Dead serious is how I would describe Amanda Mayes, action committee chair for the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati. On the few occasions I've met the 26-year-old radical, her tight-lipped expression never once left her face.
All that changed at the March 16 coalition-sponsored town meeting at the Ammons United Methodist Church in Walnut Hills. Mayes actually smiled during her speech, flashing a wide and joyful grin that made you want to smile, too.
She had good reason to be happy. A large crowd came in support of the coalition and their "Artists of Conscience" ban, which is asking performers to cancel their Cincinnati dates until progress is made on what the coalition calls "social and economic apartheid." More importantly, the crowd shouted their approval at everything Mayes had to say. When you're facing a church filled with supporters, it's impossible not to feel good about yourself.
"We must refuse to participate in the economic apartheid," Mayes said, speaking from the church's podium. "We must not spend money downtown, from Central Parkway to the Riverfront, between interstates 71 and 75.
Do not go to Saks — if any of us ever went to Saks."
Wearing a gray business suit and with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, Mayes looked like a downtown office worker. That was her daytime gig until a few months ago. She answered phones at Dan Pinger Public Relations before being dismissed after three months for what Mayes claims was "not having a friendly phone voice."
Mayes' voice is friendly enough for the crowd inside the church. In a matter of weeks, she's gone from being an office receptionist to becoming one of Cincinnati's activist leaders.
A few months ago, most people never heard of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati or Mayes. After recent performance cancellations by comedian Bill Cosby and musical performers Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson and The O'Jays, the boycott is the talk of the town. On Feb. 28, the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA), the non-profit organization that manages the venues where the performances were scheduled, delivered a letter to the coalition demanding $77,350 to pay for damages caused by the cancellations.
On March 15, the coalition's attorney filed suit in U.S. District Court accusing the CAA of trying to squelch the coalition's freedom of speech rights. Attendees at the March 16 meeting were asked to donate funds for the coalition's legal costs. While it's safe to say that the coalition still has a lot of fundraising to do, their advocates are growing louder. On this Saturday afternoon, Mayes drew the battle lines between the coalition, a grassroots "us," and the CAA, a corporate, big-money "them."
"We think it's funny that the arts is trying to squelch our freedom of speech, because that's what they're all about," Mayes said, raising her voice above the jubilant crowd. "But it's getting to the point that we don't have to contact them (performers) anymore. They read about it in Jet magazine."
Ammons United Methodist Church is a 10-minute drive from the CAA's offices in the Aronoff Center downtown. A few days before the March 16 meeting, coalition leader the Rev. Stephen Scott addressed local media at a press conference outside the Aronoff's front doors.
After he read his prepared statement, I asked Scott if he believed the majority of Cincinnati artists and arts groups supported the CAA's lawsuit against the coalition.
"It's ironic that of all people, it's an arts group who would go after us for freedom of expression and freedom of speech," he said. "But if they (artists) come out on Saturday, well, I'll tell you my true feelings on Saturday."
The Aronoff Center was dark during Scott's press conference, just the way the coalition wants it. In a town that frowns on activism, the coalition realizes that they'll have to hit the pocketbooks of downtown businesses harder before city leaders take some action.
On March 18, the CAA filed suit against the coalition in Hamilton County Court. CAA President Steve Loftin says he had no choice.
"We remain open to discussing a resolution," Loftin says. "We would prefer not to go to court on this issue but they left us no option. We didn't start any of this. We feel we are the victimized entity."
Back at the March 16 meeting, I had my answer to the question I posed to Scott a few days earlier: Do the majority of Cincinnati artists and arts groups support the boycott? With no representatives from any of Greater Cincinnati's major arts groups in attendance, the answer is a disappointing no.
The arts community, justifiably perceived as being liberal, has decided to excuse itself from Cincinnati's battle for social justice. Instead, they rally around an e-mail campaign asking people to boycott the boycott and come downtown to party. For those of us who believe in the phrase "freedom of expression," it's the most un-artistic response imaginable.