A Tale of Two Suburbs

The checkered past of two racially tense Midwestern suburbs

click to enlarge Protesters at an Oct. 18 rally in Columbus remembering John Crawford III, killed by police in Beavercreek Aug. 5
Protesters at an Oct. 18 rally in Columbus remembering John Crawford III, killed by police in Beavercreek Aug. 5

W

hile images of shouting crowds, tear gas and riot police in Missouri continued to flicker across TV screens across the country, a fluctuating group of 15 to 25 activists in early October camped out in Beavercreek, Ohio’s squat, nondescript police department. They stayed for three days, eventually blocking the front door to the department for a few hours before leaving. The action made a day-long blip in national media reports, then receded into the background.

Many have made parallels between the Aug. 9 shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson and the killing of 22-year-old John Crawford III in a Beavercreek Walmart four days earlier. Both Crawford and Brown were young black men shot by white police officers. Both were unarmed. And both Brown and Crawford were shot in suburbs seemingly removed from struggling urban centers that have been the settings of past civil unrest around controversial police actions.

But the racial tensions and local reactions surrounding the tragedies differ.

“Ferguson and Beavercreek are completely different communities,” says Malaya Davis, an organizer with Columbus-based Ohio Student Association. The activist group has helped lead some of the protests around the Crawford shooting and organized the occupation of the police station.  

“I think that may have been their last straw, seeing Mike Brown dead in the street for hours,” she says of black Ferguson residents. “Here, people may not have felt either kind of way, or didn’t know what to do.”

Ferguson’s “last straw” comes after years of alleged incidents of police brutality. Unrest there also comes after decades of demographic shifts. In 1980, Ferguson, a suburb 13 miles northwest of St. Louis, was 85 percent white, according Census data. It’s now nearly 70 percent black. Unemployment has nearly doubled in the city, reaching 13 percent in 2012. Twenty-five percent of Ferguson residents now live below the poverty line.

That’s a trend echoed in the nation’s top 100 metro areas, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, an economic think tank. Brookings used Ferguson as an example of this dynamic and its disproportionate impact on people of color.

Beavercreek, a suburb eight miles southeast of Dayton, is 90 percent white with a poverty rate of just 5 percent; a decidedly different place demographically. But there are signs another kind of racial tension may be at work there.

Last year, Beavercreek faced losing $10 million in transit funds after the federal government found it to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2011, the city refused to allow Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority to install bus stops there around the Mall at Fairfield Commons. The Beavercreek City Council cited safety concerns and negative public opinion as the reason for rejecting the bus stops.

But others said the move was an attempt to keep mostly poor, mostly black RTA riders out of Beavercreek. RTA ridership is 73 percent minority, and 64 percent black, according to the federal complaint.

The city said it would allow the stops only if the transit authority would pay to put police call boxes and security cameras in every stop, pay for policing for the stops and other expensive stipulations like heating and air conditioning in the stops. The transit authority said it could not accommodate those requests, and the city declined to allow the stops.

“I don’t mind stops if they’re done properly. We’re not trying to build a wall to stop people from coming into Beavercreek,” Councilman Scott Hadley said at the time. Most of the city’s council members echoed the sentiments. Then-Councilman and now Beavercreek Mayor Brian Jarvis, who is black, also cited high crime rates at Dayton bus stops as a reason for his opposition.

The Federal Highway Administration found that council’s refusal was a civil rights violation, stating that “African Americans have faced discriminatory impact as the result of the City’s decision” in a letter advising Beavercreek to change the policy or risk losing millions in funding from the FHA.

In Oct. 2013, Beavercreek’s City Council relented, but some council members also made it clear they did not want to capitulate. Facing millions in lost federal funds, two council members still voted against the stops, citing safety issues and a desire to maintain local control over such decisions.

“My vote reflects the view of the majority of voters,” Councilwoman Debborah Wallace said as she cast her vote against the bus stops.

Whether Wallace’s assertion was true or not, negative reaction to the move was swift. Comments flooded news articles and social media by those who asserted that buses from Dayton and surrounding high-poverty areas would lead to increases in crime.

“The blacks from Jefferson Township, Trotwood, Harrison Township and the rest of the government-subsidied [sic] housing in the area are no doubt already planning their shoplifting and parking lot robberies, and trolling for their next soon-to-be-absent baby daddies,” wrote someone with the username tjjames9 in one Oct. 2013 comment on a Dayton Daily News article about council’s decision.

“The new Corner of Chaos!!!” exclaimed another inadvertently prescient comment that day by a user called ThomThumb.

Crawford, a Fairfield resident who grew up in Cincinnati, was shot in the Walmart by police after another customer, Ronald Ritchie, called 911 to report a man loading a gun and pointing it at customers in the store. Ritchie later contradicted that statement in interviews with the media, stating Crawford wasn’t actually pointing the gun at anyone. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun sold by Walmart.

Though no evidence exists that the bus stops raised crime, fear around buses resurfaced as news broke that someone had been shot in the Walmart just a few minutes’ walk away from one of the stops. Rumors and online commentary suggesting a shooter had taken a bus to the Walmart were prevalent enough to prompt The Dayton Daily News to publish a story on Aug. 6 titled “No Proof Suspect Took Bus to Walmart.”

Many supporters of the council’s initial decision to refuse the bus stops say it was about local control and protecting taxpayers, but others in Beavercreek see it differently.

“It’s definitely racial,” says Darsheel Kaur, a lifelong Beavercreek resident, regarding the vocal fear of transit in the area. “Based on the stark racial segregation [in the Dayton area], if you don’t want someone coming from a certain part of town, you’re definitely talking about race.” Dayton is 43 percent black, according to Census data.

But Kaur was careful to note that doesn’t mean the majority of people in Beavercreek are racist.

“Maybe it’s a small percentage of people who have the loudest voices who feel that way,” she says.

Reaction in Beavercreek was and has remained relatively muted, compared to the unrest in Ferguson, though activists have been similarly persistent. Small groups have gathered outside the Walmart where Crawford was shot. An 11-mile march late last month from Beavercreek to the Xenia courthouse where a grand jury would later decline to indict officer Sean Williams for shooting Crawford drew about 80 people.

In Ferguson, meanwhile, civil unrest involving hundreds of people has led to intense confrontations between police and protesters. Action there has been continual, as activists have interrupted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, tried to shut down I-70, one of the region’s major highways, and staged other dramatic events. On Oct. 13, several Walmart stores in the St. Louis area closed after hundreds of protesters gathered to memorialize Crawford — many more than in Beavercreek where he was shot.

Kaur, who is a member of OSA, sat on the floor of the Beavercreek Police Department during the group’s occupation of the police station and talked about facilitating dialogue. She said some in the community have been very supportive of the protests and that she hopes the tragedy can be a way to have needed, peaceful conversations around race and police-community relations.

Though Beavercreek’s population of 46,000 more than doubles Ferguson’s, the conversation there has been smaller. But it may be gaining steam as discussion about the incident goes statewide. On Oct. 18, activists held a rally in Columbus at the Ohio Statehouse to ask that Officer Williams be disciplined.

It was a blustery Saturday, with a chilly mist coming and going through the day. Despite the gloomy weather, 150 to 200 people showed up. It was a mostly calm, at times somber event, a contrast to the frenetic protests in Missouri. ©

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