Beirut In Cincinnati

In April, Cincinnati, OH turned into a battlefield as the African-American community united against the deadly racism of city police. No one was left untouched; by the second week of the conflict, in the midst of a declared state of emergency, African-American members were leaving the Cincinnati police and fire-fighter’s unions, citing racism.

The transformation of Cincinnati into “Beirut”, as Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken termed it, began April 7, 2001, when police officer Steven Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas. It was the fifth police killing of a black male in Cincinnati in only seven months. Thomas’s family and protesters mobilized by African-American organizations packed the city council meeting held two days later, demanding official accountability for the murder. (At that time Roach was on a one week paid administrative leave.)

After the unsuccessful meeting, protesters reconvened at the District 1 police station and then proceeded on a two-hour march through the Over-the-Rhine and West End neighborhoods, where more people joined the march. The route ended back at the police station, where about 150 of the 800 demonstrators set up camp. Police sprayed teargas and other chemical weapons and fired approximately 50 rounds of rubber and bean-bag bullets, firing at point-blank range into crowds. The police station was only slightly smashed, alas.

In the next few days African-American youth, who suffer most from racial profiling and other forms of police surveillance and harassment, responded with growing militance. Solidarity was informal but very strong, with protesters acting quickly and effectively to unarrest many people. Their mobility, frequently breaking-up into a lot of different directions, helped prevent arrests as well. Some people took advantage of the cover of the crowds and the general atmosphere to loot shops; a pawn shop was completely emptied, smashed and burned. A few people assaulted drivers, but these incidents seem to have been stopped by onlookers.

Violence escalated very rapidly, as police brutality on the street was reinforced by Mayor Charles Luken’s declared state of emergency. From April 12 to 16, an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed on Cincinnati and two neighboring cities enabled police to sweep the city making mass arrests, averaging 200 a night. In addition to police violence against protesters in custody, some people are reported to have been “disappeared,” police denying to family and friends of arrested individuals that they have them in custody.

Although police targeted a few isolated groups who “looked like anarchists,” the ferocity of police violence following the murder of Timothy Thomas was due to the close-to-the-bone nature of the conflict, over racism in the Cincinnati police force. Mayor Luken compared conditions in Cincinnati to Beirut; NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, in one of his more likable moments, compared them to Oakland.

Drive-by shootings by police officers occurred throughout the state of emergency, though only one made the Cincinnati papers. Luken had pledged to keep police away from the New Prospect Baptist Church, where on April 14 the funeral of Timothy Thomas was held, attended by hundreds, including African- American leaders, Cincinnati officials and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. But half an hour after the funeral, as the last attendees were quietly dispersing, six SWAT team members drove by and fired a shotgun into a small group at close range, injuring two adults and two children. Christine Jones, hit twice in the back, was hospitalized for a cracked rib and injuries to the lung and spleen. The shotgun was loaded with the bean-bag bullets which the press widely accepts as virtually harmless.

The incident had a dozen witnesses and, occurring at an assembly of the country’s most notable black leaders, embarrassed the government. An FBI investigation into the “cause” of the incident was immediately ordered. Without benefit of the FBI’s formidable resources, here’s a guess: guns and authority in the hands of a group of paranoid, hostile and stupid racist bullies, allowed to roam freely in a city where chaos seems to provide an excuse for any excess they want. One could also speculate about the role capitalism plays in creating a community like Over-the-Rhine, which is the most economically depressed in Cincinnati. Or one could muse on the role of “law and order” which appears to be sheer self-perpetuation, no matter how inexcusable the conditions which the watchdogs of state strive to preserve and protect.

A definition of terms: “riot” (noun) the assaults, property destruction and theft carried out by civilians. Certainly not the assaults, property damage and theft carried out by police (see “law enforcement”).

In the aftermath of the riots, city officials scrambled to compensate business owners for broken windows, and declared it the “moral duty” (in exactly those words) of the government to help business owners who suffered financial losses due to general pillaging. One can’t help but notice that this is the very first occasion that the city council members have spoken of their moral duty. Certainly the concept of having a moral duty failed to arise when Angela Leisure, Timothy Thomas’s mother, confronted them demanding to know why her son had been killed. The concept of moral duty continued to slip their minds while police freely moved through the city, shooting men for holding their ground when ordered to step inside their houses at 8 p.m., and shooting 5-year-olds for the crime of being on the street in broad daylight.

By April 15, Luken felt that the city had been sufficiently “pacified” and he lifted the curfew although not the state of emergency. After having poured all that money, time and energy into putting down the people, the government, unsurprisingly, failed to do anything meaningful to end police violence. City safety director Kent Ryan was forced to resign, in the hopes that he would bear the brunt of political unpopularity. The position was passed to Greg Baker. Formerly employed as Ryan’s assistant, Baker is a conservative African-American man who seems chiefly concerned with suppressing bursts of anti-authoritarianism throughout the city.

None of the civilian actions frightened the state as much as the rebellions among black firefighters and police. April 16, half of the 200 members of the African-American Firefighters Association signed a petition to withdraw from Cincinnati’s Fire Fighters Labor Union. “I was at the funeral for Tim Thomas, and I heard Rev. (Damon) Lynch and several other activists there say that it’s time for black men and black women to stand up,” Jeff Harris, Jr., president of the AAFA, said. “We have to stand up despite the fact that our lives may be in jeopardy. We have to stand up because we cannot continue to go on in this way, being treated like second class citizens within our own union.”

Members of the Sentinels Police Association, an association of African-American police officers, soon followed suit, resigning from the Fraternal Order of Police. Sgt. Andre Smith, long disgusted by the racism within the union, reached his limit during Luken’s state of emergency. Referring to FOP president Keith Fangman’s denials of racism within the police force (despite the many ties of the FOP to white supremacist organizations, Fangman has a gripe with being called a neo-nazi), support for Thomas’s killer, and sleazy unpleasantness in public discussions with black leader Kweisi Mfume, Smith said, “After this week’s events, to see Mr. Fangman totally distort facts, disrespect the black community, disrespect our black leaders, I felt it necessary for me to remove what I felt the personal stench of FOP membership.” Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinels, apologized to the family of Timothy Thomas, and made it clear that the disenfranchisement of the community was a long-standing problem which ought to have been corrected a long time ago.

The Sentinels and the African-American Firefighters have both taken a stand for civilian oversight of the police and fire departments. They are calling for the abolition of the city safety director’s office, which is why the new safety director, Greg Baker, is so preoccupied with them. The Sentinels and AAFA also support an initiative which would open the positions of chief of police, assistant chief of police and fire chief to candidates nationwide. Currently these positions are filled from within the Cincinnati departments.

It is exciting to see police officers identifying with their communities against the police hierarchy, and even more pleasing to note their assertiveness in trying to rewrite the script by which the community and police are stumbling along. One can only hope that this will be the seed for future rebellions and ultimately for the police fully identifying with the community and refusing to police.

Unfortunately, neither the rebelling cops nor black leaders appear to have been able to engage in dialog with the young people on the streets. Throughout the state of emergency, black leaders, predominantly churchmen, urged peace, pacifism and reform. They drew the attention of government officials and the media to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU and several African-American organizations with the aim of making racial profiling illegal nation-wide. But there was a gap of understanding as well as a difference of tactics between the youth battling police on the streets and the elders addressing church members: “You’re part of the problem,” one minister told youth on the street.

The issue isn’t “property-destruction: pro or con?” Rather, the issues raised in Cincinnati concern the ability of a community to use their resources to sustain and protect one another in the struggle against police domination. A good step was taken by the black fire-fighters and police, but a bigger and more transformative step would have been made had the leaders and authorities reconsidered the some of the values they were trying to protect. Does social harmony really require force?