† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Editors note from nancy a heitzeg
Cincinnati Goddamn is an important documentary by April Martin and Paul Hill that chronicles a crucial moment in the history of resistance to racialized police killings. We often trace that history from LA/Rodney King through Diallo and then to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Mike Brown, but Cincinnati is an important story of resistance in the early 21st century that is too often lost.
From 1995-2001 there were fifteen black men killed by the Cincinnati police. The film focuses on two of those murders, Roger Owensby, Jr and Timothy Thomas. Cincinnati Goddamn locates their story in a larger context of economic apartheid, anti-Black racism and policing as a violent tool for maintaining systemic inequality. From “Along the Color Line” by 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.