Cincinnati After the Uprising

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Dan La Botz

FOLLOWING THE BIGGEST social explosion in Black Cincinnati in over thirty years after the April 7 police killing of Timothy Thomas, the question has become: Will the city change?  Will there be reform?  Or are we back to business as usual?

The funeral for Timothy Thomas, held April 14 in the New Prospect Church in Over-the-Rhine, became a focal point of pain and protest, a powerful and moving event in which the Black community cried out for justice.  Perhaps two thousand people participated in the funeral, either in the church or listen to the loudspeakers set up in the streets outside.

Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect and president of the Black United Front, set the tone, calling for Blacks and whites to “stand up” for justice and Cincinnati, and he opened his church to speakers from the NAACP, Nation of Islam and New Black Panthers, all of the most militant voice of Black Cincinnati.

Governor Bob Taft and Mayor Charles Luken, who had come to offer their condolences to the family and their sympathy to the Black community, had to sit and listen through a service that became a powerful challenge Cincinnati’s white establishment.

Cincinnati’s African American community had exploded in anger at the killing of 19-year old Timothy Thomas, the fifteenth African American killed by the Cincinnati Police Department since 1995.  Thomas, who was unarmed, was a “fugitive” from multiple misdemeanor (mainly traffic) violations.  Federal authorities have opened an investigation of the shooting.

Black youth led the protest demonstrations in the street, which quickly became confrontations with police who met the protestors with a barrage of rubber bullets and shotgun blasts of “bean bags.”

Some small groups of angry protestors broke windows, set fires in trash dumpsters and buildings, looted stores, and in a few instances attacked whites driving through the neighborhood.  But many sympathized with the protests whatever form they took, understanding them to be expressions of pain, anger and frustration of the Black community with a racist and violent police force and an unsympathetic city government.

Pages from Cooptation 101

But how suddenly things changed.  Mayor Luken declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew, the public schools’ spring vacation ended, taking young people off the streets, and then a sudden blast of cold weather with temperatures falling from the 70s down to the 30s seemed to put an end to the protests.

Taking advantage of the lull, Luken lifted the curfew and announced his program to deal with the crisis: an alliance between city government and the business community, the creation of a new, blue-ribbon, race relations commission, and promises of summer jobs.

This wasn’t even the typical liberal cooptation of Black protest, because Luken didn’t even suggest any substantive reforms.  However, even Rev. Lynch, who had emerged as the spokesman for the Over-the-Rhine community, signed on to Luken’s program.

What kind of reform is this?  It certainly seems like the same old corporate cover-up.  So far the Cincinnati political establishment has not suffered a single casualty: No one has been removed from office, and no one has resigned for political reasons (the Safety Director resigned for health reasons to be replaced by his long-time assistant).

The Cincinnati Enquirer, the city’s conservative daily newspaper, ran an article—”Grace under fire/Top cop gets good reviews”—praising the chief of this racist and murderous police force.

The recent U.S. Census showed Cincinnati to be one of the ten most segregated U.S. cities.  In the past three decades, the African-American proportion of the city population has increased from 28% to 43%.  “(B)ursting with Fortune 500 companies and cultural anchors: Proctor and Gamble, Kroger Foods, and the city’s symphony, ballet and opera companies … it’s also home to considerable poverty.” (Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2001)

African-American leaders and civic leaders speaking at Thomas’s funeral promised that his death would not have been in vain, that the Black community and the people of Cincinnati would see to it that things were changed.  But so far no voice has made a clear demand for the resignation of the mayor and police chief, for institutional reforms in city government and the police department, and for changes in the polices and practices of the police.

During this time the African-American community organizations held a mass meeting and speak out, the City Council held an opening meeting where 500 citizens talked for hours about the need for change.

But the citizens’ expression of indignation and resentment at police abuse may unfortunately have no means of forcing change.  The African-American youth who led the protests, mostly poor young men and women from Over-the-Rhine, have no formal organizations.

Grassroots people from the African-American community speak out strongly on the need for change, on their opposition to the mayor and the chief of police, and on the need for economic and social justice in their communities.  But they too lack an independent organization to turn their pleas into demands.  What seems to be missing at the moment is real organizational leadership that would directly challenge the corporate and political establishment.

Progressive white activists have found ways to support the African-American community.  Some have joined the protests in the streets of Over-the-Rhine, others have attended the funeral, and later participated in the community speakouts.

The Coalition for a Humane Economy (CHE), organized originally to protest the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) meeting in Cincinnati last November and more recently working on the organization of educational and protests on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), changed its agenda to organize solidarity with the African American community.

CHE and the Black United Front held a joint march in Over-the-Rhine during the period of militant protests, and called a press conference demanding an end to police racism and violence.

The Black community and many white people in this city want to see the old Cincinnati corporate-political system swept away, including the political cover-up of police murders of Black men. At this point it remains to be seen whether Cincinnati will have some real reform or only go back to business as usual.

Dan La Botz is a labor writer and educator in Cincinnati.  He is active in the Coalition for a Humane Economy.

ATC 92, May-June 2001