: Because he was off duty at the time — the sheriff.
JM: Yeah. But he has no right to transport me to the police station. They don’t want to do that. I wasn’t drinking and I’m only challenging him for calling me an asshole. Then so they had to take me to the police station. He’s mad, so he says disorderly conduct, and I say its not disorderly conduct just because I’m challenging you. Then they took me there, to police headquarters...it’s five minutes to twelve. They had finished the work, so I would have to go to court the following day because it was before midnight. So they left. They did not put me in a cell — that means finishing the work—until three in the morning. This sheriff did not even write the report. I don’t even know what he was doing because I know he was drunk.
JT: So the same sheriff was there with you also?
JM: Yeah, he came, he drove there. He was the one who was to charge me, the police had nothing to do with it. So he didn’t file the charges until three in the morning. That means he wanted to punish me. Now I can’t go to court the following day. I have to spend all that night and the following day all day and the other night and go to court on Wednesday. That was Monday, December 26. So when they called me at three in the morning, I said what time am I to [be in] the court. They said you aren’t going. I tried to say, “Why, I was arrested before midnight?” Here he had written that I was arrested at 12:40 the following day. I was arrested at 11:15 p.m., now he’s writing that I was arrested two hours later — just to punish me. He typed that. But the police had the record that I was arrested the previous day. So I spent the night there [in jail]. In the morning, they called me and they said they can let me go. I think it was because I make protest. They found out something was wrong so they let me go and go to court the following day, the 28th. But that day when they let me go, the 27th, I saw the police in the Flats—the one who worked there—and I told me him this guy will totally charge me with disorderly...he said aggravated disorderly [conduct]...and resisting arrest. The police couldn’t believe it. He was trying to think of anything so that I would not have to go to jail. And those are the charges now, aggravated disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. No way I was resisting arrest.
JT: So this was December 26 of 1994?
JM: 1994. Now put all these charges and filed it. Even police are telling me, the following day after I see them again downtown, they couldn’t believe it. That even when they came after they dropped me there, at four in the morning they were summoned to the police station by there commander. That sheriff drove from Kinsman [back to downtown] to coerce them to go with those charges.
JT: So are you saying the sheriff tried to talk the police that saw what happened to...
JM: Yeah, to coerce them. It’s four in the morning. [The other police] are pissed off. They were telling me, they couldn’t believe it. He was coercing them. And those are still the charges now. I have gone to court like four times — three times. So it’s sad. It’s just sad. Aggravated disorderly conduct — as if I was fighting anybody—and resisting arrest. Those are charges that a judge can put you in jail [for]. And that’s all he said it was and only for those— it was just because I challenged him telling me to disappear from the Flats. I didn’t do anything.
JT: So is that what you’re in here now for?
JT: No, it’s for another arrest later, right?
Editor's Note: In early May, the judge dismissed the disorderly conduct charge against Mungai. In Part Two of the interview, Mungai describes the charges that landed him in jail, which he claims are made up. He also describes the history of police harassment that he has faced. The next issue of the Grapevine is due on the streets in July.
Mungai was able to make bail in early May to get out of jail and prepare for his trial. The first week he was out, two off duty white Cleveland police officers removed him from the Flats. The next week, the same officers called the police to arrest Mungai for drunk and disorderly conduct. [Mungai hates alcohol.] They tore up his papers and took him to the city workhouse.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue 10 May – July 1995