Gun Violence

Victim No. 79: America’s homicide crisis claimed my childhood friend

Eric Smith isn’t just another statistic. He and my hometown were caught in this country’s other pandemic.

When I was a kid in the late 1960s, I had a bunch of white friends. They were my neighbors in East Cleveland, Ohio. My family was the third Black household on Brightwood Avenue, a street with 48 well-built residential homes. Then, seemingly all at once, the white folks up and left. At the time, I didn’t know what had happened, but our street was suddenly all Black.

I was just happy that Deon and Eric, two of my best friends, didn’t go anywhere. Deon was a year younger than me and Eric was two years behind his brother. We used to call Deon “Cat Eyes” because his eyes were hazel, an unusual thing for a Black kid. Eric was big for his age and had no problem running with us older boys. Deon and Eric, and the rest of the immediate family, lived with their grandparents on Brightwood off and on. My mom and I lived with my grandparents. Our families were good friends. Grandma used to send me to their house to “borrow” a cup of sugar or flour or a few eggs. As we grew up, I attended college, got married, had kids and, as the years went by, would only occasionally see my friends from the old neighborhood.

This summer, shortly before my annual trip home for the Fourth of July, I learned that Eric had died in a shooting at a notoriously violent street corner less than a half-mile from where we grew up.

The corner of East 125th Street and Superior Avenue where Eric Smith was shot and killed on June 26 in Cleveland.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

“This dude shot him in the back,” a relative told me on a phone call. Reportedly, Eric turned to say how cowardly it was to shoot him when he wasn’t looking and pulled out his own gun and the two men exchanged shots. Eric took a few steps, collapsed and died, according to a 911 caller and Cleveland police.

Eric hadn’t been living an easy life. He’d had a 30-year narcotics addiction. (The medical examiner found that he had cocaine, PCP and painkillers in his system at the time of his death.) He’d spent more than half of his adulthood cycling in and out of Ohio’s prisons. He’d experienced homelessness. Earlier this year, a court-ordered psychological evaluation determined he suffered from mental illness. But it appears that diagnosis was long overdue and his illness may have been a trigger for many of his previous issues with substance abuse and the law.

Now, he is a statistic on a crime analyst’s spreadsheet: Gun-fatality victim No. 79 in Cleveland in 2021. The city is on pace for its most homicides in 30 years.

Some might say that Eric’s demise started when he decided to take his first hit of crack cocaine in his 20s. He’s not blameless, to be sure. But Eric’s decline and the decline of my hometown are part of a wider system that deprives Black communities of adequate finances, indulges corrupt police and treats drug addiction as a crime rather than an illness. And all these factors contribute to this country’s pandemic of violence.

The numbers aren’t lying: There is a homicide crisis in America, and like most unfavorable trends, it’s hitting Black people the hardest. Homicides increased in the United States by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, to 21,570, according to FBI figures.

The carnage is continuing, with the Council on Criminal Justice estimating the numbers have increased an additional 16% in the first half of 2021.

Fifty-three percent of gun violence homicide victims in 2019 were Black men, even though they only make up about 7% of the U.S. population. The problem is particularly acute among Black men between the ages of 15 and 34. They’re 37% of gun homicide victims but only 2% of the population, according to federal data analyzed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Most experts attribute the rise in homicides to Americans arming themselves in wake of the coronavirus pandemic and social justice protests.

“We haven’t seen these homicide [numbers] since the early ’90s with the crack cocaine epidemic,” said Saleh Awadallah, the assistant prosecutor who runs the Cuyahoga County Major Trial Homicide Unit in Cleveland. “People are more trigger-happy than they’ve ever been. Many of these homicides take place in a split second — being at the gas station, at different pumps, two guys have a look at each other, and we’re having a shoot-out.”

Nearly 40 million guns were bought legally in America last year, the most in a single year and a 60% jump from 2019. The trend has continued in 2021. Through June, more than 22 million guns were purchased. A 2018 study estimated that there were 393 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S., which means the total number of guns may have increased by a staggering 15% in just a year and a half.

That increase in sales was especially notable among Black folks, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which estimated purchases by African Americans increased by 56% in 2020 compared with 2019.

All these numbers mean one thing, gun violence experts say: We have more armed citizens, and with more people capable of pulling the trigger, we have more homicides.

Dan Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said it’s pretty simple: “When something happens and a firearm is available, it’s more likely to be used.”

Eric Donnell Smith was born on Dec. 18, 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement. He would die 53 years later in the middle of a pandemic.

Eric’s dad was a former Navy seaman named Talbert Smith. Talbert, known as “Tee” to family and friends, was 20 when Eric was born. His first son, Talbert Deon Smith, had come nearly two years earlier.

Eric Smith’s dad, Talbert Smith, was a former Navy seaman. Known as “Tee” to family and friends, he was 20 when Eric was born.

Smith Family

Eric and Deon’s mom, Arlaine Smith, had wanted to parlay her slim figure and pretty face into a career as a fashion model. She settled on being a cosmetologist. She and her twin sister sang Motown covers at local talent shows and often came away with the prize money.

Talbert had survived a catastrophic explosion off the coast of North Vietnam just five months before Eric’s birth. The Navy said 134 men were lost that day on the USS Forrestal. Once out of the service, Talbert drove a truck for a vending machine company and got rave reviews for his performance. He was smart and knew how to get things done efficiently.

Soon, Arlaine and Tee had four boys: Deon, Eric, Andre and Trent. Talbert loved taking his sons down to Lake Erie, which is where the older ones learned to swim.

“Tee threw us in Lake Erie,” Deon said. “He threw us in there. He said, ‘Now, y’all get back to the edge.’ I was the first one to get thrown in the water. … It was shocking.”

Eric was a good swimmer from the jump and his dad recognized his son had a special talent. Unlike a lot of Black kids of that day, Eric had no fear of the water. As he got a little older, Eric gained a reputation around Cleveland-area pools as a natural-born swimmer. That reputation took on mythical proportions when it came to a game known as the “greasy watermelon toss.”

Lifeguards would slather a watermelon in cooking oil and drop it in the water. Frenzied swimmers would try to get it and hold on. But “it would start slipping everywhere,” recalled Andre, one of Eric’s younger brothers. “People were pushing it out of your hands like a football.”

Eric Smith’s brother, Andre Smith, at his home on July 14 in Bedford, Ohio.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

Eric had long arms and legs and a strong upper torso. “Eric would cup it in his belly and just hold it,” Andre said, “and it just always worked out for him.”

But things weren’t working out for Tee, who was experiencing flashbacks to the ship explosion. To deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder, he drank and did drugs. Arlaine and Tee separated.

On Aug. 6, 1974, Talbert was at the lake with some friends. The day was sunny and a light breeze was blowing. “They were drinking, walking on the rocks, and he slipped and fell into the water and the undertow got him,” Andre, now 51, told me in an interview at his house in suburban Cleveland.

Andre was looking at his father’s death certificate as we spoke. The document stated that Tee “drowned while swimming in lake.” Some older relatives, though, suspect foul play was involved because Tee was an excellent swimmer who had been diving in Lake Erie since he arrived in Cleveland from Mississippi as a boy.

When he died, Tee was 27. Deon was 8; Eric, 6; Andre, 4; and Trent, 1. All four boys got dressed up and went with their mom to his funeral.

Eric and Deon Smith’s mom, Arlaine Smith, had wanted to parlay her slim figure and pretty face into a career as a fashion model. She became a cosmetologist.

Smith Family

East Cleveland is only seven miles from downtown Cleveland, an easy commute that once attracted the wealthy and connected. Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller had a 235-acre estate in the Forest Hill neighborhood of East Cleveland, one of his two homes in the area.

Eventually, his son donated the land to East Cleveland and the neighboring city of Cleveland Heights. John D. Rockefeller Jr. also donated land to East Cleveland for a public library, a hospital and a junior high school.

After the Great Depression, working-class white people began moving in. They stayed until the 1960s, but once we Black folks arrived, they bounced.

Research by Mark Souther, a Cleveland State University professor, shows East Cleveland was 98% white in 1960 but 86% Black by 1980. That took place even as the city’s population dropped dramatically, from 39,600 in 1970 to 17,843 in 2010. It’s now less than 14,000.

The transformation didn’t happen by accident. Frank Ford, a senior policy adviser at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy outside of Cleveland, said real estate agents used integration to scare white folks into selling their homes at below-market prices. The concept is known as blockbusting.

And once those Black homeowners arrived, Ford said, they were penalized by a federal policy that dated to the 1930s, years before any Black people had a chance to live in East Cleveland.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal program designed to gauge the risk of making a home loan, began assessing what it called the “security” of neighborhoods. It generated color-coded maps that designated which communities HOLC deemed “most desirable” for lending and which were “least desirable.” Areas with the lowest financial risk, and best chance for increased property values, were shaded green, followed by blue, yellow and, the riskiest, red.

Once the white people moved out, East Cleveland — and other predominantly Black areas around the United States — were coded red, a system known as “redlining.” “That went all the way through the 1970s and caused a lot of disinvestment” in Black communities, Ford said.

Our two-story bungalow sat at 1824 Brightwood Ave. It had three bedrooms, two baths and a spacious, unfinished basement that was our play area on snowy winter days. We had to be careful not to get close to the furnace or we’d scald our hands, as my younger cousin once did. He had blisters for days.

Eric’s grandparents lived next door at 1828 Brightwood Ave. in a slightly bigger brown bungalow. Our families were close and big. Eleven people were in our household. Eric’s home had 13 occupants, and that kept them in the crosshairs of the East Cleveland housing inspectors, who tried to keep the city just for “nuclear families” until the Supreme Court eventually told them to knock it off.

Dwayne Bray’s childhood home, a two-story bungalow in East Cleveland.

Dwayne Bray/ The Undefeated

By 1977, the only white folks left on our block were three or four older adults. They were mostly shut-ins. We’d see them on the porch if the weather was nice, but that was it. There were no white families with young children, or even white working-age people.

Arlaine married postal carrier Johnny Howard soon after Tee’s death, but she didn’t always get along with her new husband, her children told me. So, she would bring her kids over to Brightwood to live with Talbert’s parents.

That meant Eric and Deon were back in the neighborhood, which made me happy.

For several years in the 1970s, we did the Brightwood Block Club on Saturdays. Residents would band together to make sure the street was spick-and-span. The adults would cut grass, paint porches and fix structures. The kids would pick up litter. Afterward, we’d munch on hamburgers and hot dogs from a grill.

We were proud of our street, our neighborhood and our city — and showing whoever doubted us that we could take care of a neighborhood as well as anyone else.

When Eric was 12, his family was living in another part of East Cleveland when his older brother Deon got caught up in a robbery and car theft with one of Arlaine’s nephews. He would spend the next four years in juvenile detention.

Forest Hills Pool where Eric Smith used to swim growing up.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

Eric had to help Arlaine care for the younger siblings and deal with the strife from her marriage. Still, he was doing well in school and focused on his swimming. In the 10th grade, he was selected to be on the Shaw High School varsity swim and dive team, his family said. They remembered he would wear a red-and-white T-shirt with the words “Swim” and “Dive” printed across the front.

Arlaine was receiving food stamps and subsidies from the women, infants and children nutrition program back then. She would line the kids up at local charities so they could get free blocks of government cheese. “I still keep a can of beans in my locker at work to remember all the meals when it was sort of tough,” said Trent, now 48, as he nursed a pineapple upside-down cake beer at a restaurant in the Cleveland suburb of Independence.

But there were good memories from their kitchen, too. “Eric was the best cook in the family back when we were kids,” said Trent. Eric especially liked to heat up some Crisco and, after peeling and slicing the potatoes, make french fries from scratch.

Trent Smith in his brother’s backyard in Bedford, Ohio.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

By 11th grade, Eric was done with organized swimming. He was running with a rough crowd. He drank and smoked marijuana, a few times stealing it from his stepdad. “Eric used to go into his drawers and sneak his weed,” Andre said. “That’s where the drug use started.” Arlaine had had enough of her marriage and East Cleveland. She moved her kids, who numbered seven by now, to Cleveland Heights, just south of East Cleveland, a city with strong government and schools, all the things East Cleveland had hoped to have.

It was in Cleveland Heights where Eric would experience his first crush.

Her name was Daniza Embrose and she had smooth brown skin and a bright smile. She also had a mom and dad who didn’t want their 14-year-old daughter dating a boy as old as Eric, who was 17.

“My parents were like, ‘You can’t have a boyfriend,’ ” Embrose said. But they relented, she said, because Eric “was just so endearing.”

“Eric’s best time was when he met Daniza,” Andre said. “They did stuff together. They dressed alike. I felt like he was being a normal guy.”

Neither had wheels, so they walked. Mostly they hung out at the Coventry Village shopping district and did teenage stuff: “We’d go get pizza. We’d get sub sandwiches. And just kind of hang out.”

Some days, Eric would slip on his old Shaw High swim shirt and people would ask if he was a swimmer. He loved the attention.

“Eric knew everybody on Coventry,” Embrose told me. “Everybody loved him, respected him.”

Her dad took Eric under his wing. He showed Eric around Cleveland’s NBC news station, where he worked in video production.

Daniza Embrose was Eric Smith’s first crush.

Dwayne Bray/ The Undefeated

“My parents tried to show him and guide him, not because I was his girlfriend, but they wanted to show him a different aspect of the world,” said Embrose. “My mom took us to see Run-D.M.C. at the Front Row [Theater]. We saw New Edition at the Front Row, too.”

Eric was feeling the love of his girlfriend’s family. What he wasn’t feeling was school in his new community. He finished 11th grade but didn’t go back for his senior year. Instead, he worked at Lax & Mandel Bakery and hung around the Embroses, including tagging along when they vacationed in the Bahamas. “The first thing he did was jump into the ocean,” Embrose recalled.

By 1989, when Eric was 21 and Embrose 18, the crush was over. She’d graduated and gotten a job. Eric had stopped working at the bakery and was spending more time in his old community of East Cleveland.

They were moving in different directions and broke up.

East Cleveland’s tax base was dwindling even as the community’s need increased. There were abandoned houses and apartment buildings. And by 1990, crack cocaine had overtaken dozens of East Cleveland’s street corners. Young men in oversized winter coats wearing multiple layers of clothing would hang out and sell the highly addictive substance.

My old street, Brightwood, was no longer the source of pride associated with the Block Club. The cops had given it a new name, one that indicated how much narcotics was being trafficked there: The Million Dollar Block.

By then, I was working three hours away in Dayton, Ohio, as a crime reporter. Meanwhile, Eric was using crack and, in 1993, serving his first prison sentence for carrying a concealed weapon. It wouldn’t be his last time behind bars.

Eric would spend nine of the next 16 years behind prison walls for offenses ranging from felonious assault to robbery to auto theft. Every time he did time, he agreed to plead guilty without putting the system through the expense of a trial. But that changed with an arrest back on Brightwood in February 2009.

Around the city, the East Cleveland Police Department’s street crime unit was known as the Jump Out Boys because officers had a reputation for jumping out of their cruisers and beating people they thought were selling drugs. It didn’t matter if the person had no drugs on them or that the officers lacked probable cause to stop them.

I know they did these things because the detective who headed the street crime unit testified about it in state court.

Detective Randy Hicks said this under oath:

“If somebody mouths off to you, put them on the hood. Look for dope. You don’t find any, make it inconvenient for them.”

He also said this:

“We were told to strip them down in the middle of winter. Make it inconvenient for them to be on the corners.”

Hicks admitted that he “beat up people all the time” and added, “That’s the way we were taught. You ran from us, that’s what happened.”

Eric was 41 in 2009 when he encountered Hicks and the street crime unit on Brightwood. It was a Sunday in February. Eric had been up to no good, selling weed when the cops rolled up. He bolted but Hicks took him down and cuffed him. Eric had a rock of crack cocaine in his pocket.

Hicks told his partner that Eric had tried to get his gun. Eric denied it and, for the first time, demanded a jury trial instead of accepting the state’s four-year plea deal. Hicks stuck to his version. The jury believed Hicks and Eric got 10 years.

“They convicted him essentially on Hicks’ testimony,” Eric’s defense attorney, Donald Butler, said when I called him recently. Eric was serving time in the Grafton Correctional Institute for that case on Nov. 9, 2014, alongside Deon, who was doing four years for assault, when their mom died of cancer. The two of them watched Arlaine’s funeral together via Skype.

Eric was still insisting Hicks had lied on him when Hicks showed up in court in 2016, accused in a civil suit of setting up another man in East Cleveland.

This incident had happened on April 28, 2012. Arnold Black, a landscaper, testified that Hicks stopped his truck without justification and then punched him while he was sitting handcuffed on his car bumper. Black also claimed that the East Cleveland police took him to the station and locked him in a storage room for four days without food, water, toilet facilities or medical attention for his head, which was swollen after being punched by Hicks.

From left to right: Deon Smith, Deon Smith Jr., and Eric Smith in the Grafton Correctional Institute. Eric Smith spent nine years in prison after he was convicted for trying to take a gun from East Cleveland detective Randy Hicks.

Smith Family

Officer Jonathan O’Leary confirmed Black’s story, telling supervisors that an informant had told Hicks about a car with a kilogram of cocaine stored in a door panel. When they stopped Black and failed to find any drugs, Hicks had indeed struck Black while he was handcuffed, O’Leary said. Black required surgery to stop bleeding on his brain, his attorney, Bobby DiCello, said in an interview.

The case had to be retried because of a technicality, but a second jury awarded Black $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Hicks and the city of East Cleveland, among others.

Eric thought the Black case proved Hicks, who had resigned from the police force by then, had lied about him, too. He wanted a new trial, but never got one.

“Randy testified to a departmentwide practice,” said Eric Foster, a local attorney. “Then why wouldn’t we be looking into every case coming out of East Cleveland? All the stuff that every defendant said in every courtroom that this officer made this up and took this from me, he [Hicks] said they did it.” Hicks has never been charged. But other East Cleveland officers have faced charges for a variety of misconduct. One was found to have kicked a handcuffed man in the head. He was fired — until the police union successfully appealed because it took too long to discover what he’d done.

In July, two East Cleveland officers were arrested for allegedly stealing $5,000 from a man during a traffic stop. The money, the man said, was to help pay for his mother’s funeral.

Police Chief Scott Gardner declined to be interviewed for this story. But police Capt. Ken Lundy said all the complaints of misconduct have left the department stained.

“It definitely makes the job tough on officers who are trying to do the right thing when they see two officers arrested for theft,” Lundy said. I asked Lundy about Hicks. He said, “We don’t want those people in the department. We are going to call officers out when they’re doing wrong and that includes all the way up to prosecution.”

Part of the problem is that East Cleveland can’t afford to pay well and often has to settle for problematic candidates for its 50-person force. “A lot of these officers have gotten reprimanded or had an opportunity to resign from another police force and decide that they are going to come to East Cleveland and take a pay cut to re-prove themselves,” said City Councilor at Large Timothy Austin.

Bad cops and the inability of the justice system to root them out quickly has multiple add-on effects. People are more likely to see the police as corrupt and be unwilling to cooperate in investigations. If arrest rates are depressed, there’s less deterrence of serious crime. And acceptance of bad practices means that low-level criminals like Eric can spend more time in jail on questionable charges and come out even less prepared to live on their own or find gainful employment.

After nine years in prison, Eric was released on Jan. 25, 2018. But this last stint had changed him. On most days, he was good, friends and family say. But on others, he could appear lost, talking like he was disconnected from reality.

His old girlfriend, Embrose, said she saw him one day and he didn’t know who she was.

Eighteen months later, he was back behind bars, charged with burglary and menacing. He spent five months in the county jail. After being released, he missed an appointment with his probation officer and was picked up again. His public defender, noting that he had been previously diagnosed with depression, PTSD and bipolar disorder, asked that Eric be given a psychological exam to see if he was competent to stand trial. It showed Eric had a severe mental illness.

He’d been telling his brothers that helicopters were following him around.

“I said, ‘Eric, come on, bro. You been getting high,’ ” Deon said. “He’d tell me if he was or not. But he wasn’t.”

Christine Montross, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, performs mental competency evaluations in criminal cases. There are about 356,000 seriously mentally ill inmates in America’s jails and prisons, she said.

“I see people all the time with severe mental illnesses who are in punitive facilities when they ought to be in therapeutic ones,” said Montross, who explored the issue in her 2020 book, Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration. “Incarceration routinely makes mentally ill people worse and it also renders psychiatrically stable people less well.”

In the spring, Eric had become a resident at the Y-Haven Transitional Housing and Treatment center, which provides shelter to homeless men, among others. Y-Haven operates out of the Carl B. Stokes Building, named for the man who was elected the city’s first Black mayor in 1967, a month before Eric was born. But in early June, Eric left Y-Haven and didn’t return. He called his counselor and told her he’d relapsed, his brother Andre said. Executive director Ed Gemerchak said Y-Haven’s routine is to follow former residents for a year, but Eric’s counselor could never reach him. “In Eric’s case, we did have someone pursuing him,” Gemerchak said. “He had a great relationship with his counselor.”

Eric was out in the streets, and no one knew what he was doing. What is known is that he returned to familiar ground — East Cleveland and the adjacent Cleveland neighborhood of Glenville.

On June 7, he phoned his brother Andre around 5:30 a.m. Andre was working his early-morning shift.

“That’s when I was begging and pleading with him to get off those streets,” Andre said. “ ‘You had no reason to be in that area.’ I said, ‘How long is this going to keep going?’ ”

Andre talked to him again on June 15 and they had a similar conversation. A few days later, Deon met up with Eric, who told his brother that someone was out to kill him. He was preoccupied with a chopper that was flying around Cleveland.

“I’d say, ‘What is it about you, Eric, that these helicopters are following you? Is there something pertinent about you? Why are they following you?’ And he kept saying someone is trying to kill him.”

On June 25, Eric called Andre again: “He told me he loved me 10 times in a row and he asked me to pay his cellphone bill,” Andre recalled.

Eric Smith’s older brother Deon stands in an open lot where his childhood home used to be on Brightwood Avenue in East Cleveland.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

The next day, according to Cleveland police and three of Eric’s brothers, Eric and a woman he knew had an argument at a bus stop at the corner of East 125th Street and Superior Avenue in Glenville. That location is only a half-mile from Brightwood Avenue. The relatives told me the woman made a call on her cellphone and that two men showed up in a car. One of the men and Eric allegedly talked about issues Eric and the woman were having. According to Eric’s family members, who say they know some people who knew witnesses to the shooting, Eric was leaving the corner. The man Eric had spoken with was also leaving, but the second man who came to the bus stop reportedly opened fire, shooting Eric in the back. The autopsy report said he’d been shot twice in the back and once in the chest.

“Somebody got to shooting and he tried to shoot back and he’s not moving,” the first of several women who called 911 said. That caller said the injured man wandered over to a vacant lot and fell next to a yellow truck.

“He’s right there by it,” she said of the truck. “He’s dead. He’s not moving.”

Deon said someone called to tell him his brother had been shot, but he couldn’t go to the hospital to identify the body because he was under house arrest. So he called Andre with the news: Eric was dead.

In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs, the total number of homicides could top 300 this year, compared with 190 in 2019 and 257 in 2020, the county’s medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Gilson, said.

“I’ve been trying to ring the bell that gun violence is significantly worse in the last year or two,” Gilson said.

Prosecutors here say that 85% of the homicide investigations they end up charging involve a Black male victim. “Guns are a symptom of something bigger,” Gilson said.

Those who have spent their lives working to reduce violence say the driving force behind people shooting each other is no mystery. “The root cause of gun violence is literally poverty,” said Bindu Kalesan, a researcher at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “There is a saying within the public health community: When there is a new disease, look for it in the place where there is the least wealth.”

Eric’s family was poor and he lost his father at an early age. Experts say those two factors alone explain a lot about how his life developed. East Cleveland has one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Ohio at 37.5%. The child poverty rate in the city is close to 54%.

The numbers aren’t that different in the adjoining Cleveland neighborhoods. Glenville, where Eric was killed, has a 36% poverty rate, with nearly 53% of children living below the poverty line, according to data from The Center for Community Solutions, a think tank trying to better socioeconomic conditions for the poor.

“A greater share of children live in poverty than any other age group,” said Emily Campbell, associate director of research for the center. “Children don’t choose to be poor. We ask people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. We can’t ask that of children. And we can’t punish children for the circumstances that their parents are in.”

Cleveland is the poorest big city in the nation, surpassing Detroit, census data shows. So while city officials are partnering with the business community to bring in prestigious events such as political conventions and the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, the communities with the least continue to struggle and vulnerable citizens like Eric die in the streets.

Councilman Basheer Jones at Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center in Cleveland.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

“We lost our brother Eric Smith, man, and there are other men and women who we are losing,” said Cleveland councilman Basheer Jones, whose ward includes several high-poverty neighborhoods. “But this is a symptom of a bigger problem.”

It cost the state of Ohio roughly half a million dollars to keep Eric in prison over the course of his life. Jones said it would cost taxpayers less to start investing in poor kids’ lives early on. “What people have to understand is you pay now or you pay later, but you’re going to pay,” he said. “Whether you’re paying for the jail cells. Whether you’re paying for the extra police. You’re paying in some way, so we might as well pay and be preventive rather than have to pay and be reactive.”

Frank Jackson, Cleveland’s mayor for the last 16 years, is not running for reelection. Ten days before Eric’s death, he was one of 27 big-city mayors requesting President Joe Biden’s assistance to help reduce gun violence, saying local communities were overwhelmed.

On Sept. 19, on the same night Cleveland’s football stadium hosted its first sold-out Browns game in nearly two years because of the pandemic, Jackson could be seen on the local news alongside Chief of Police Calvin Williams, pacing back and forth at a shooting scene in the city’s Garden Valley housing development. Jackson’s 24-year-old grandson, Frank Q. Jackson, who had multiple brushes with the law over the past two years, had been killed.

As with Eric’s shooting, no arrests have been made in the death of the younger Jackson.

Art McKoy, the head of an anti-violence group called Black on Black Crime Inc., calls the corner where Eric was killed in Glenville “a hot spot.” He said Eric was at least the 10th person killed in that area in the past decade.

McKoy, a short man with a thick mustache, has been trying to bring awareness to this issue for years. But not that long ago he got a new perspective on violence.

In 2018, McKoy was working at his barbershop in East Cleveland when a 19-year-old accused McKoy of not giving him a good haircut. The young man punched McKoy in the face, breaking his nose and eye socket. It took him six months to recover.

The 19-year-old later called McKoy to ask for forgiveness. He said he didn’t realize he had hit a man who was well known in the community for decades of work on anti-violence efforts.

“He said, ‘Mr. McKoy, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that was you. I’m so sorry, man.’ ”

McKoy told the young man to give him time to heal.

Art McKoy says there has to be a “stop-the-pain movement in our communities.”

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

“I realized one thing,” he said. “There has to be a stop-the-pain movement in our communities because pain is inflicted on one another at the bat of an eye for no reason.

“I’m talking about, ‘I get mad with you and I’m knocking you out.’ I’m talking about getting mad with you and breaking your nose. I’m talking about getting mad with you and stomping on your spine and paralyze you. Why? Because a young man said that I messed up his $10 line, and he’s willing to kill me.”

Councilman Jones echoed a similar sentiment about poor Black children being in pain and, as a result, defaulting to violence over any little thing.

“People are walking around unhealed, man, and we’re not dealing with the problem,” Jones said. “That’s somebody’s father, somebody’s uncle. There’s a pain that the family has to go through. That continues to spread, that continues to be regurgitated in a sense, unhealed wounds.”

Yet amid the poverty and pain, these poor communities have islands of hope.

I stopped in at the East Cleveland Public Library to look at some old Shaw High yearbooks. I spent some time in the building back when I was a student in the public school system, but not nearly enough.

To help close the digital divide between poorer and richer communities, in 2018 the library became one of the first in the county to allow patrons to check out Wi-Fi hot spot units. “Before the pandemic this time of day, this place would be packed,” said Elmer Turner, who is the executive assistant to the director, Carlos Latimer, who went to Shaw High with me. “Since the shutdown, people have been trickling back in.”

Further east down Euclid Avenue, I found a former drug dealer who was trying to turn his life and his neighborhood around. His name is John Lastery and he was cutting hair inside his business, BossFitt Barber Lounge.

Lastery started his shop not long after his release from prison on a weapons offense. He said he wants to set a positive example for youths because gangbanging and drug dealing aren’t the way to go.

“I could still be on the streets selling drugs, wasting my talents,” he said, as he lined a customer’s hair.

Lastery’s biceps flexed each time he moved a straight razor around a man’s head. He’s about 5-feet-9 and says he can bench 350.

John Lastery Jr. cuts hair at his business, the BossFitt Barber Lounge, in East Cleveland.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

“How can I be BossFitt, if I ain’t fit?” he said. “I sculpted myself into the king I’m supposed to be.”

He’s also bullish on the area.

“If this is the ‘Mistake on the Lake,’ I don’t see it,” Lastery said. “You had the Rockefellers in East Cleveland. He wouldn’t have come here for no reason.”

Seti Richardson is an ex-offender who works with a segment of society that’s most susceptible to gun violence: other ex-offenders. He runs the Re-entry Alumni Association, which aims to keep those who have been to prison from going back and from hurting anyone or being hurt themselves. I watched as he led a midweek meeting for 10 people, which he said is down from the dozens of regular attendees before the pandemic. On this day, Richardson welcomed a 27-year-old man who recently came home after four years in prison. A judge had asked Richardson to take the man on.

Also in the room were a grandfather and grandson. Aside from me, the young man was the only non-offender in the room. His granddad opened up.

“I wasn’t there for my son. Why?” the 64-year-old said. “Because I was in the penitentiary.”

Richardson turned his focus to the 27-year-old, who was tatted, wore Ohio State Buckeye sweats and had the powerful build of an NFL linebacker. Richardson asked him a question all the others in the room, except for the boy and me, could relate to.

“How many fights you had in the penitentiary?”

“Too many to count,” he finally answered.

One light-skinned man, who was 56, spoke next.

“I ain’t bragging, but I got six numbers,” he said, referring to the times he’s been locked away. “When I was growing up, I was in the streets. I was a heroin addict. Didn’t care nothing about going to no jail.

“I hate to say this, but I was a true sucker,” he continued. “I thought I was a true player.”

“Brother, stay out of the penitentiary,” a man in his 60s told the 27-year-old. “Stay with us. We’re going to love you. We’re going to nurture you.”

Ten miles away in the Collinwood area of town, I caught up with Ted Ginn Sr., a legendary football and track coach and founder of a boys school that enrolls students from impoverished areas.

Ginn Academy opened in 2007 and has a 95% graduation rate, Ginn told me with pride.

He wore a red sweatsuit with a matching red hat bearing a letter “G” for Glenville High, the Cleveland public school where he’s the football coach. (Ginn Academy students play sports at Glenville and other Cleveland public schools.) Glenville, the neighborhood where Eric was killed, is famous both for its intractable poverty and for producing athletes such as Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Smith, Cardale Jones and the agent representing LeBron James, Rich Paul.

Ginn Sr. played center for Glenville in the 1970s. He’s 65 now, and after a bout with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he looks more like a receiver, which is the position his son held down in the NFL for 14 years.

We sat at a table in the conference room off his office at the 375-student Ginn Academy. He was aware that although I’m employed by a sports network, I didn’t come to talk football. I was there to gain insight into how community leaders are coping with the rise in gun violence, something Ginn knows all too intimately. His 19-year-old nephew, Diamond Russell, was a Ginn Academy student when he was shot and killed in 2016 at a Shell gas station in East Cleveland.

“Diamond got in the car with his friends,” Ginn said softly. “He was four days from graduation. They went over there by the gas station and dude just started shooting.”

The shooter, Alonzo Patterson, 18, didn’t know Russell. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison. An accomplice got six years for involuntary manslaughter.

Ted Ginn Sr. is a legendary football and track coach and founder of a boys school that enrolls students from impoverished areas.

Dwayne Bray/ The Undefeated

“That could have been me, you, anybody,” Ginn said. “I talked to the chief of police. I said, ‘Do you know the mentality of a kid 13 to 25? You don’t know it. With no direction, and he’s got a gun, he’s going to shoot it every day. I don’t care if he shoots in the air. I don’t care if you shoot a cat, or a dog, or something or somebody, because nobody has given him values about guns.’ ” Ginn knows that many young people in hard-hit neighborhoods are growing up without a father and some without a mother, too. He was raised by his mom — she died at age 38 when he was 19 — and his grandmother. The family would eat together nightly and he learned many lessons during those meals.

“We have forgotten all the core values of raising young people,” Ginn said. “We see that the kids today, if they don’t see their future, they don’t think they have one. Where are they going to find love and understanding? We’re moving too fast. Nobody’s sitting at the table anymore with our children. And these are the results right here, because nobody’s raising our kids.”

So Ginn has doubled down on his educational proposition, spending more time than ever with his students.

“I’m working harder now than I’ve worked in 30 years because I have to stay with the kids to try to take up their whole day,” Ginn said. “So you try to keep them busy and try to keep the outside influences out. I got something to do with them every day. And then you still might miss.”

In some ways, Deon said, neither he nor Eric recovered from seeing their old man in his casket.

“Oh, that killed us; that crushed us,” Deon, now 55, said. “We didn’t need to see him like that for our last time. It destroyed us. It woke Andre all the way up. Me and Eric, it hurt us more than anything because we were used to him.”

Everyone I talked to agrees that Arlaine was a good mom — always making sure her children had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies under difficult circumstances. But Arlaine had a blind spot when it came to Deon and Eric.

From left to right: Eric Smith’s son, who is also named Eric (or Little E), Eric Smith and three of Eric’s brothers: Johnny Howard, Trent Smith and Deon Smith.

Smith family

Her two oldest boys loved their mom, but they also loved their addictions and it drove her crazy as they cycled in and out of prison. When they were home, they took whatever she had. They didn’t do it out of maliciousness. They did it out of desperation.

“They done stole my car and crashed it and now I can’t get to work,” she’d tell others.

Andre used the phrase “eternal hope” to describe his mother’s attitude toward his older brothers. Hope that one day they’d mature and be men. But they were never taught manhood skills. Deon was locked up at 14. Eric romanticized street life. Andre said his mom didn’t want to hear the truth about her older sons and would get upset if anyone tried to call her on her permissiveness.

“Why do you hate your brothers so much?” she would say to him.

“I don’t hate them. I don’t like what they’re doing,” he told her.

“She just never wanted to believe it,” he said. “And I was pleading with them: ‘Look at your mom. Look what you’re doing to her.’ ”

And what did they say in response?

“They used to tell me I don’t understand,” Andre said.

“I’d say, ‘Hold on. I grew up in the same house at the same time with the same problems. When you didn’t eat, I didn’t eat. So how do I not understand?’

“Deon used to call me ‘Mr. Know-It-All’ because I would read and I would try to make the good grades, because our house was so full of turmoil that I would take solace at school because that’s the time I could be normal.”

Today, Andre and Trent have middle-class jobs as supervisors at Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., a steel manufacturer. They’re both married with families and houses in the ‘burbs.

Even as the brothers’ trajectories diverged, though, all of Arlaine’s children remain a close, loving family.

For nearly two weeks, Andre had been racking his brain for the right words for Eric’s eulogy.

On July 10, it was time. More than 100 of us filed into the sanctuary of the Imani Temple Ministries in Cleveland Heights.

Arlaine’s six kids sat together in the first pew to the left of Eric’s gray casket — the three remaining Smith boys, Deon, Andre and Trent, and the three Howard siblings, Johnny Ray Howard Jr., Daren Howard and Shemika Smith. Eric’s stepfather was there, too, and so were three of Arlaine’s sisters, including her twin, Elaine, who had come up from Alabama.

As a selection of “Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory” played, Andre, who had been stoic since his brother’s death, experienced a fit of emotion. He rose from his seat and languished in front of Eric’s coffin.

He’d been doing so much in the 14 days since Eric was killed. Trying to find out what the cops knew. Taking the lead in planning the funeral. Responding to every text and call about what had happened. He was operating on fumes and it was catching up to him.

He hurt for his family. For himself. And for Eric. Eric once had so much promise. He was a smart and wonderful brother but he could never pull it together. Andre wanted things to be different. His eyes weren’t fixed on anything or anyone. Finally, a pastor politely led him back to his seat.

When it came time for the eulogy, Andre decided not to refer to the notes he’d been compiling for two weeks. Standing at the pulpit high above the casket, Andre spoke from the heart.

Eric taught him to ride his bike and then stole his bike, he said.

Eric enjoyed being “in the back as a leader, not front,” until Deon went away in the early 1980s, and Eric had to be out front.

He mentioned Eric’s propensity for showing up at your door unexpectedly. And that despite being such a tough guy, Eric was unafraid to tell his brothers and others that he loved them.

“I feel like it is such a waste for this to happen like that,” Andre told mourners. “This is the toughest, because there was so much potential there … but he wasn’t seeking it.”

Eric fathered one son, and Andre spotted “Little E,” who is in his 30s, in the church.

“He loved you, man. He just didn’t know how to love you because we didn’t have that growing up.”

Andre said he wanted to leave everyone with one thought.

“He wasn’t some random dude out there wandering the streets,” Andre said. “He had a family. … Many nights I cried about him. Many nights I prayed. Many nights I went looking for him.”

At that point, Deon, Andre and Trent, Talbert’s three living sons, huddled over their deceased brother.

Family members gather in front of the coffin at the funeral for Eric Smith at Imani Temple Ministries on July 10 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Amber N. Ford for The Undefeated

If you could see your seconds in an hourglass,

If you could see the minutes of a life you had,

Would you run and would you try,

To win it back.

Racquel Hubbard, a local performer, was singing the words from Mary J. Blige’s “Hourglass.”

A trickle of family members joined the three brothers at the casket.

Why we wasting life.

Should be chasing life.

More family approached the casket.

I don’t want to hold onto goodbyes.

You better make it last tonight.

So many people were hugging in front of the gray casket, you could no longer see Eric Donnell Smith, the 79th homicide victim this year in Cleveland.

Liner Notes

If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.

Dwayne Bray is a senior writer for Andscape. He writes about topics ranging from general sports to race relations to poverty. He previously ran ESPN television’s award-winning investigative team and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.