In April 2001, when riots erupted in Cincinnati, the national media let out a glad cry: black rage, that hottest of political commodities, was back! The subsequent postriot drill, perfected over the last four decades, unfolded without flaw: instant discovery of the riot’s “root causes”; halfhearted condemnation of the violence, followed immediately by its enthusiastic embrace as a “wake-up call” to America; warnings of future outbreaks if the “wake-up call” is ignored; and hurried formation of task forces promising rapid aid for Cincinnati’s inner city.
“Riot ideology”- historian Fred Siegel’s caustic phrase for the belief that black rioting is a justified answer to white racism – is alive and well in twenty-first-century America. Riots may be relatively rare, but the thinking that rationalizes them is not. It pervades the country’s response to underclass problems and to race issues generally. The Cincinnati riots and their aftermath offer a peerless example of all that is wrong with this conventional approach to race. But in Cincinnati, too, if you look, are the clearest possible guideposts for how to get race issues right.
A fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager, Timothy Thomas, triggered the riots. After 2 a.m. on Saturday, April 7, Thomas spotted two Cincinnati police officers and started running. Wanted on fourteen warrants for traffic offenses and for evading arrest, Thomas led the policemen on a chase through the narrow alleys of Cincinnati’s most drug-infested and violent neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine. The area’s Italianate walk-ups, home in the late nineteenth century to one of America’s most culturally rich and densely populated German-American communities, today often are either abandoned or given over to methadone clinics, drop-in centers, or Section 8 public housing.
Officer Steve Roach, hearing a radio alert about a fleeing suspect with fourteen warrants, joined the pursuit and came abruptly face-to-face with the nineteen-year-old in a dark alley. When Thomas appeared to reach for his waistband, Roach shot him once in the chest. Three days later Over-the-Rhine would be burning.
Cincinnati’s riots hardly constituted a spontaneous outcry against injustice. A demagogic campaign against the police, of the kind common in American cities today, had already heated black residents almost to the boiling point. “Thirteen black men!”- a tally of the suspects killed by the Cincinnati police since 1995 – was the rallying cry of protesters in the City Council chambers last fall. Thomas’s shooting (added to a January shoot-out death) brought the total to fifteen, and black politicians duly updated their cry to “Fifteen black men,” in effect charging that Cincinnati’s cops were indiscriminately mowing down black citizens. With robotic predictability, every national news account of the riots repeated the cry, to demonstrate Cincinnati’s racism.
In fact, the list of the fifteen police victims shows the depraved nature not of Cincinnati’s cops but of its criminals. Harvey Price, who heads the roster, axed his girlfriend’s fifteen-year-old daughter to death in 1995, then held a SWAT team at bay for four hours with a steak knife, despite being maced and hit with a stun gun. When he lunged at an officer with the knife, the cop shot him. Jermaine Lowe, a parole violator wanted for armed robbery, fled in a stolen car at the sight of a police cruiser, crashed into another car, then unloaded his handgun at the pursuing officers. Alfred Pope robbed, pistol-whipped, and most likely fired at three people in an apartment hallway, just the latest assault by the vicious twenty-three-year-old, who had already racked up eighteen felony charges and five convictions. He then aimed his handgun at close range at the pursuing officers, and they shot him dead in return.
To call such lowlifes martyrs to police brutality is a stretch. Besides the Thomas shooting, only three of the fifteen cases raise serious questions about officer misjudgment and excessive force. The notion that race was the controlling element in the fifteen deaths is even more absurd.
But it is perfectly in keeping with Cincinnati’s racialized politics. Advocates of the city’s status quo, whether opposing competitive bidding for city services or blocking the investigation of low-income housing fraud, can bring the City Council to its knees by playing the race card. For the last two years, black nationalists calling themselves the Special Forces have turned up regularly in the delicately carved council chambers of Cincinnati’s Romanesque City Hall to spew anti-white and anti-Semitic diatribes. Two days after the Thomas shooting, on Monday, April 9, they were back, accompanied by hundreds of angry black residents, by Timothy Thomas’s mother, and by her attorney Kenneth Lawson – Cincinnati’s answer to Johnnie Cochran.
The Council meeting instantly spun out of control. Backed by constant screaming from the crowd, lawyer Lawson and another racial activist, the Reverend Damon Lynch III, masterfully inflamed the crowd’s anger by suggesting that city officials were willfully withholding information about the Thomas shooting. Lawson, and doubtless Lynch too, knew full well that disclosing Officer Roach’s testimony after the shooting would jeopardize the investigation and possible prosecution of the case, yet both threatened to hold every chamber occupant hostage until Roach’s testimony was released. Some of the Council Democrats seconded the threats. Three chaotic hours later, Lawson and Lynch grudgingly agreed to disband, Lynch demanding that the police chief “call off the dogs [i.e., officers] outside.”
The crowd left City Hall and, swelling to more than one thousand along the way, headed toward the boxy, low-slung police headquarters. Protesters screamed at the officers protecting the station and snapped photos of them, promising lethal revenge for the fifteen black “murders.” Someone threw a rock that shattered the station’s front door; others pulled the flag from its pole and hung it upside down; police horses were hit; officers were injured by flying glass – but the order was: “Let them vent.” The lieutenant in charge even gave a protester a bullhorn in the hope of calming the crowd. It didn’t work.
Finally, at 1 a.m., police started arresting those who were hurling rocks and bottles at the station house. Too late: the violence had begun. Over the next three days, crowds would rampage through Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods, beating white motorists, burning property, breaking hundreds of store windows, and making off with the appliances, furniture, clothing, and booze within. Gunmen fired thousands of shots, many at officers. The police chief begged black clergy for help in restoring calm but got little response.
Though the police were outmatched and overworked, Democratic mayor Charles Luken refused to take additional measures against the violence. Then on Thursday, a bullet hit a cop, grazing off his belt buckle. That afternoon, Luken imposed an 8 p.m. curfew and announced a state of emergency.
By then the riot ideologues were in full cry. The NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume flew in to declare Cincinnati the “belly of the whale” of police violence against young black men. Al Sharpton called for federal oversight not just of Cincinnati’s but of the nation’s police. Time magazine named Cincinnati a “model of racial injustice.” The New York Times found pervasive economic discrimination against the city’s blacks. White gentrifiers, pronounced The New Republic, lay behind the riots. The Los Angeles Times and ABC’s This Week noted how salutary the violence had been.
Local leaders scrambled to contain the public relations fiasco and to show their concern for black anger. The City Council hurriedly voted to submit a pending racial profiling lawsuit to costly “mediation,” rather than contest it, even though none of the suit’s allegations had been shown to be credible. Mayor Luken invited in the Justice Department to investigate the police division, which could result in federal oversight of the kind that busts municipal budgets. But the city’s main riot response was to form Community Action Now (CAN), a three-man panel dedicated to racial reconciliation through, as its members and promotional materials insist, action, action, and more action. Its three co-chairs are Ross Love, an ex-Procter & Gamble vice president who now heads a black radio empire; Tom Cody, an executive vice president of Federated Department Stores; and the Reverend Damon Lynch, the activist who calls the police “dogs.”
At CAN’s inception, Ross Love, the official spokesman, announced five task forces to “address the root causes of the recent unrest.” The groups, manned by local civil rights figures, business leaders, and poverty advocates, would address “education and youth development, economic inclusion, police and the justice system, housing and neighborhood development, and image and media.” But “root causes” have a way of proliferating: soon Love created a sixth task force to look at “health care and human services.” And as a harbinger of its future largesse, CAN then hired a former black city manager at $1,400 a day as “special counsel.”
With the formation of CAN, and the media agitation that preceded it, we are ready to test the central tenets of riot ideology. In place of “riots,” any other element of underclass behavior, such as crime, can be substituted – the rationalizations are identical.
Start with the contention that riots are a response to white racism, since this is the mother of all “root cause” arguments, first popularized by the Kerner Commission Report on the 1960s riots. Ross Love gives this argument an economic spin: racially based “economic exclusion” is his mantra for explaining why blacks rioted in his city. The New York Times jumped on the “economic exclusion” bandwagon as well, claiming that Cincinnati has long “frustrated” blacks’ justified demands for a “share of prosperity.”
To test that hypothesis, walk around Cincinnati’s poorest areas, from the river basin, spanned by John A. Roebling’s first, beautiful suspension bridge, up to the city’s seven surrounding green hills, which in Cincinnati’s nineteenth-century heyday compressed its population into a greater density than anywhere but Manhattan. You will see knots of young men in their teens and twenties milling about on almost every street comer, towels draped over their heads, their shorts hanging far below their underwear. Heat has driven some out of their apartments, but many others are there to peddle drugs hidden in crevices in the old brick buildings. I approached a group of boys leaning against a tiny convenience store on a steep intersection called the Five Corners. One boy’s T-shirt read: “No Justice, No Peace, These Our Streets, F…k the Police, 1981-2001” – presumably Timothy Thomas’s dates. I introduced myself and asked if they’d answer a few questions. “Hell, no!” In a blink of an eye, all but one of the boys had disappeared across the street and into a parking lot or down the steep incline.
Inside the tiny, dark store, a fortyish Jordanian with a moustache and a receding hairline stands squeezed behind the register. He will only give his name as “Mike.” “We call the police five to ten times a day,” he says quietly. “They drive through and tell them to move.” What are they selling? He casts his eyes down. “I don’t know; I don’t want to talk about it.”
At least Mike’s store has not been shot at. Under the shredded red awning of Johnnie’s Supermarket in the Walnut Hills neighborhood, spider-web cracks radiate across the window from a bullet hole. The bullet’s target-a large red sign prohibiting loitering and giving the police the authority to come onto the premises at any time-is still visible under the cracked window. Until recently, up to fifty young men stood in front of Johnnie’s, hawking drugs and extorting money from the market’s customers. They are mostly gone now, thanks to an undercover operation that netted nineteen indictments. But in front of an abandoned building kitty corner from Johnnie’s, ten young men in white T-shirts shift back and forth.
Now, remember the “economic exclusion” argument: Cincinnati’s racist power structure is excluding hordes of qualified young black men. Well, here the men are, and it is ludicrous to attribute their joblessness to corporate bigotry rather than to their own un-employability. The high school dropout rate in Cincinnati is between 60 and 70 percent. And will the young men across from Johnnie’s show up every day to work on time and respond appropriately to authority? Has any of them even applied for a job and been turned down? Last summer King’s Island, an amusement park north of the city, had to import 1,000 young Eastern Europeans for summer jobs because it could find no local youths to apply. Yet the well-intentioned CEO of Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati’s beloved corporate titan, has called, in good riot-ideologue fashion, for the urgent creation of 2,500 government and privately subsidized summer jobs to forestall another rampage.
I asked Ross Love what evidence he had for “economic exclusion” in Cincinnati. “You have to look at the end result,” he said. “The unemployment rate is four times higher for blacks than for whites; for 18- to 30-year-olds, it is an incredible 50 percent.” But “looking at the end result” is the hallmark of bogus civil rights analysis, designed to shift attention from individual deficits onto the resultant disparate outcomes, which are then attributed to racism. We can argue about whether society is, in some structural way, still somehow to blame for Cincinnati’s idle, functionally illiterate young dealers, but let’s not brand employers as racist.
Cincinnati’s African immigrants have a different perspective from CAN on “economic exclusion.” “We experience more resentment from African-Americans than from whites,” says cabdriver Mor Thiam. “They don’t want to see us in business. ‘Man, go back to Africa! You come here and take our monies,’ they say.” Amy, a Senegalese cabdriver in a robin’s-egg-blue ruffled cotton dress, has been teaching herself about riot ideology by listening to Ross Love’s local radio station, WDBZ, “The Buzz.” “They are angry on that station!” she exclaims. “A lot of them don’t work; they go to your taxi, try to steal your money. When I came here, I earned $4.25 an hour, but I worked. I liked it. I paid my bills; I sent money home. If you want to get a job, you get a job. We see a lot of opportunity here.”
The notion that this friendly, well-meaning town is denying employment to job-ready black men because of the color of their skin is ridiculous. To the contrary, Cincinnati’s biggest corporations have long practiced affirmative action. Expect CAN’s “economic inclusion” task force to recommend even more quotas, however, rather than honestly to address why young blacks are not working.