Sunday, December 31, 2001

Prologue to turmoil: 'A very tense time'

Anger ... much of it focused on police ... intensifies among the city's African-Americans. They see racial profiling and disrespect; police feel embattled and misunderstood. Tension that's been years in the making is about to break the surface.

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Division landed with a thud on the court clerk's desk.

        Crammed with old records and government reports, the 100-page document resembled a history book.

        In some ways, it was.

        Filed on March 14, the lawsuit accused police of stopping African-Americans for no reason other than the color of their skin.

        A pregnant housewife said she was handcuffed at gunpoint. Businessmen said they were detained without explanation. An unarmed black man was asphyxiated in police custody.

        The racial profiling suit, filed on behalf of a group of black citizens, tied all those grievances together for the first time. It listed more than 30 African-Americans who claimed to have been mistreated or verbally abused by police in incidents going back to the Sixties.

        The lawsuit dealt only with the police. But many blacks also were growing increasingly critical of a government that seemed more interested in building stadiums than in building better communities.

        New numbers from the 2000 Census underscored the fact that large numbers of whites were leaving the city for the suburbs. In February, 28 leaders representing a rare cross-section of Tristate business, education, religion, public safety, media, civic and legal interests ranked deteriorating race relations as a top regional problem.

        The message was clear: After more than 30 years of racial tension, after dozens of official reports and promises to do better, not enough had changed.

        "I'm embarrassed to have to do this," Cincinnati lawyer Al Gerhardstein said after filing the lawsuit.

        He hoped the suit would finally stir city officials to do something about Cincinnati's racial problems. He worried about what might happen if they didn't.

        A few days earlier, he had attended a community meeting in Avondale. The room was packed. Black Cincinnatians filled the seats and stood in the aisles.

        One by one ... sometimes in tears, sometimes with fists clenched ... they described their experiences with police.

        "I was terrified."

        "They pointed a gun at me in front of my kids."

        "I don't trust police anymore."

        Anger ran through the room like an electrical current. Mr. Gerhardstein was stunned. He'd lived and worked in the city for 25 years and had never felt so much tension.

        Several speakers spoke passionately about the recent death of Roger Owensby Jr., an unarmed black man who was asphyxiated when officers piled on top of him.

        He was among 14 black men who had died at the hands of police in less than five years.

        Many of the dead men had been armed, and some had attacked, shot and even killed police officers. But to the angry crowd, the dead men were symbols of all that was wrong with the police division.

        "Clearly," Mr. Gerhardstein says now, "it was a very tense time."

        And the tension was growing.

        Anti-police protests at City Hall were becoming increasingly disruptive. Protesters shouted down council members at public meetings, marched around with makeshift coffins and wore clothing spattered with fake blood.

        Police were frustrated, too. Many felt the allegations of racism were baseless. They complained that no one appreciated the dangerous job they did.

        Police union leaders and widows of slain officers wrote letters to newspapers and went on talk radio to defend the cops.

        Lincoln Ware felt the tension every day in the voices of callers to his radio talk show on WDBZ, a station with a predominantly black audience.

        Whatever the topic of the show, from politics to entertainment, callers kept coming back to the same issue.

        "The police are corrupt," one caller told Mr. Ware in March.

        "We can't get justice," said another. "No one takes us seriously."

        Even for a show that thrives on controversy, the rage spilling from the phone lines was surprising.

        "I could feel it," Mr. Ware says now. "The climate was right for something to happen."

        The tense atmosphere gave Mr. Gerhardstein a renewed sense of urgency. He pushed hard for the city to work out the racial profiling lawsuit with a federal mediator.

        City leaders seemed receptive to the idea. Some even began talking about the issue at council meetings.

        They suggested studies and investigations and more meetings.

        But in the community, and on Mr. Ware's talk show, the voices remained angry. People said they'd been talking about the problem for 30 years, since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis and rioters last took over the streets in Cincinnati.

        Some people were running out of patience.

Cincinnati 2001: Year of Unrest
- Prologue to turmoil: "A very tense time"
The trigger: Shooting 'ignites furious response'
The riots explode: A city's dark week
Summer of blood - guns rule the streets
Tests of justice: Officers acquitted
Binding wounds: What can be done?
What comes next?: Good examples few
WARD BUSHEE: A chance to talk honestly ... and to act
2001: A timeline
Unrest photo timeline
Jim Borgman on race

Local Voices

Sweet Alice Hoskins at the Cammys

"Sweet" Alice Hoskins, blues singer

    "Sweet" Alice Hoskins has too much free time.

    The Cincinnati blues and soul singer, known for her boisterous, rousing shows, spent many of her weekends this year at home, listening to music instead of making it.

    Sweet Alice's schedule used to be packed with gigs. Thursday nights in Clifton. Friday and Saturday nights downtown or in Over-the-Rhine.

    But the work has dried up. She's lucky to get a couple jobs a month now, and Sweet Alice suspects that the city's preoccupation with race has something to do with it.

    "They've basically closed us out," the 56-year-old singer says.

    Business began to slow long before the riots scared customers away from Over-the-Rhine's nightclubs, she says. Some of the small clubs, including those favored by black customers, have closed in the past few years.

    And many of the clubs that remain seem to have lost interest in blues bands, especially black blues bands, she says. The owners, the customers and the people who book the acts are almost always white.

    "Naturally, they're going to book the kind of music they like," she says. "They'd rather see a white person. They'd rather see their own race doing it."

    One exception to the lull in work this year was the annual Jazzfest weekend this summer.

    Sweet Alice played to a full house at a downtown bar, belting out classics from the Isley Brothers to Ray Charles. The crowd was a good mix of black and white, just like it used to be.

    On her breaks, several fans stopped by to talk. "Where have you been?" they asked. "Why don't you play more?"

    "I'm trying," she told them. "I'm trying."

Editorial Cartoons
Jim Borgman explores the subject of race and Cincinnati.
Jim Borgman's Race Gallery