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Foes fight Cleveland Indians' team logo outside stadium, in court

The Associated Press

04.13.99

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Michael J. Hane...
Michael J. Haney, second from right, of Bloomington, Minn., and Noel Speece, right, from Athens, Ohio, burn homemade wooden coffin with sculpture of Cleveland Indians character Chief Wahoo outside Jacobs Field in Cleveland April 12. About 40 protesters peacefully demonstrated before Cleveland's baseball home opener against Kansas City.

CLEVELAND — The optimism that accompanies opening day of baseball season was apparent outside Jacobs Field yesterday — on the faces of protesters who want the Cleveland Indians to get rid of the red-faced Chief Wahoo mascot.

Their spirits were buoyed by a new lawsuit against the city of Cleveland and several police officers, and by a federal ruling against the Washington Redskins.

Five protesters who were arrested last year sued the city and police officers on April 9 in Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court for allegedly violating their civil rights.

Their claim involves protests dating back to 1997. During the World Series that year, three people were arrested for burning a straw effigy of Chief Wahoo. A municipal judge dismissed the case April 7, 1998.

Three days after the judge's ruling, five demonstrators burned another effigy and were arrested. The five, including Vernon Bellecourt, president of the American Indian Movement, were jailed for about a day and released without being charged.

The protesters' attorney, Terry Gilbert, said the police harassed demonstrators even when they knew a case against them wouldn't hold up in court. That violated the protesters' right to freedom of speech, he said.

The lawsuit accuses the Cleveland Police Department and former Chief Rocco Pollutro of wrongful arrest, illegal imprisonment and violation of the right to free speech.

"If you can burn a flag, you can burn a Wahoo," Gilbert said yesterday.

The lawsuit asks for an injunction preventing the city from interfering or arresting protesters outside Jacobs Field.

A police spokesman referred questions to city officials, who had no immediate comment. The baseball team, which was not named as a defendant, declined to comment.

"The main thrust of the Native American community is to call attention to the racism of the Chief Wahoo logo," Gilbert said. "Going to Jacobs Field and demonstrating is a critical part of that."

Yesterday, demonstrators burned a wooden sculpture of Chief Wahoo laid out in a coffin before Cleveland's home opener against the Kansas City Royals.

"Say good-bye to this big-toothed Wahoo," exclaimed demonstrator Michael Haney as flames consumed the carving.

Haney was among about 40 people who turned out to denounce the team's mascot as a racist caricature of American Indians.

Some demonstrators pounded out a rhythm on a drum and chanted "Hey! Ho! Racist symbol's got to go" as the sculpture burned.

Others held signs, including one that read "These honor who?" and showed versions of Chief Wahoo with the faces of highly stereotyped black, Asian and Hispanic men.

As game time approached, protesters took turns speaking through a megaphone, trying to convince fans strolling into the ballpark that the Wahoo logo is racist.

Their arguments seemed to have little effect on the crowd, many of whom wore the logo on jackets and sweatshirts. A few fans booed the protesters.

No one was arrested yesterday, unlike previous demonstrations that prompted the new lawsuit.

Besides the Cleveland lawsuit, yesterday's protest also came on the heels of a trademark panel revoking the Washington Redskins' federal trademark protection, saying the team's name may disparage American Indians.

Charlene Teters, a plaintiff in the Cleveland lawsuit and vice president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, says the demonstrators feel they are starting to make progress toward eliminating Wahoo.

"The average person has an awareness of this issue they didn't have before," she said.

Teters, who campaigns against Indians mascots across the country, says other communities that have Indian logos for sports teams generally regard Cleveland's as the most derogatory.

"They say to us 'At least we don't have that little red Sambo like they do in Cleveland,"' she said.

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