April 14, 2001
Blacks in Cincinnati Hear Echoes Amid the Violence
By FRANCIS X. CLINES
CINCINNATI, April 13 - Charles Wimms looked back today from some fresh
scars on storefronts in the black
Avondale neighborhood to the old, still chilling memories of the last time
local youths erupted in violent protest, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. was assassinated more than three decades ago.
"This wouldn't have happened if they had listened to us in those years back
then," said Mr. Wimms, a 39- year-old construction worker, recalling that
police treatment of black Cincinnatians the issue that drove the wave of
protest and vandalism by clusters of angry blacks this week was also a
principal issue in the 1968 violence.
"So now we have a new generation of young black men running the streets
again to stir things up for what is right," he sadly contended.
Mr. Wimms stood before broken windows where youths looted a sneaker store
on Wednesday night, at the height of protests over a white police officer's
fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager last Saturday. Blacks maintain
that the killing, the fourth of a black by the police since November,
resulted from racial profiling that they say has long been rampant here.
While an investigation into the killing proceeds, officers quoted in the
local press have disputed that version of events. They say the slain
teenager, Timothy Thomas, was pursued by officers in the first place not
because he was black but because the officers had recognized him as someone
against whom a total of 14
warrants were outstanding, although most related to traffic charges.
With Easter-season allusions to resurrection and regrets at the damage to
this city's streets and reputation, people like Mr. Wimms warily greeted
the return of civil order after an all-night curfew took hold, with no
clear idea of when it might be safe to end it.
"This all feels kind of strange, like a return to the 60's, you know?" said
Todd Bigger, a 39-year-old black resident who said the 1968 violence was
remembered as a frightening benchmark among blacks, but also as a desperate
symbol of demand for change that, he said, still has not been accomplished.
"But when stuff like this goes on, I guess authorities have to act," Mr.
Bigger said, looking uncertain on a sunny spring day that city officials
vowed was the turning point as they ordered a second night of curfew.
This patchwork city of black and white enclaves did indeed offer time- warp
facets of the old ways of street protest and official crackdown. Black
clergy members once more worked their congregations, pleading for an end
both to what they described as decades of police abuse and to the angry
violence that has mainly redounded upon the blacks' own neighborhoods. At
the same time, white officials looked for something more creative than the
sweeping 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, which on Thursday night and into this
morning substituted eerie scenes of urban emptiness for the hit-and-run
confrontations of earlier this week, when protesting youths vandalized
stores and the police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. More than
200 people have been arrested, and more than 50 treated at hospitals.
In the debate over what to do, pointed criticism of the police was offered
by the Ohio secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former Cincinnati
mayor respected as a careful, conservative Republican.
"The truth is, we have a real pathology in police community and race
relations in Cincinnati," Mr. Blackwell said in calling for a review of
procedures for applying deadly force. There is no public confidence, he
said, that officials sworn to root out crime will "just as swiftly act on
rooting out folks officers who are in violation of policy and procedures."
But the police union defended its own, as Keith Fangman, president of the
local Fraternal Order of Police, warned against concessions to violent
protest. "If we give one inch to these terrorists in the form of
negotiations, then we've got no one to blame but ourselves when we turn
into another Detroit or Washington, D.C.," Mr. Fangman said.
The shooting of the 19-year-old Mr. Thomas brought to 15 the number of
suspects, all of them black, slain by the police here in the last six years.
Officers say that Mr. Thomas had a clear history of fleeing efforts to
detain him for traffic violations and that Steven Roach, the 29-year-old
officer who shot him, thought he was reaching for a gun. No gun was found,
however, and Mayor Charlie Luken has said there are official doubts about
"We have not done ourselves any favors in terms of our image in the last
few days," a weary-looking Mayor Luken declared after the first night's
curfew, in which local officers and state troopers enforced a virtual
lockdown on Cincinnati streets. That step netted 153 scattered violators,
the police said, but stopped the wave of violent protest and vandalism. As
the city turned to Mr. Thomas's funeral on Saturday as its next test of
civility, plans for a special grand jury to look into his death were
announced, and the mayor met with Justice Department officials monitoring
"Make this Good Friday a better Friday," a clergyman prayed before a crowd
of worshipers attending the annual Way of the Cross pilgrimage downtown. A
truncated version of the outdoor Crucifixion ritual, it avoided outlying
hot spots where groups of young blacks had raided stores, set fires and
alarmed whites before the police took the streets back with the curfew.
As city leaders took stock, those familiar with the thorny, long-running
problem of race relations and police behavior said that for all the urgent
national attention drawn by fresh images of violence, there could be no
"Simply tinkering with the infrastructure won't do it," said Barbara
Glueck, chairwoman of the Citizens Police Advisory Commission, who has
worked on interracial problems for years. "Firing people won't change the
great disparity here," she said of the deep gulf between whites and blacks
on crucial issues, including the racial profiling that blacks allege.
Change is not easy under city laws, Ms. Glueck said, noting that the police
union has a powerful arbitration procedure under which 10 officers whom the
city had sought to fire were recently reinstated. Beyond that, black
leaders complain of a law requiring that the police chief come from the
ranks and not from outside the city; a proposal to change that was rejected
But even more basic is the need for people on the two sides of these issues
to "begin to talk to each other," emphasized Ms. Glueck, who volunteers in
the Hands Across the Campus program of teaching young students to discuss
and face racial problems.
Tom Diskin, a 79-year-old retired carpenter from the city's white West
Side, said the solution was as simple as the lesson he learned in childhood.
"When the police tell you to stop, you stop," Mr. Diskin said outside Holy
Cross-Immaculata Church's hilltop shrine, where worshipers quietly prayed
on a Good Friday pilgrimage. "I mean, that guy had 14 warrants out," said
Mr. Diskin. "But how would the cop know they were misdemeanors?"
"And now here's the media's open mike, the chance of a lifetime for those
people," he said of the protesters.
But Lori Hawkins, a white resident attending the Way of the Cross gathering
downtown, said it was sad to note that "this city counts sports teams and
stadiums more important than social justice" and racial equality.
"There's been a lot of lip service to the problem in recent years," Ms.
Hawkins said. "But why does it always take violence and property
destruction for a problem to be taken seriously?" she asked as crowds moved
freely in the workday sunshine that bathed the city before the curfew's return.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat Apr 14 2001 - 19:29:04 EDT