"Along the Color Line"
Dr. Manning Marable 'The Cincinnati Boycott' -- Part One of Two December 11, 2002
Two hours past midnight on April 7, 2001, a nineteen-year-old black man, Timothy Dewayne Thomas, was shot and killed by a police officer in Cincinnati's inner-city neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine. The police officer, Thomas Roach, claimed that Thomas had fled from police on foot when they had approached him. In hot pursuit, Roach headed off Thomas at the end of an alley. Roach fired his weapon because, according to one version of events he later gave investigators, it appeared that Thomas was reaching into the waistband of his oversized pants. Thomas, shot once, was unarmed. Thomas had been the fifteenth African-American male who had been killed by the Cincinnati police, and the fourth in the previous six months. As word spread the next day about Thomas's killing, many residents in Over-the-Rhine as well as black neighborhoods throughout the city were overwhelmed with grief and outrage. Spontaneously, people went into the streets, venting their hostility against the symbols of white power and property. Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken responded by a "state of emergency," imposing an 11:00 p.m. curfew until the rebellion stopped. Police were outfitted in riot gear, and armed with tear gas and bean bags filled with metal shot. As the rioting continued on April 10 and 11, businesses closed and the city buses in inner city neighborhoods stopped running. Thousands of urban residents who relied on public transportation were unable to go to work. As peace was restored, 837 people had been arrested, and dozens injured. On April 14, 2001, the funeral service for Timothy Thomas was held at the New Prospect Baptist Church, attended by hundreds of people. The service attracted many who wanted to make a political statement against the epidemic of police brutality that was present in Cincinnati and throughout the United States. As the family and a small number of friends buried Thomas in a private service, over two thousand marched in quiet protest through the Over-the-Rhine district. A series of national civil rights leaders attended the protest march or came to speak in the city within weeks after the civil unrest, including NAACP chief executive Kweisi Mfume, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King, III, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
Every police brutality case occurs within a socioeconomic and political context. In other words, the legal violence meted out against black residents of Cincinnati by both the police and the court system is part of a larger dynamic of oppression called structural racism. When tens of thousands of middle and upper class whites fled downtown Cincinnati in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, urban neighborhoods became predominantly African American, and overwhelmingly poor. According to Cincinnati's City Planning Department, the total population of the city had declined by six percent, or 21,417 people, from 1980-90. Fourteen percent of all households were on public assistance, 18 percent were headed by females, and 24 percent fell below the federal poverty line. Cincinnati's median household income citywide in 1990 at $21,006 was the ninth lowest out of the 75 largest U.S. cities. The rate of homeownership, at only 35 percent of all households, was also the ninth lowest of that group. The statistics for Cincinnati's Empowerment Zones, impoverished urban districts which under federal legislation were targeted for development, are even more disturbing. About three out of four of the 50,000 residents living in these urban zones are African Americans. Their 1989 median income was $10,877; more than one-fourth survived on public assistance, 45 percent were defined by federal poverty criteria as poor, with about six out of ten children living in poverty. Nearly one-half of the adults over the age of twenty-five did not have a high school diploma. Fewer than one-fifth of all households in these neighborhoods owned their own homes, and 44 percent of all adults were not even in the paid labor force. Cincinnati's political and corporate establishment's approach to urban development only made matters worse. The city spent millions of tax dollars to subsidize the construction of downtown sports stadiums, and investing in advertising to promote Cincinnati as a Midwestern mecca for tourism and convention gatherings. Relatively little was invested to enhance the quality and availability of housing for low to median income families, to upgrade public schools or to assist in the development of community-based, black-owned businesses. In early 2002, the Cincinnati Black United Front, led by a prominent social justice minister, the Reverend Damon Lynch, came together with two other progressive groups, Stonewall Cincinnati and the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, to initiate a nationwide boycott against the city's economic elite. The boycott campaign urged celebrities, business and social groups, and others planning conferences or events in downtown Cincinnati to cancel their engagements. The coalition announced that the boycott would be terminated only when city leaders met its "demands for neighborhood economic development, police accountability, support and enforcement of civil rights, and government and election reform." At first, the politicians and the media largely ignored the boycott effort, stating that it would be ineffective. But within weeks, a host of prominent performers cancelled their local engagements, including Wynton Marsalis, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations. Many civic and fraternal organizations pulled out, canceling millions of dollars in contracts. Last April, an agreement was reached between the Black United Front, the police union, the American Civil Liberties Union and city officials regarding police misconduct and racial profiling. Despite this hopeful settlement, few of the underlying issues have been resolved. As of this writing, the Cincinnati boycott is now over 400 days old-longer than Martin Luther King's Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.
'The Cincinnati Boycott' -- Part Two of a Two December 12, 2002
Several weeks ago I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio at the invitation of Thomas Dutton, the director of Miami University's Center for Community Engagement, to meet with the city's black and progressive community activists. The meeting was held in the heart of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, in one of the city's most economically depressed areas. Only a few hundred feet from where we met was the murder site of 19-year-old Timothy Dewayne Thomas, an unarmed black man shot by police that led to the 2001 Cincinnati race rebellion. In our four-hour session, about forty participants discussed the status of their 400-day economic boycott campaign against the city's political and corporate area's incredibly rich "diversity" and pushing the banal slogan, "Cincinnati Can: You Can Too!" Local television stations and newspapers are filled with stories about black workers who had been dismissed from their jobs at downtown restaurants and shops due to the boycott. Mayor Charlie Luken and several prominent blacks with ties to Cincinnati's largest corporate employer, Proctor and Gamble, have charged that the economic campaign is destroying the city's "reputation" and damaging any hope for improving the material conditions of poor black people. The Cincinnati City Council has used the racial crisis to push through a series of repressive measures aimed at the poor and working poor, who are of course predominantly blacks and other racialized minorities. Panhandling was outlawed "during the night hours, at bus stops, on private property, and within twenty feet of a bank or at an ATM." Those immediately hurt by the new law were the street vendors of the local newspaper Streetvibes, printed by the Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. Streetvibes vendors were often homeless people who purchase the newspapers for 20 cents and subsequently sell them for one dollar. Mayor Luken, however, cruelly denounced them as "beggars armed with newspapers." In October 2001, the City Council passed the "Housing Impaction Ordinance," which was designed, according to researchers Thomas Dutton and Jonathan Diskin to deny funding for the network of non-profit housing corporations that work in poor neighborhoods to develop affordable housing. City Council members had been persuaded by "the popular but misguided view that the concentration of low-income housing is the root of most problems in Over-the-Rhine and other 'impacted' neighborhoods." As Dutton and Diskin note, completely ignored were "the more fundamental causes for neighborhood decline: the disappearance of good jobs for low-skilled workers, declining wages, poor education, persistent patterns of racial discrimination, [and] government rollbacks in social services (including 'welfare reform')." Yet despite these repressive measures, social justice activists in Cincinnati are fighting back. One youth group has formed "Cop Watch" in which teenagers and young adults armed with video cameras and walkie talkies monitor the behavior and actions of the police in their communities. Last summer, Cop Watch distributed flyers entitled "Know Your Rights" in Over-the-Rhine and other urban neighborhoods to young people. The Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, a group that has been in the forefront of the boycott campaign, has initiated a number of public protest tactics. The Coalition has contacted prominent artists and performers attempting to persuade them to honor the boycott. Through non-violent pickets and demonstrations, protesters encourage local residents not to shop downtown or to patronize restaurants, until real reforms are implemented. The Coalition has now begun to reach out to college campuses to recruit volunteers to join picket lines and civil disobedience demonstrations. Despite their advocacy on non-violent protest, Coalition members have been spat at, verbally, and physically assaulted by those who oppose the boycott. The city's most recent tactic against the boycott has been to severely curtail regular police protection from Over-the-Rhine. One activist said that "neighborhood people feel they aren't being protected ... the cops have backed away from doing their job." Prostitutes, hustlers and drug dealers have been coming back, along with the affluent white businessmen and professionals who pay for their services, but who live in the suburbs. The racial issues being debated in Cincinnati aren't unique. They exist in virtually every African-American, Latino, and poor neighborhood in the United States. Despite the failure of mainstream civil rights, women's rights and traditionally liberal organizations to endorse the boycott, we cannot afford to let this movement fail. For over 400 days, activists have attempted to raise the conscience of their community by challenging local leaders to deal with black and other oppressed people with fairness and greater justice. As in the historic boycotts in Montgomery and South Africa, we must support the cause of racial and economic justice in Cincinnati.
Dr. Manning Marable (May 13, 1950 – April 1, 2011) was Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York. "Along the Color Line" was distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.
The Free Press