Sunday, December 30, 2001

The riots explode: A city's dark week

Violence tears open the city, and it takes a curfew to bring calm. Bodies, property and the city's reputation are damaged in the worst urban unrest here in 30 years...

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mayor Charlie Luken sat alone in his office, growing more tense with every update that burst from his police scanner.

        Dumpster fire on Elm. Looting on Vine. Burning building in Over- the-Rhine.

        Street barricades from the West End to Avondale.

        It was April 11, and Cincinnati was deep into the third and worst night of the riots. The violence had begun April 9, when someone in a crowd of protesters heaved a rock through the front door of District 1 police headquarters.

Apr. 10, 2001 - A protester says "I accuse you" to officers guarding the entrance to District 1 headquarters
(Enquirer photo by Glenn Hartong)

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        Now, the brief, breathless dispatches on the mayor's scanner told of a city out of control.

        Already, hundreds of people were in jail and dozens had been treated for injuries. Fires were burning, and roving bands of thugs were pulling motorists from their cars. Police in riot gear were fighting back with guns, clubs and chemical spray.

        Property was looted and destroyed in communities from Over-the-Rhine to Norwood. Businesses suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. The violence grew worse by the hour.

        "I have literally been in the street with tenants all day," said Jim Moll, a landlord who spent April 11 at his Over-the-Rhine properties. "I looked into the eyes of terror."

        Blocks away, a mob pulled a white man from his car and beat him. Looters raided and burned a furniture store, carrying off lamps, chairs, even a big-screen TV.

        But some of the worst damage, and perhaps the most lasting, was to Cincinnati's image.

        A city that preferred to keep its racial problems quiet was now the talk of the nation. A city that prided itself on law and order was now a symbol of chaos.

        "I thought we had begun to work constructively on our problems," Mayor Luken says now. "Then the riots came along."

        The mayor and other city officials struggled that night to find a way to end the violence. They worried that being too aggressive ... imposing a curfew, calling in the National Guard ... might do more harm than good. They also feared that not being aggressive enough would embolden the rioters.

        The trouble usually began in the early evening, when peaceful protesters gave way to rioters. "In the daytime, it was people with a legitimate beef," recalls Jerry Dubose, who lives and works in Over-the-Rhine. "At night, it was different."

Apr. 10, 2001 - Protestors marching south on Race St. stand atop a car blocking an intersection, as protesters took to the streets.
(Enquirer photo by Michael E. Keating)

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        The protesters wanted to be heard, Mr. Dubose says. The rioters wanted an excuse to destroy.

        Soon, the violence attracted the national media. They arrived early in the week and began broadcasting Cincinnati's troubles around the globe. Great Britain posted a travel advisory, warning its citizens to stay away from Cincinnati.

        By the evening of April 11, Mayor Luken had been on at least a dozen talk shows. He urged Cincinnatians to stop the violence and assured the outside world that the city was not dangerous. It was a hard sell.

        As interviewers asked questions that to him seemed unfair ... "Are the police murderers? Is your city racist?' ... the mayor worried about how Cincinnati would look to viewers around the country.

        He couldn't help thinking, "I'm being set up."

        In a few days, Time magazine would pick him as its "Loser of the Week."

        "The media were willing to use Cincinnati to exacerbate the situation, to sensationalize the problem," Mr. Luken says. "I resented it very much."

        But the mayor had more immediate worries.

        A few blocks from his office that night, an employee at the Big Dollar store on Vine Street was frantically calling her boss, Steven Rothchild.

        The young woman lived in an apartment above the store. She was trapped inside as looters smashed through windows and dragged out merchandise.

        "They're taking everything!" she told Mr. Rothchild, who was home in the suburbs.

        As the night wore on, angry mobs gathered in at least a half-dozen communities. A fire station in the West End came under siege by youths throwing bottles and rocks.

        In Walnut Hills, police sealed off a four-block area hit hard by mob violence. Store windows were smashed. Cars at an auto dealership were vandalized.

        Chaos erupted "just like that," said Police Capt. David Ratliff, snapping his fingers. "People started going up and down the street, smashing things. They really did a number here." Roslyn Jones was stuck behind a burning barricade in Avondale, trying to get to her apartment in Over-the-Rhine.

        The 28-year-old African-American doesn't remember the brick hitting her head, only the blood and screaming that followed. Ms. Jones is albino, with very fair skin. One of the rioters mistook her for a white woman.

        "Stop!" a man yelled. She's black! She's black!"

        The man pulled her to safety while rioters pummeled her car with rocks. Ms. Jones was never able to identify her attackers, and she's not sure she wants to. "I don't want to know why someone would act out in such a violent way," she says now.

        As midnight approached on April 11 and mayhem seemed to be everywhere, Mayor Luken's scanner suddenly crackled with even worse news: Shots fired. Officer down.

Apr. 13, 2001 - Mayor Charlie Luken, Chief Tom Streicher, and City manager John Shirey during a press conference at police headquarters Friday morning.
(Enquirer photo by Glenn Hartong)

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        On the streets, police officers and bystanders ran for cover. The injured officer was not seriously hurt ... the bullet had lodged in his belt ... but the gunfire sparked panic.

        "You're going to get killed!" police screamed at reporters and passers-by.

        The mayor had finally heard enough.

        He went on TV within hours to declare a state of emergency and a curfew. He called in reinforcements from the sheriff's office and highway patrol. "This has got to stop," he said.

        But even as he and others decried the violence, many city leaders began to recommend government action that clearly would not have been on the agenda without the violence. Jobs programs, renovation projects, neighborhood reinvestment.

        The hope, city officials said, was that swift action would quickly restore the city's battered reputation and, ultimately, prevent future violence.

Riot Zone - Rioting was concentrated in near-downtown neighborhoods of Over-the-Rhine, the West End, Walnut Hill, Evanston and Avondale.
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        In the days that followed April 11, Mayor Luken visited some of the neighborhoods hit hard by the riots. One of his stops was Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.

        Al Silverglade was glad to see the mayor make the market a priority. Mr. Silverglade, the owner of Silverglade & Sons deli, has worked at Findlay Market for most of his 70 years.

        He thinks the market can help the city solve its racial problems and restore its good name.

        The market was, after all, built on the business of immigrants who spoke different languages, ate different foods and worshiped in different churches. Mr. Silverglade can think of no better example of racial harmony.

        "When people walk into that market house, no matter who they are or what their background, everyone is on the same level," Mr. Silverglade says.

        Mayor Luken expressed similar sentiments when he toured the market after the riots. But as he walked around charred trash bins and piles of broken glass, the mayor was still stunned by what he had seen and heard in the days before.

        "This is all just senseless, random violence," he said.

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

Easter 2001
An Easter without peace

    The riots and curfew came during Easter Week, the holiest time for Christians. Across the city, Easter services and events were disrupted, postponed or canceled.

    As many as 10,000 Catholics who pray the 85 steps at Holy Cross-Immaculata in Mount Adams had to wait until 6:30 a.m. that Friday, April 13, to begin. The climb to the stone church that overlooks the Ohio River ... a 142-year tradition ... usually begins just after midnight on Good Friday.

    Instead of joyful celebrations, many people were upset.

    "I have 17 people coming to my house on Easter Sunday. What am I supposed to tell them when it gets close to 8 p.m? Get out?" asked Donna Kamp of Hartwell.

    Recitals and performances over Easter weekend were canceled at the Aronoff Center, Playhouse in the Park, Taft Theater, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and the Main Street entertainment district. Restaurants from Papa John's Pizza to the storied La Maisonette closed for the curfew.

    At the five-star Maisonette, parties ... some as large as 60 people ... were canceled. "That's a lot of money, and we're still paying utility bills," said Nat Comisar, managing partner of the Maisonette Group. "It's a disaster, but maybe it will be a catalyst for change. It's time to stop believing everything is rosy in Cincinnati."

    Some suburbanites were surprised at the intensity of the riots.

    "On the street, there's a lot of disbelief that something like this is happening in Cincinnati," said Bruce Henry, Blue Ash assistant city manager and safety director. "Just when things are turning the corner ... a lot of reinvestment occurring in the city ... there is this destruction. And people wonder what will happen now."

    "Wasn't this, like, the most liveable city a couple years ago?'' asked Shawn Wiegand, who, from an overlook in Clifton, watched fires burn in Over-the-Rhine while police and news helicopters hovered downtown.

Local Voices
Patricia Badkey
Patricia Badkey, minister at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Kenwood

    At first, the riots in Cincinnati seemed as distant to Rev. Patricia Badkey as violence in Israel, Bosnia or some other far off place.

    Rev. Badkey, 44, is a minister at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Kenwood, which has a predominantly white congregation. For her and others in the suburbs, TV and newspapers were often the only connection to the riots and racial unrest in the city.

    They didn't work or shop downtown, and they rarely visited. They could easily avoid trouble in the city's urban neighborhoods.

    ""Because of circumstances,'' Rev. Badkey says, ""we're not as engaged as we would be if we lived in the city.''

    But as the week of rioting wore on, Rev. Badkey began to sense that she and her congregation were more connected to the city's troubles than they had thought.

    Some got calls from worried friends from out of town, asking what's going on in ""your city.''

    Some ran into casual friends who lived in neighborhoods affected by the riots.

    And a few days after the riots, Rev. Badkey got a letter from a fellow minister at a Lutheran church in Over-the-Rhine. The minister was afraid that Good Shepherd would cancel its volunteer work and other activities at his church because of the violence.

    "They were afraid people would get scared and withdraw," Rev. Badkey says.

    She assured him her church would stay involved. It may have taken the riots, she says, for people in the suburbs to appreciate how close they really are to the city.

    "It was a very destructive time," Rev. Badkey says. "People were worried for the well-being of the city."