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 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
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
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
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:
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