Does good citizenship ever require us to break the law?
We honor some lawbreakers, especially after they're dead. Mayor Charlie Luken issued a proclamation last month praising the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the country's most respected lawbreaker. Last year City Councilman John Cranley showed up at the McCrackin Day festival, named for Cincinnati's most persistent practitioner of illegal politics.
If he were still alive, the Rev. Maurice McCrackin would no doubt protest Cranley's policies, but the point still holds: In honoring the legacy of King and McCrackin, we honor their tactics. Even Cincinnati's trenchant city officials acknowledge that citizenship sometimes allows breaking the law.
But does citizenship ever require breaking the law? Is civil disobedience ever a duty? If so, has Cincinnati degenerated to such a state?
Yes, according to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was repeatedly arrested in civil rights protests in the South in the 1950s and 1960s — and honored by the city of Cincinnati with the naming of a street in the 1990s.
"It's time to fill the jails," he told a Fountain Square crowd on Dec. 6, 2001.
Last spring, the March for Justice filled Cincinnati's streets with an estimated 2,500 people calling for an end to police violence and racism. The march's climax was the McCrackin Day festival.
Now the March for Justice Committee is organizing a second rally and march — for April 7, the first anniversary of Timothy Thomas' death at the hands of Cincinnati Police. The ending point this year will be City Hall.
But if the march is to be effective, the ending point will actually be a beginning — or, to be more accurate, a continuation. By marching to McCrackin Day last year, the March for Justice honored civil disobedience, even as Cranley did.
Will the march this year, which is a legal event, inaugurate direct action through the use of nonviolent civil disobedience?
Consider what has happened in the year of change that Luken promised. Three police officers face no penalty for killing unarmed men, federal prosecutors won't touch the cops who fired beanbag missiles on children and every city incumbent who sought reelection won at the polls.
Instead of change, the city has hardened its heart, according to the Rev. Damon Lynch III.
"Instead of them being willing to change, they decided you can't panhandle in Cincinnati," Lynch said last week. "They decided you can't build housing for the poor. When the cops started killing black men, they decided to hire 75 more of them. Pharaoh's heart has hardened."
Lynch is president of the Black United Front, perhaps the smallest of several groups behind the boycott of Cincinnati. His parish, New Prospect Baptist Church, overflowed on Feb. 21 with supporters of the economic sanctions.
The times call for a more concerted effort, Lynch said.
"What Cincinnati has here is a Rosa Parks moment," he said. "This time we ain't giving up."
Parks, the subject of a new made-for-TV movie — the ultimate sign of respectability — is famous for a single brief act: illegally sitting in a white person's bus seat in Montgomery, Ala.
We like to tell ourselves we would have sided with the great ones, according to Lynch.
"Most of us in this room would like to think they'd have marched with Gandhi," he said. "Don't fool yourself."
When the March for Justice takes to the streets April 7, some will be tempted to measure its impact by the numbers of feet hitting pavement. But a better measure exists.
If the March for Justice summons only 25 people but they're willing to risk arrest for the sake of justice, it could help advance the movement for change in Cincinnati.
"The pressure has to keep up," Lynch said. "Nothing has changed since April 2001."
If Luken and city council will not effectuate change and federal prosecutors will not enforce civil rights laws, are the people entitled to occupy City Hall? Does good citizenship require closing council chambers until the city agrees to act?
When the legal system fails justice and becomes an active agent of injustice, King and McCrackin knew what to do — and Luken and Cranley now praise them for it.
Has our time come to march to jail?