Rebellion in Cincinnati

April 8, 2011

In April 2001, African American residents of Cincinnati, Ohio, took to the streets for several days and nights in an an uprising sparked by racist incidents involving the local police.

Lee Sustar reported from his hometown on the police rampage that led to the rebellion--and the background to the outpouring of anger and frustration. Here, we reprint that article, originally published in the April 27, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.

"THEY SHOT him down like a dog." So said one young Black man as he stood in the Cincinnati alley where 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was gunned down April 7 by Officer Steve Roach.

Timothy's crime? Outstanding traffic violations, the cops said.

But his real crime was to be Black.

The bottled-up anger at one police murder after another in Cincinnati finally began to bubble over. Hundreds of people turned out for an April 9 city council meeting to demand justice. When Mayor Charlie Luken fled the meeting and the council abruptly adjourned, a crowd gathered outside police headquarters for a peaceful vigil.

Hours later, police turned off the streetlights, chased the media away and began firing teargas and shotguns loaded with "beanbags"--metal pellets encased in plastic that can cause severe wounds. Police used similar tactics the next day, provoking several nights of full-scale rioting that didn't end until Luken imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

For Cincinnati cops, every African American was a target. One 53-year-old Black man was shot by beanbags 10 times--for simply walking down the street in daylight. Another woman's scalp was partially torn off by one of the projectiles. Hundreds of people--almost exclusively Black, many of them homeless--were arrested by the cops for curfew violations.

Protesters attempt to defend a fellow marcher from police during the protests in Cincinnati in 2001
Protesters attempt to defend a fellow marcher from police during the protests in Cincinnati in 2001 (Ryan Thomas)

On April 14, about 1,000 people--including Luken and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft--turned out for Thomas' funeral, filling a church and the surrounding streets. But the police couldn't let this solemn occasion pass without another outburst of violence.

Only minutes after the service, an elite police SWAT team swooped down on peaceful demonstrators--and opened fire with beanbags. The injured this time included a 37-year-old white teacher from Louisville, Ky., who was hospitalized with a damaged spleen, and a 7-year-old Black girl.

"We had the mayor and the governor just tell us that they want to see a new Cincinnati, and then we have this from people who supposedly work for them," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who attended the funeral, told Socialist Worker.

The SWAT team assault--carried out in front of dozens of media witnesses and local officials--forced embarrassed police brass to suspend six officers. But as hundreds of people--Black and white--who turned out for a special City Council meeting two days later pointed out, this kind of behavior is far from unusual in Cincinnati. And the struggle is far from ended with the suspensions of six cops.

A city explodes in anger at racist police violence

CINCINNATI POLICE came to work fighting mad last November 7.

That morning, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an article on a Citizens Police Review Panel report that criticized police for failing to thoroughly investigate a shooting by Officer Daniel Carder two years before.

In a shopping center parking lot, Carder--who was working off duty as a security guard--had reached into a car driven by an African American man, Timothy Blair, and shot him.

Why? A pharmacist thought that he saw Blair shoplift something. Wounded, the unarmed Blair lost control of the car--and ran over a 5-year-old boy, critically injuring him. Yet Blair--who was left paralyzed by the shooting--was convicted of theft and felonious assault.

Carder remained on duty--and on March 14, 2000, he accounted for seven of the 26 police bullets fired at another Black man, 23-year-old Alfred Pope. Pope was struck by 10 of the bullets--and died from the injuries, one of 15 Black men killed by cops since 1995.

Last November's review board report also criticized Officer Kevin Crayon--who on September 1, 2000, reached into a car driven by 12-year-old Courtney Mathis and shot him. Both of them died--Crayon from falling under a car, Courtney from a bullet wound.

The report from the panel, a toothless body created in 1999, was issued last Election Day in an apparent effort to bury the revelations amid political news.

But Cincinnati cops were furious. And Roger Owensby Jr. paid with his life.

Owensby, a 29-year-old African American, Army veteran and father of an 8-year-old daughter, stopped at a gas station to buy an energy drink. Five cops who thought Owensby might be a wanted man surrounded him, handcuffed him--and choked him to death.

The next day, a police official refused to answer city council members' questions about the killing.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, a cop shot and killed another Black man, 30-year-old Jeffrey Irons, after he allegedly shoplifted shaving cream and deodorant. The cops claimed that Irons grabbed one officer's gun and shot him in the hand before the other cop fired back.

Three days later, more than 300 people turned out for a rally organized by the NAACP and the Black United Front (BUF) as City Council members complained of more stonewalling by cops.

The president of the BUF, Rev. Damon Lynch III, had long been active in fighting police racism and violence. He helped launch BUF last fall, following protests against several upscale, white-owned restaurants that had closed their doors during the Black-oriented Ujima street festival that summer.

Faced with growing pressure, the City Council in mid-November asked the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office to investigate the killings of Owensby and Irons.

The holidays were relatively quiet--thanks to police who provided their annual round-the-clock guard for the Ku Klux Klan-sponsored cross in Fountain Square.

Then on January 4 of this year, Officer Robert Blaine Jorg was indicted for manslaughter and Officer Patrick Caton for assault in connection with Roger Owensby's death. Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Keith Fangman began mobilizing a massive fundraising effort for the cops' defense--and the Cincinnati Enquirer helpfully included instructions on how to make donations in its report.

Growing fury at the cops' arrogance and brutality poured out at meetings in four Black communities January 13, when BUF and American Civil Liberties Union representatives began gathering more than 300 statements about police abuse in preparation for a lawsuit against racial profiling.

It was only four days later when Officer John Haynes saw an 18-year-old Black man, Anthony Flagg, in a schoolyard fight. Videotape from the police cruiser's camera showed that Haynes steered his car into the fleeing, unarmed teenager with the words, "I'm going to fuck you up!"

Flagg--whose leg was badly broken when he was struck--was then arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, criminal trespassing, criminal damaging and three open traffic warrants.

Yet another Black man, Adam Wheeler, was killed by police January 31, allegedly after firing a gun at officers.

A little more than two weeks later, Officer Haynes was cleared by a grand jury of any wrongdoing in running over Anthony Flagg.

"It's business as usual," said Ken Lawson, Flagg's attorney and a key figure in the racial profiling lawsuit. "If any citizen hit a cop the way he hit that kid, there would be charges for attempted murder and felonious assault...But they get to hit us and go back to work."

On March 28, the City Council finally passed a law aimed at strengthening an ineffective ban on police racial profiling--once again enraging the FOP and white cops.

The police murder of Timothy Thomas 10 days later was only the final spark. The explosion in Cincinnati was years in the making.

"This is like an occupation"

THE NEXT time anyone says that Timothy Thomas "provoked" cops by running away from them, tell them to watch the video of Pharon Crosby's terrifying encounter with Cincinnati police.

In 1995, Crosby, then 18, was waiting for a bus in downtown Cincinnati when police began harassing--then beating--the Black youth. Unbeknownst to the cops, a television news team stationed nearby caught their vicious attack on tape.

But the ensuing outcry didn't deter the cops--far from it.

About 1,000 armed police and supporters marched on City Hall to protest the suspension of two officers who were involved. The suspensions were later overturned by an arbitrator in a typical whitewash of racist police violence.

So it's little wonder that Timothy Thomas--like many other African American young men in Cincinnati and cities across the U.S.--would rather flee police than face almost certain abuse.

While racial profiling and abuse by cops is prevalent in every Black section of Cincinnati, it's worst in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where Thomas lives. That's because Over-the-Rhine--which is predominately Black but is also populated by poor, white Appalachians--has, since the 1980s, been a target for "gentrification," or development for upscale housing, businesses, restaurants and bars.

So it was no coincidence that City Councilman James Tarbell, a restaurant owner and major real estate developer in the area, stepped forward at the April 9 Council meeting to justify Officer Steve Roach's shooting of Thomas.

In Tarbell's view, the shooting of an unarmed Black youth is just a cost of "developing" Over-the-Rhine. That means pressuring African Americans to get out--through skyrocketing rents, evictions and constant police harassment.

"I live by the courthouse," a 40-year-old African American woman who lives in Over-the-Rhine told Socialist Worker. "I can't step out of my house without them asking for my name, my ID. This is just like any other occupation."

Two faces of power in Cincinnati

KEITH FANGMAN and Carl Lindner couldn't appear to be more different.

Lindner is the 80-year-old billionaire boss of American Financial Corp. and Chiquita International. The No. 3 lifetime contributor to the Republican Party, Lindner rides around Cincinnati in a yellow Rolls Royce and frequents the city's world-famous gourmet restaurants.

Fangman, the 36-year-old head of the FOP, is a racist loudmouth who recently made his debut on national TV by defending Cincinnati's killer cops.

But Lindner and Fangman are the two faces of the same machine of patronage, corporate funding and harsh "law-and-order" policies at the core of Cincinnati politics.

Like most white cops in Cincinnati, Fangman grew up on the conservative west side, home to every police chief in the city since 1912. Fangman worked his way through college by selling cars at a west side dealership owned by Marge Schott--the Nazi-loving former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who was banned from baseball for her repeated racist comments.

He was a beat cop for just three years before being elected head of the FOP in 1997. But because of his political connections--and the fact that his father was a 25-year police veteran and his two brothers were on the 1,000-member force--Fangman was a shoo-in.

Meanwhile, an old friend was making good in politics. Mike Allen had become the chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party--and soon afterward the Hamilton County prosecutor, whose jurisdiction includes Cincinnati. Fangman had been Allen's campaign manager in a failed city council race.

Both are graduates of Elder High School, an insular, well-funded and highly conservative Catholic institution. Police Chief Tom Streicher--who was investigated for shooting to death a suspect in 1980--is also an Elder grad. So is former Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus.

Bedinghaus received record donations from none other than Carl Lindner--by then the Reds' owner--as a reward for pushing massive tax increases to fund Lindner's $2 billion stadium development scheme.

When Bedinghaus and Allen founded the Hamilton County Conservative Forum in 1990 as a vehicle for a rising generation of right-wing GOP politicians based in the west side, they got help from Lindner, who in 1997 poured $25,000 into the organization to avoid restrictions on giving directly to candidates.

All of these cops and politicians came of age in the aftermath of Cincinnati's 1968 Avondale riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Their model was right-wing Hamilton County Prosecutor (and now Sheriff) Simon Leis Jr.--who used law-and-order hysteria to build his career, including the notorious prosecution of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

As someone who grew up on the west side with people like Allen, Bedinghaus and Fangman, I bitterly recall how open hatred of African Americans became respectable. Even some teachers at my school, Western Hills High--another cradle of white cops--made openly racist comments, heightening tensions in the newly integrated student body.

Allen and Co. turned this racist backlash into political careers as the city population became 43 percent Black.

Carl Lindner is their corporate backer. And Keith Fangman is their street enforcer.

These political allies gathered at the annual Police Memorial march in May 1999. Those present included Streicher, Fangman and Allen--and another Cincinnatian, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

"It is because of your effort that our streets are safer today," Taft announced to the police. Even one of the Cincinnati's most liberal Democrats, then-Mayor Roxanne Qualls, chimed in. "It's a special person who chooses to serve and protect," she declared.

In last fall's election, Allen and Sheriff Simon Leis even ran unopposed--no doubt reinforcing the feeling among prosecutors, judges and cops that they could get away with anything. Including the murder of Timothy Thomas.

Our fight against a racist system

THE RIOTS in Cincinnati exposed the contradictions at the heart of the 1990s boom economy in the U.S.: Incredible wealth for some, stagnant wages for most, bitter poverty for large numbers of African Americans, blatant corporate domination of politics.

Cincinnati is Corporate America's quintessential company town. Ford Motor's assembly plant dominates Sharonville. General Electric's aircraft engine factory is the core of Evendale. General Motors ran Norwood--until it closed its assembly plant there in the 1980s.

Cincinnati itself has long been dominated by Procter & Gamble, a bastion of anti-unionism. P&G was widely compared to the KGB in the early 1990s when it got a county prosecutor and Cincinnati Bell Telephone to sort through 35 million phone records to try to identify the source of unflattering stories in the Wall Street Journal.

A few years later, Chiquita boss Carl Lindner forced the Cincinnati Enquirer to publicly apologize to him--and pay him $10 million--for publishing a hard-hitting exposé of the company's union-busting, anti-environmental policies in Central America.

Lindner's donations to Democrats were so big that President Clinton launched a trade war with Europe over bananas to defend Chiquita's profits. But Lindner prefers Republicans. That's why he gave George W. Bush $100,000 for his Inaugural Committee--as did Richard Farmer, boss of the Cincinnati-based uniform supply company Cintas Corp.

Cincinnati is also home to Federated Department Stores, the owner of Bloomingdale's and Macy's-- as well as grocery giant Kroger Co., now ranked 18th among the Fortune 500.

The murder of Timothy Thomas took place just a few minutes' walk from the headquarters of these corporate giants.

Today, these businesses want to back another blue-ribbon, do-nothing commission on police violence. Their CEOs will look to make deals with African American establishment politicians like former Mayor Dwight Tillery or Minnette Cooper, who a few years ago ran the City Council in coalition with Republicans.

Cincinnati shows why we can't rely on Democratic politicians who--whether they're Black or white--make sympathetic noises but ultimately line up with the police and the corporate establishment that backs them.

It's time for the mayor, the police chief and the others who front for these racist cops to go. But we can't be satisfied with new faces at City Hall or in the police stations. And even the biggest riot can't achieve fundamental social change--as the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 showed.

It's time to channel the anger and bitterness that fueled the rebellion in Cincinnati into an anti-racist movement that not only defends civil rights against police abuse but takes on the underlying social causes of racism in U.S. society.

And that means taking on the injustices that harm all working people--Black, white, Latino, Asian. That means fighting for decent jobs, better schools, affirmative action, public health care, increased welfare spending and much more.

These aren't issues just in Cincinnati, of course. They are burning issues across the U.S.

The widespread sympathy for the victims of police abuse in Cincinnati shows the possibility--and the urgency--of building a new, fighting anti-racist movement.

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