Sunday, December 30, 2001

Binding wounds: What can be done?

A mediator tries to bridge the gap between whites and blacks. Other programs promote contact between the races. But a boycott letter critical of police threatens to disrupt the work...

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jay Rothman thought things were going pretty well.

        As the mediator who is supposed to help Cincinnati solve its racial problems, Mr. Rothman had spent months working to find common ground among the city's blacks and whites. He was pleased with the progress.

        But when he glanced at a newspaper headline in early December, he got a sinking feeling.

        Two of the people he was counting on to help his efforts, Rev. Damon Lynch III and Mayor Charlie Luken, were trading insults over a letter critical of police.

        The letter, signed by Rev. Lynch, called for an economic boycott of Cincinnati because "police are killing, raping, planting false evidence and ... destroying the general self-respect for black citizens."

        Suddenly, outraged police officers, public officials and community activists were talking about pulling out of the mediation talks that Mr. Rothman had been nurturing since the riots.

        "Oh my goodness," Mr. Rothman said to himself. "After all this, let's not get derailed now."

        The dispute between Mr. Luken and Rev. Lynch was a throwback to the days before the riots, when racial tension was at its highest. Clearly, the new alliances among black and white leaders were more fragile than many had thought.

        Mr. Luken and Rev. Lynch, a white politician and a black minister, were supposed to represent the spirit of cooperation that would lead the city to better race relations.

        Instead, they were back to sniping at each other. Despite all the meetings and special commissions and round-table discussions that had been organized since the riots, Cincinnati remained a deeply divided city.

        "The depth of mistrust, fear and miscommunication are just gigantic," Mr. Rothman says now.

        Many have pinned their hopes of fixing those problems on Mr. Rothman, an expert in conflict resolution who was appointed by a judge to help resolve the racial profiling lawsuit against police.

        Since the riots, Mr. Rothman's mediation effort has taken on added importance. It's seen by some as the city's best chance to make significant improvements in race relations.

        But it is by no means the only effort under way. In the wake of the riots, special projects and committees formed almost daily.

        People from the suburbs met with people from the inner-city. Teen-agers met with the elderly. Police officers met with ministers. Blacks met with whites.

        "You have to establish a relationship,'' says Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. ""You have to tear down barriers."

        That's what Robert Morton hoped to do by taking part in the "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" program at Withrow High School. The program paired the 18-year-old African-American with a white student from Anderson Township.

        They spent a day together in early December, talking about their plans for the future. Right away, they found they had one thing in common: "We both want to be lawyers," Robert says.

        Later, they found they shared something else: They were each wary of going to the other's neighborhood. "He thought somebody might do something, might call him a name if he came here," Robert says. ""I told him I might be called a name if I went to Anderson."

        Before the program ended, they went to those neighborhoods to visit each others' schools. Except for skin color, Robert recalls, the students weren't all that different.

        "This shows we can work together," he says.

        Others remain skeptical. To many African-Americans, meetings and commissions have been used for years as a diversion from actually dealing with racism in Cincinnati.

        Despite his own skepticism, Rev. Lynch agreed in April to join Mayor Luken's special commission on race, Cincinnati Community Action Now. It was a bad fit from the beginning.

        Rev. Lynch continued his involvement in protests and boycotts, while the mayor urged him to work on changing the system from within. After the boycott letter, the mayor fired Rev. Lynch.

        For a few tense days in early December, it seemed the spat might polarize the city, just as similar disputes had done in the months leading up to the riots.

        Within a few days, though, the crisis passed. Mr. Rothman's mediation effort resumed and more meetings in the community were scheduled.

        "It was a problem, but we're past it," Mr. Rothman says.

        For the moment, he says, the city seems willing to move forward.

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
Derrel Shields, Taft High School student

    Derrell Shields hears a lot of talk about racism these days.

    He's been to public meetings on the topic, he's heard about it in his classes at Taft High School and he's even gone on TV to talk about it.

    None of that would be happening, he says, if not for the riots in April.

    The 17-year-old Westwood student says he opposes violence. But he says the riots succeeded where years of peaceful protests had failed.

    "I think that got their attention," Derrell says. "It was messed up, but it took something like that to make a change."

    Derrell says police have stopped him many times, just to ask where he was going. Security guards have followed him around department stores. And whites have gone out of their way to avoid crossing paths with him on the sidewalk.

    "I guess people felt their point was not getting across," he says. "They felt the protests weren't enough."

    He went to one of the protests in April after Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, was shot by a police officer. He watched angry protesters confront police, and he sensed things would soon get worse.

    "I knew something was going to happen," Derrell says.

    He says the riots didn't make things better, but he hopes they taught the city something about racism.

    At least now, he says, people are talking about it.