By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
When Valerie Lemmie's phone rang shortly after 6 a.m. last Sunday, she knew right away it was trouble.
A Cincinnati Police dispatcher was calling to tell the city manager that a suspect had died in police custody. Lemmie was tired, but the news got her attention.
She listened intently to the details. The man, an African-American named Nathaniel Jones, had lunged at officers. There was a violent struggle. He was struck multiple times with batons.
And there was one more thing: The incident had been captured by a police cruiser's video camera.
Lemmie recognized immediately that Jones' death would stir emotions in the community, emotions still tender two years after the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, another unarmed African-American, which ignited a week of protest and violence.
The community has changed since 2001. A federal investigation led to police reforms, and civil-rights activists and city officials signed a landmark agreement to improve race relations.
Events in the week since have shown that other things are different as well. Police and city officials quickly released the videotapes from the scene and transcripts of police radio chatter in an attempt to give full disclosure to the public.
Early meetings between Police Chief Tom Streicher and black leaders were conducted with handshakes rather than rage. Black ministers called for justice and urged calm at the same time.
But as she hung up the phone a week ago today, Lemmie wasn't sure whether Cincinnati had changed enough. Race and police relations are still very much issues.
This could light a fuse, she told herself.
She believed everyone connected to the death - from city officials to police to activists - would face choices in the coming days that could tilt the city toward peace or toward unrest.
She would have to make the first of those choices very quickly. Jones had been dead for only about 15 minutes, but word would be out within hours. People would be asking questions.
Lemmie knew she'd better have some answers.
Until he died last Sunday morning in a White Castle parking lot in North Avondale, Nathaniel Jones' circle of relatives, friends and acquaintances extended from here to Cleveland. They included fellow Woodward High students, Northside neighbors, co-workers and clients at Greater Cincinnati group homes where he worked, buddies in the local R&B music scene.
Known as "Skip" to his family, the 41-year-old Jones was a father of two boys, who lived in Cleveland. At 342 pounds, he was big, but those who knew him considered him harmless. He was, his grandmother would say later, "a jolly fellow."
But as he lay dying on the pavement, Jones was about to become something more.
To police and their supporters, he was an out-of-control drug user with a previous conviction who attacked officers without provocation.
To many African-Americans, he was an innocent victim of police brutality.
In the days to come, his death would remind Cincinnatians that deep racial divides remain despite two years of legal settlements and police reforms.
But it would reveal something else, too. This time, no matter how loud or enraged they became, most people involved seemed to share at least one piece of common ground: They had lived through the 2001 unrest, and they knew how much harm had been done.
And it wasn't a historical moment most wanted to repeat.
The potential for more unrest was on Lemmie's mind as she pondered her next move early Sunday morning. Although the former Dayton, Ohio, city manager was hired after the unrest, she knew the violence of April 2001 still weighed heavily on Cincinnati.
She picked up the phone again and set up a conference call with Mayor Charlie Luken, Streicher and Assistant Chief Richard Janke. It was about 6:15 a.m. and none of them had seen the videotape or read the police reports yet.
Lemmie already had decided what to do next.
"We've got to get that information out right away," she said.
If they didn't, she feared, people in the community would accuse them of hiding evidence and would give up on recent efforts to improve relations with police. "If we don't do this," she said, "we'll lose every gain we've made."
Everyone agreed. Streicher, who was visiting family in South Carolina, would have liked to see the tape before releasing it, but he didn't think he had much choice.
Two years ago, he had steadfastly refused to release a tape of the officer chasing Thomas before the fatal shooting. He believed he had a good reason: The tape was evidence in a criminal investigation.
But that argument didn't help him when hundreds of protesters descended on City Hall, accusing police of a cover-up. Street violence erupted hours later.
Streicher and Janke decided to call a news conference to be held that night. This time, they would release everything they had: 911 tapes, the videotape and transcripts of the police officers' radio chatter.
The images on that tape might not be pretty, they reasoned, but waiting would only make matters worse.
Criticism, calls for peace
Before the sun rose the next morning, the videotape was everywhere. The Today Show, Good Morning America, Fox News, CNN. Turn on the TV, and there was Nathaniel Jones struggling as police officers struck him.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was stunned. He and several other Baptist ministers called a public meeting Tuesday to protest what they described as a "savage beating."
For the North Avondale Baptist minister, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early days of the civil-rights movement, the tape was as disappointing as it was outrageous. He equated Jones' violent arrest to the beatings he'd witnessed in the 1960s in the Deep South.
"When will and how will Cincinnati ever overcome its image that a black man must die if there is a struggle with the police?" Shuttlesworth asked.
As he and the other ministers spoke, they tempered their criticism with calls for peace. They didn't want a repeat of the events of two years ago, when protesters surrounded police headquarters demanding answers from Streicher.
There were better ways, Shuttlesworth said. And a few hours later, he and several other ministers made good on their word. They headed downtown for a meeting with the chief.
This time, Streicher would open his door to the ministers and shake their hands. This time, the ministers would sit down with the chief to talk face to face.
They might not agree on much, but they would listen. It seemed, to them, a good place to start.
The more Ken Lawson talked to Jones' grieving family, the angrier he became.
The Cincinnati lawyer was a longtime critic of police tactics, and he had been involved in the historic U.S. Department of Justice and collaborative settlements that everyone hoped would improve race relations. To Lawson, the Jones case was the first real test of that settlement.
And as far as he was concerned, the city was failing.
"This is not only reprehensible, it's immoral," Lawson said Wednesday afternoon as he opened a news conference with Jones' family. He said the mayor and police chief were demonizing Jones to justify the officers' behavior.
His voice rose as he spoke. But when a reporter asked whether he believed race played a part in Jones' death, Lawson wouldn't answer.
There was a time, before the 2001 riot, when he would not have hesitated to say yes. He had said as much many times before. But Wednesday he chose his words carefully.
"We don't want anybody to take to the streets and do violence," Lawson said.
And then Jones' grandmother, Bessie, leaned closer to the microphones arrayed before her.
"God didn't put you here to bicker and fight," she said. "He put you here to love one another."
'Thanks for coming'
The church was packed with more than 500 people, and they were getting agitated.
It was Wednesday night and they had been sitting for more than an hour at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship Church in Walnut Hills, waiting for police and city officials to show up.
When those officials arrived, the crowd was ready for them. The coroner had just ruled that Jones died because of the stress of his violent struggle with police. To some at the meeting, that meant police killed him, even though the coroner said there was no evidence police did anything wrong.
"There had to be a different way," one speaker shouted.
"They didn't show any mercy," said another.
There was anger and raised voices. But the more they talked, the more everyone seemed to settle into a rhythm. People took turns speaking. There was less yelling and more conversation.
The police chief took the brunt of the barbs. In 2001, at the first public meeting two days after Thomas' death, a crowd swarmed City Hall and threatened to bar the doors until they got answers.
As Lemmie, Luken and Streicher got up to leave the church last week, they noticed that some in the crowd were standing around the podium, waiting for them. More questions? Criticism?
Instead, a few of them extended a hand. "Thanks for coming," they said.
Learning from the past
More than 500 mourners memorialized Nathaniel Jones Saturday. The service was more about grief than anger, and Jones' relatives were glad for that.
They had worried, along with many others, about a repeat of the violence of two years ago. And they had waited through the long week to see how much their city had learned from its past.
Jones' grandmother, Bessie, wants only to remember her grandson as he was, not as the symbol he seemed to be becoming in his death. She doesn't see him as a martyr or a criminal.
And she continues to hope that his violent death will not lead to more violence.
"I don't want no anger, I just want things to be right," she said last week. "I don't care what color you are. Love me, and I'm going to love you."
This story is based on reporting by Dan Horn, Jane Prendergast, Gregory Korte and Kevin Aldridge.
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