Assume the Position

Despite counting a handful of independent retailers among safe spots to drop my cash, I have supported the economic and human rights boycott of downtown. When Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Ma

Sep 26, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Despite counting a handful of independent retailers among safe spots to drop my cash, I have supported the economic and human rights boycott of downtown.

When Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Marsalis, the O'Jays and others with Negro name-brand recognition backed outta Cincinnati, I was thrilled. I sat back and made mental notes: Which ones had character and which ones were renting out for a paycheck?

Folks have tried to discredit the boycott's frontline lieutenants like the Rev. Damon Lynch III of Cincinnati Black United Front and Coalition for a Just Cincinnati Co-Chair Nathaniel Livingston Jr. as the 14-month-old boycott wears on. Boycott skeptics and haters wanna know where these picketers, yellers and bullies get their money. Why can't they just let us drink beer and go to concerts in peace?

Boycott naysayers have repeatedly sounded the movement's death knell. The boycott, however, has been like a city bus — it's not always on time, but eventually it shows up.

Tick off the list of arrests, media stunts and Livingston's judicial back talk, and it's apparent the boycott morphed from a rag-tag group of noisy Negroes to a reasonably organized social movement defined more by class than race.

Two Oktoberfests ago, Livingston was arrested for interrupting Mayor Charlie Luken's speech.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ted Winkler fined him $100 and slapped him with a 60-day sentence. After serving 37 days, an appeals court upheld the original sentence and Livingston returned briefly to jail to serve the remaining time. But not before having a word with Winkler.

"I consider you to be part of the problem, not part of the solution," Winkler told Livingston in June 2001. "I was actually hoping you'd apologize for embarrassing the mayor."

"I have no apologies for the mayor," Livingston told the judge then. "I think you are part of the problem."

Ten days earlier, Livingston had been fired from WDBZ-AM for claiming the mayor bribed his boss, Ross Love, with a high-post Cincinnati Community Action Now appointment to keep on-air talent from criticizing Luken during the 2001 election.

Livingston weathered a 1997 firestorm when he told callers to his guest spot on WLW-AM to "Go kill Deters," referring to then-Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters. Last fall Livingston again zipped on his pesky sweat bee costume, demanding the city stop Chief Thomas Streicher from wearing his police uniform while campaigning against charter amendment Issue 5.

If you think Livingston just recently came by his necessary evilness, he's been at it longer than you can say "fire Streicher" 10 times. Five years ago as part of the Black Marchers, Livingston was the loud mouth demanding answers into the shooting of Lorenzo Collins, the no-caliber brick-wielding escaped mental patient cornered in a Clifton Heights yard.

Livingston rarely misses a city council meeting, and he and coalition co-chair Amanda Mayes maintain contact with activist leaders in other cities. They often head off potential visitors by taking sit-down meetings to explain the economic apartheid in these parts.

On a situation-by-situation basis, I've struggled with whether to attend concerts, ballets and operas. I have decided against eating at certain places and refrained from going to street festivals, averse as I am to swelling, beer-swilling crowds anyway.

These tactics worked for me. I didn't push my choices and opinions off on anyone else. It was private. That way, I didn't have to validate to anyone else's satisfaction or argue up or down what I was doing.

But something's turning. I want answers.

Lynch, Livingston and the rest have our attention. In so doing, they've weakened the status quo by slicing a fine slit in city coffers so the money city officials were accustomed to earning drizzles away like sand through an hour glass.

What's missing from the boycott, though, is the other hand. What now, my love?

Where you tear down, you must rebuild. Fourteen months is long enough to have clutched in your free hand more than a list of do-or-die demands. What's the future and what's your role in it? If you expect us to keep making choices as a result of the pi,ata you've poked to exploding, what's the return on our faithfulness?

Use this time not to make careers. Rather, make leaders, demand inclusion, create social programs and build so there will exist a legacy to your labor. Don't squander the city's — and the nation's — attention.

You've been arrested enough to know that spread-eagle position. Now turn and face another one.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.