Racial Unrest in Cincinnati

April 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

DEMONSTRATORS: No justice. No peace.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There hadn’t been anything like this since 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. But over the weekend, hundreds of police and Ohio state troopers were out on the streets in Cincinnati dressed in riot gear, guns pointed at demonstrators.

DEMONSTRATOR (to police): Put the gun down!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The protests were over the shooting death of an unarmed black youth killed by a white policeman in this neighborhood ten days ago. He was the 15th black man killed by Cincinnati police since 1995. On Saturday afternoon at this intersection, the protesters said, without provocation, police opened fire on them with beanbags filled with rubber bullets.

PROTESTER: They were just standing there holding up the sign and….

PROTESTER: Come over here. They’ve got bruises. Her bruises are horrible. She got shot in the back of the neck and she got shot in the back of her neck and her ribs over here.

PROTESTOR: She can’t move.

DEMONSTRATOR: They just started randomly shooting down the streets. They were 5- and 6-year-old kids right at the front of the intersection and the policemen rolled up to the scene and just started shooting.

DEMONSTRATOR: We’re tired. We’re tired. We’re dying.

DEMONSTRATOR: They are shooting innocent kids out here. It don’t make sense.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What had been a peaceful demonstration suddenly turned angry.

DEMONSTRATOR: Let us march. Let us march….

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even the group’s own monitors had trouble restoring control.

DEMONSTRATOR: Let them have the reason. Let them do it. We’re here….


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several hundred people turned their march toward the city’s police headquarters. They called for Police Chief Tom Streicher to come out. He did. But Streicher refused to meet their demands that he suspend the police who fired the beanbags, pending an investigation.

And although no one was hurt, no one was arrested, these are the kinds of tense confrontations that have peppered the streets over the last ten days, leaving leaders in both the black and white communities wondering, “How did it come to this?”

The trouble started the night of April 7, when 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was killed in this alley in an impoverished neighborhood called “Over the Rhine,” a name given the area during its old German immigrant days. Police had chased Thomas because he had 14 outstanding warrants, mostly minor traffic infractions. Several were citations for not wearing a seatbelt. Thomas was unarmed.

For two days the city’s power structure, made up mostly of white men, held news conferences, but the black community was unhappy with explanations from city hall for Thomas’s shooting death. On Monday night, African Americans took over the city council meeting. Several hours later, rioting broke out. There was looting, with property damage mounting into the millions. 125 state troopers were called in to help the Cincinnati police get control of the streets. Then, on Thursday, after a white policeman was injured by a sniper, Mayor Charles Luken declared a state of emergency and imposed a dusk to dawn curfew.

MAYOR CHARLES LUKEN: Ladies and gentlemen, a police officer was shot last night. Because of his safety vest or his belt buckle he is alive today. That’s where we are. In certain neighborhoods of this city, gunfire went off. Gunfire went off like you might hear in Beirut or some other place. It is dangerous, and it is getting more dangerous. And people have got to speak with one mind, with one mind, clearly, that it’s going to stop. And that is the extent of the message that we have today. That’s it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As the curfew went into effect, police stopped and arrested anyone who did not have what they believed to be a legitimate reason to be outside. There were charges that the curfew was selectively enforced, that it was only imposed in poor black neighborhoods, a charge police adamantly denied.

MAN SPEAKING: You shed your blood for Cincinnati; you shed your blood for every one of us.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On Saturday, Thomas was laid to rest in a high profile service that brought Ohio Governor Bob Taft, Mayor Luken, and major national black leaders to town.

MINISTER JAMIL MUHAMMAD, National Spokesman, Nation of Islam: 15 times, 16 times, 17 times; how many times and how many of us who have not been killed have been brutalized, have been shot, have been beaten, have been hassled, have been jostled and cajoled by the police department in the city of Cincinnati — all in the name of the maintenance of order? No, something is wrong. Something is sadly amiss.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: During and after the funeral, hundreds of protesters marched through the neighborhood where Thomas was killed.

DEMONSTRATOR: We want the police to know they don’t have a license to kill.

DEMONSTRATOR: This is my son, this is my son; I’m scared. I am worried what is going to happen to him; he might stand at a (traffic) light too long.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of the city’s police officers think they’ve been unfairly portrayed as killers.

KEITH FANGMAN: FOP, this is Keith Fangman.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman is especially upset when critics cite the 15 black men killed by Cincinnati police since 1995. He says an important piece of information gets left out.

OFFICER KEITH FANGMAN: Twelve of those 15 involved suspects who were armed with deadly weapons. Of those twelve that were armed with deadly weapons, I believe approximately nine of them were armed with handguns in which they physically fired their guns at our officers – or they pointed their guns at our officers prior to our officers ever firing back.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Fangman denies charges that the police department has engaged in racial profiling. Last month, the ACLU and community church leaders filed a lawsuit against the city alleging racial profiling

OFFICER KEITH FANGMAN: Absolutely not. I get very, very concerned when those accusations are made. This department has made it clear that racial profiling will not be tolerated. This police union has made it clear that we will not tolerate unlawful traffic stops based on race.

If you have a white officer that works in a predominantly black neighborhood like Over the Rhine, or Evandale here in Cincinnati, I guarantee you – you count their statistics every year – and we do keep track of statistics when we pull people over – I guarantee you 90 percent to 95 percent of their traffic stops will be black motorists. Now, there are some in the black community that say, “See, 95 percent of that white officer’s traffic stops are blacks; surely that means he’s engaging in racial profiling.” No, it doesn’t. It means he is working a black neighborhood.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officer Scotty Johnson, president of the Black Sentinels, the African American police organization, is in sharp disagreement with Fangman.

OFFICER SCOTTY JOHNSON: We’ve got complaints on top of complaints about doctors, attorneys, dentists, police officers being stopped and harassed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because they’re black?

OFFICER SCOTTY JOHNSON: Because they’re black. We’ve got a racial profiling suit now here in the city, and you’ll hear racial profiling is not a problem here in Cincinnati, and that’s quite the contrary. We have a problem with how we perceive black males here in Cincinnati and across the country when it comes to law enforcement.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the recent unrest in Cincinnati isn’t just about policing, and it didn’t just spring up overnight. Many leaders say anger and frustration over the lack of economic development in black neighborhoods has been growing for years. Unemployment in Over the Rhine is better than 50 percent. Everywhere there are abandoned buildings, and the streets are filled with trash. Councilman Jim Tarbell has lived in Over the Rhine since 1971.

JIM TARBELL: We just spent a half billion dollars on a football stadium. You know, where is it? It is on the river. The river is a beautiful place already. It doesn’t need a half-billion football stadium for eight games a year while Rome burns up here this week, literally. We could have spent – what is 1 percent of half a billion-that would be $5 million, wouldn’t it — $ 5 million — a scant 1 percent of what they spent down there would have made a humongous difference up here.

WOMAN: Damon Lynch

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rev. Damon lynch agrees. His New Prospect Baptist Church is a major force in Over the Rhine. And he sees the city’s traditional white all-male power structure as part of the problem.

REV. DAMON LYNCH: We have the corporate headquarters of major Fortune 500 companies are here. And they really run the city. You have political leaders who listen to the corporate entities, and so most of development, most of the money that is spent is spent at the corporate whim.

There’s a sense here that the African-American community is under growing siege. There is a siege mentality in the sense that we feel we’re being boxed in. And so that brings about the anger. What you feel here I think is anger, despair is giving way to anger and real frustration.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: None of Cincinnati’s white leaders has publicly defended the city’s record on race relations. In fact, most, like Mayor Luken, have said Cincinnati needs to deal with its problems head on.

MAYOR CHARLES LUKEN: We are a city that is divided; we are a city that needs healing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Chamber of Commerce President Michael Fisher says the business community needs to do more.

MICHAEL FISHER: The vast majority of these companies have made very concerted efforts in their diversity programs, have made significant efforts in their minority supplier development programs. But I think the results say in the last week or so we’re not really where we need to be, so we really need to redouble our efforts in those kinds of areas.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lynch and other black leaders agree.

REV. DAMON LYNCH: In the places of power in our city, usually the board room is made up of all-white males for the most part, who don’t think and have no need to think about anybody else in our society, about any diversity.

Last summer, major restaurants in our downtown city closed their doors when 150,000 people of color came to town. Every summer we have a jazz festival here and, 13 restaurants closed their doors to 150,000 people. Of course, the community, we boycotted. We got up in arms, and it’s an indication of how things work here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On Easter Sunday, ministers in black churches all over the city, led by Lynch, demanded the city fathers to do something about to promote diversity in everyday life in Cincinnati.

REV. DAMON LYNCH: As bad as it may be that the violence took place, if it had not burned, no changes would have taken place.

CHURCH MEMBER: We got the victory.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cincinnati may have a long way to go before it can claim victory over its racial problems, but events of the past ten days have shown the African American community has power and is learning how to use it for change.