Cover Story: Stuck in Place

The abridged version of the never-ending boycott story

Apr 23, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Two years after the start of the boycott of Cincinnati, city leaders still hope it will fade away, falling victim to bickering among its own advocates.

"They're spending a lot of energy fighting each other, so how much energy do they have left?" says City Councilman David Crowley. "I think this thing is self-destructing now."

Two years after the start of the boycott, the people behind it say it's time to tighten their economic siege.

"The exit strategy is to up the ante," says Dan LaBotz, co-chair of Cincinnati Progressive Action. "There has to be more pressure put on the city. Everyone negotiates at some point. The question is how much pressure does it take before the negotiations?"

The conflicting expectations about what happens next point to the gulf of understanding between the city and the civil rights groups waging the boycott. Instead of moving toward reconciliation, both sides are hardening their positions.

Marred by acerbic language on both sides, complicated by the involvement of multiple groups — each of them run by volunteers with varying levels of professional skills — the boycott has nonetheless become the defining issue for the city's economic and political future. More than the uprising in Over-the-Rhine in 2001, more than the establishment of the "stronger mayor" system, the boycott seems certain to influence Cincinnati's politics, image, marketability and economy for years to come.

The damage done
It's difficult to separate the local economic waves created by terrorism, recession, rioting and the boycott. It's even difficult to figure out how many performers and conventions have really honored the boycott.

For example, activists lobbied Prince to cancel a 2002 Music Hall concert; he did, but cited technical difficulties. Then he played a show in Columbus the same night. Boycott or not? Who knows?

Other artists have been more blunt. In the spring of 2002, Bill Cosby and Smokey Robinson cited the city's racial problems as a reason not to play Cincinnati. Both announcements dramatically boosted the movement's credibility and its profile.

So far the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) — which runs and often books acts at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, Music Hall and Memorial Hall — has lost more than $80,000 due to cancelled events, according to Van Ackerman, the organization's director of marketing and public relations. That number comes from cancellations by Cosby, The O'Jays, The Temptations and Wynton Marsalis. The CAA unsuccessfully sued to recover those damages from the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati.

The Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau (GCCVB) has also suffered big hits, including the cancellation of an August 2002 gathering of the Progressive National Baptist Convention worth at least $5 million in spending inside the city.

Other organizations have suffered as well, such as Clear Channel Communications. The company runs the Taft Theater, where Robinson had been booked.

Most of the affected organizations, however, put on sunny faces when asked about the boycott. In the wake of the uprising in 2001, Midnight Star and the Isley Brothers cancelled their Taste of Cincinnati gigs. But many vendors said 2001 was their "best year ever," partly because weather affects attendance more than anything else, according to Raymond Buse III, spokesman for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

"The only impact we have seen from the boycott has been in media relations," Buse says. "It has not adversely affected public turnout or revenue."

The boycott hasn't been as effective with conventions this year as it was in 2002, according to Julie Calvert, vice president for communications at GCCVB.

"The boycott has had no effect on our business in almost a year," she says.

The University of Cincinnati lost events with Spike Lee and Wyclef Jean but didn't lose any money, because both were free events designed to enhance student life, according to UC spokesman Greg Hand.

"We don't make any money on them," he says.

Clearly the long-term public relations damage that the boycott has wreaked on Cincinnati equals or exceeds the short-term financial damage. Cancellation stories have run in newspapers around the country — another in a decade-long string of national news stories that cast Cincinnati as a city that's hung up on race and sex.

"It's no doubt achieved an enormous financial impact costing the city and businesses millions of dollars," LaBotz says of the boycott. "It also has an impact on the city's reputation. It points out to people the character of this city — its racist, homophobic, anti-human rights character. The damage to the city's reputation does damage to businesses."

Who's not coming to dinner
Consider the cumulative effect of just the cancellations known to be related to the boycott or the racial issues behind it. In addition to the hotel, restaurant, concert concession and sales tax dollars lost, how many people learned of the boycott from celebrities and conventioneers? How many then decided Cincinnati is no place to visit?

The list of boycott "successes" is impressive:

· Midnight Star pulled out of the 2001 Taste of Cincinnati gig, replaced by the Isley Brothers, who quickly changed their minds and cancelled as well. James Brown was the final choice; he played just one song before leaving with his $15,000 fee.

· The Organization of Black Airline Pilots and the Tuskegee Airmen decided in 2001 to move their joint 2002 convention to Atlanta because of concern about unrest in the city, according to Hank Sanford, executive director of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in Arlington, Va.

· Citing racial divisions, Smokey Robinson cancelled a 2002 Taft Theater performance.

· Citing the city's racial climate, Bill Cosby cancelled two shows at the Aronoff Center in 2002. The shows had been expected to sell out, CAA's Ackerman says.

· Citing the boycott, Wynton Marsalis cancelled a show at the Aronoff Center in 2002.

· Citing the boycott, Whoopi Goldberg cancelled a sold-out Aronoff show in 2002.

· Citing the city's racial climate, the Progressive National Baptist Convention cancelled its four-day, 6,000-person convention in 2002, costing local businesses about $5 million, Calvert says. The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post reported the event would draw 10,000 people and $8 million in spending, but Calvert says that was the Progressive National Baptist Convention's estimate. The smaller number is based on the organization's actual convention attendance from other cities, she says. The organization has reserved dates at the Cincinnati Convention Center for 2006, Calvert says.

· The O'Jays and the Temptations cancelled a 2002 show at Music Hall.

· In 2002 the Union of Black Episcopalians cancelled their convention, expected to draw 600 members and bring $516,000 into Cincinnati, Calvert says.

· Wyclef Jean backed out of a concert at UC in the spring of 2002.

· To protest the suspension of former Assistant Police Chief Ron Twitty, the National Urban League moved its 2003 conference from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. The loss of the 5,000-person event cost local businesses at least $3.4 million.

· In 2002 the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP moved its fund-raising dinner from the Hyatt Regency downtown to Coney Island. Calls to both the NAACP and the Hyatt about potential costs and exact reasons weren't returned before deadline.

· Film director and actor Spike Lee declined a $25,000 speaking engagement Feb. 28 at UC.

· In March, Barbara Ehrenreich declined to cross the boycott line for a downtown speaking engagement for the Woman's City Club. The event was the club's main annual fund-raiser. On a positive note, Ehrenreich returned a $5,000 deposit she could have kept, according to Ruth Cronenberg, club president. Tickets were $15, but the club received only $1,255 worth of refund requests. They also received $2,400 in additional donations, for a net gain of $19,950. "I'm real pleased," Cronenberg says.

'It's all ass backwards'
Boycotts hurt. That, of course, is the point.

By cutting into government revenues and private profits, a boycott aims to compel political change. Cincinnati City Council knew that in 1982, when it voted to divest from businesses in South Africa, joining the international boycott of the apartheid regime.

But the biggest victim of the Cincinnati boycott is the working poor, the very people it claims to support, according to City Councilman John Cranley. When the Woman's City Club decided to move its dinner from downtown — a decision it soon reversed — Cranley wrote a letter to Ehrenreich, threatening to lead a picket against her.

"Our signs will simply say things like, 'Stop hurting the working poor by honoring the unjustified boycott,' " the letter said.

The boycott's success could only mean worse conditions for the city as a whole, according to City Councilman David Pepper.

"We need more investment in the city, not less," he says. "If (the boycott is) effective, it's only making the problem deeper."

A boycott doesn't only keep out money — it also keeps out people. If Cincinnati is as backward and behind the times as critics say, isn't a quarantine the last thing the city needs?

Imagine the positive impact celebrity visitors could have, says Councilman Jim Tarbell.

"Whoopi Goldberg could have walked with me up and down Vine Street just shaking hands and talking to these kids," he says.

But Tarbell says even the boycott supporters won't join him on such a simple but useful exercise — walking around and talking with residents.

"I've begged people like (Kabaka) Oba and (William) Kirkland to get their ass out of my face and council's face and get out on the street and walk with me," Tarbell says.

Tarbell says talking with people on the streets is bound to be more useful than boycotting the city.

"It's all ass backwards," he says.

Most council members say they're willing to talk with boycotters — but won't negotiate.

"I would talk to anybody," says Councilman Chris Monzel. "But to sit down and do a negotiation across the table of demands and stuff, I don't think that's the right way to go."

In recent months, Cranley has become increasingly critical of the boycott. Asked what he thinks motivates it, he says, "The only thing I can assume is that people want to cause pain and suffering."

Monzel is less harsh, but only a little.

"Is it their own fame?" he asks. "Is it their own ideas or something else? Is it money or is it to do something concrete? I don't know."

That phrase — "I don't know" — has been Mayor Charlie Luken's oft-repeated response to questions about the boycott. Although Luken has refused to negotiate, he often adds that he doesn't know whom he would negotiate with anyway — or that he doesn't know what the boycotters want.

Luken did not return repeated messages left by phone and in person at his office to comment for this article. Last year he said, "The demands are so numerous and the people who have different demands so numerous it's an impossible task." (See He's No Hard-Ass, issue of March 14-20, 2002.)

Members of council also criticize the boycott for being "not specific." Pointing to changes in the configuration of groups behind the boycott and differences in the groups' lists of demands, city officials profess confusion.

"Anybody trying to work it out, the ground's shifting under you," Crowley says.

'Open the door'
The assertion that the boycott is too complicated or non-specific is politically useful. But the demands listed by the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and Cincinnati Progressive Action run only 1,700 words (see Demands on page 26).

Three other groups — the Black United Front, Concerned Citizens for Justice and the First Coalition for a Just Cincinnati — recently released a revised list of consolidated demands. The summary statement is little more than 700 words (see Demands on page 29).

The revision did little to move council.

"I think this latest round was arguably the most general, unfocused list I've ever seen," Tarbell says.

Mirroring the conflict between the city and the boycotters is the conflict within the boycott movement.

The Coalition for a Just Cincinnati (CJC), for example, has split not once but twice. After the group voted to replace the Rev. Stephen Scott as chair last summer, he and his supporters formed the First Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, which was actually the second group of that name. After Amanda Mayes — one of the CJC co-chairs who succeeded Scott — took part in an anti-Semitic protest on Fountain Square last fall, most of the remaining group left to form Cincinnati Progressive Action.

What remains of the CJC now devotes much of its time to attacking the Black United Front (BUF). When the BUF called a boycott summit earlier this month, the CJC picketed outside.

"It's fairly complicated by the personalities," Crowley says. "That in-fighting, back-biting just makes you doubt. Are they serious about issues or is this just some sort of personal posturing? You think of other boycotts that were historically effective that led to major legislative changes. The reason they were successful was they were unified."

The April 7 summit at New Prospect Baptist Church was in many ways a disheartening affair. The first summit, held last year, packed the church. This year the church was less than half full.

Last year Mayes was a major speaker at the summit; this year she was outside protesting, accusing the BUF of "selling out."

Last year's summit included gay and lesbian activists; the board of Stonewall Cincinnati had recently endorsed the boycott. Last summer, however, three board members active in the boycott were ousted from the Stonewall leadership. The organization's Web page no longer mentions the boycott.

As the April 7 summit began, a scuffle broke out at the front door. Some BUF members were pulling the door closed while some CJC supporters struggled to get in. The moment of silent prayer that opened the summit was marred by the sound of a woman yelling, "Open up the door! This is the house of God you're closing on me!"

If Bill Cosby gave the biggest boost to the boycott's momentum, it was Mayes — who persuaded him not to perform — who caused perhaps the biggest damage. Photographed holding a sign saying, "Jews killed Jesus," Mayes refused to apologize, not only splitting the CJC but also giving Cranley an ugly cudgel to use. He wielded it in his letter to Ehrenreich.

"The picket line focused on your speech downtown is unjustified, hurtful and, as you undoubtedly know, spearheaded by known anti-Semites," Cranley wrote.

'Hell-bent on a museum'
Juleana Frierson, BUF's chief of staff, acknowledged at the summit that the boycotters have sometimes been their own worst enemy.

"One of the things we have to fight is the obstinacy and idiocy on the other side," she said. "The other thing is the obstinacy and idiocy on this side."

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the boycott has been its survival in the face of bitter conflicts among the various groups involved. Nate Livingston, a CJC co-chair, has taken to insulting the Rev. Damon Lynch III, president of the BUF.

That's not surprising. Livingston seems to go out of his way to insult anyone who disagrees with him — and sometimes his own allies, too. Some of the people who helped post bond for him last summer are now castigated by Livingston as "white supremacists."

But one needn't take Livingston seriously in order to take the boycott seriously.

"There's a whole lot of unity even in the agitation," Lynch told the summit.

The simple fact is the boycotters are united on a single, essential point — the need to politically isolate and financially pressure the city of Cincinnati.

"It ain't over, because it ain't changed," Frierson said. "Until it's changed, there will be sanctions against the city."

To those who say the boycott is counterproductive and keeping new investment from Cincinnati, Lynch says the city's investments are wrongheaded. He told the summit that spending on the riverfront for Paul Brown Stadium, Great American Ball Park and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center does nothing for the poor.

"Every major city in America is making the same mistake," Lynch said. "They all have this idea that if you don't have a vibrant downtown, you don't have a vibrant city. What they're building are suburban playgrounds on the river. We've asked for revitalized communities. We did not ask for an Underground Railroad museum. We asked for housing in the 'hood."

Most of the news coverage of the summit focused on the decision to add the museum to the list of targets. That announcement only makes it harder for people who want to resolve the boycott, according to Crowley.

"As soon as you're one of the people who says, 'Let's try to work this thing out,' every time boycotters do something really dumb, like say, 'Let's boycott the Freedom Center' (and) you're painted with that brush," Crowley says.

But the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is mere symbolism, Lynch said, when Cincinnati needs substantial change.

"They are all hell-bent on giving us a museum, remembering our struggle from years gone by and ignoring our struggles today," he said.

At the summit, Victoria Straughn, coordinator of Concerned Citizens for Justice, pointed to another edifice as an example of inequities in the city.

"Why do we have one of the best children's hospitals in the country sitting in the middle of a black neighborhood, yet we have one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the country?" she said.

The last nonviolent resort
Boycotts, as LaBotz points out, have a long and honorable tradition as vehicles of nonviolent social change. Cranley concedes the point.

"Fortunately many boycotts historically have been morally just and appropriate," he says.

Even supporters of the boycott would like to see it end. Bob Edgar of New York City, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., recently visited Cincinnati to reinforce his organization's support of the boycott. The economic impact of the boycott is necessary but nonetheless regrettable, he says.

"Boycotts, like strikes, have an economic impact, and sometimes it's worth the cost that is necessary to get change," Edgar says. "My prayerful hope is that it will be short-lived."

A former six-term Democratic member of Congress, Edgar says he's not monitored daily developments in the boycott but remembers well why it began.

"With the killing by the policeman of a young man and the violence afterward, many in the community thought the boycott was critical," he says.

LaBotz, too, says it's important to remember how the boycott originated.

"I would also remind people that the boycott — from the gay community, the African-American community, the activist community — none of us picked this as a first choice," he says. "Many of us had attempted protesting on the streets. People had participated in elections. People have engaged in legal and court cases. People have taken several other measures, but in every case the deck has been stacked against them. Protests faced repression. Elections faced no districts and financial impediments. The city is part of a county run by a cabal of people who are not interested in justice and equality. People chose the boycott as a last resort."

But the boycotters refuse to acknowledge positive changes since the police shooting of Timothy Thomas and subsequent street riots in 2001, according to members of council.

Pepper says many of the original boycott demands are now irrelevant because the city has implemented deeper change.

"Those initial boycott demands are almost of a different era," he says.

There's been no political impasse on the part of council, unlike in places where legitimate boycotts have occurred, according to Cranley.

"While it's true that we haven't yet solved many, many issues of social injustice, it hasn't been by lack of effort," he says. "You can always point to problems, and I think deep down a lot of people with good faith have a hard time denouncing the boycott because they know there are still problems."

Cranley points to agreements in federal court, under which the city has committed to reforming the police department. He says ordinances banning racial profiling, enacting a "living wage" for city employees and adding sexual orientation to the city's hate-crimes law show the city's determination to change.

But ironically it was two of Cranley's own initiatives — the "housing impaction ordinance" and the hiring of 75 additional cops — that Lynch cited at the boycott summit as evidence of the city's intransigence.

"Immediately after the civil unrest in our city, the first thing coming out of city council was we need 75 more police officers, as if that were the solution to anything," Lynch said. "The second thing was that we don't need any more low-income housing in Over-the-Rhine."

The city has made some progress, but not enough to justify ending the boycott, according to LaBotz.

"Those of us who support the boycott are also concerned about its impact," he says. "We also want to see it ended. If a boycott like this goes on for a long time, it can affect people's jobs. It can affect property values. We don't want it to go on forever. We want it to be ended by having the city address the problems behind it."

The disparities that result from racial division and poverty are not unique to Cincinnati; they're endemic to major cities across the country. But while council members like to explain the city lacks the jurisdiction to effect some of the things the boycotters seek, the activist groups have always included in their list of demands steps to be taken by Hamilton County and the federal government.

'Find a way'
With city council elections approaching, resolution of the boycott might be harder than ever. Distrust is strong.

Monzel says even if the city agreed to meet some of the boycotters' demands, he's not sure it would be over.

"What's going to stop them from moving the goal line on us every time?" he says. "I don't know you can ever solve these things. I don't think there's ever going to be a final resolution of 'Here's the treaty,' so to speak."

Cranley says it would be "immoral" to negotiate with the boycotters. Doing so would set a horrible precedent, he says.

"Since the boycott is fundamentally unjust, it can't be resolved by validating the boycott," Cranley says.

The boycotters, meanwhile, are developing new weapons. The Black United Front and other groups plan to launch Cincinnati Freedom Summer on June 14. The goal is to train volunteers from around the country to conduct daily demonstrations in support of the boycott, organize voter registration drives and participate in other programs modeled on the Mississippi Freedom Summer in the early 1960s.

In his speech at the boycott summit, Lynch actually used a comparison dating a century before that effort.

"We now find ourselves where we were in 1860," he said. "The white community still owns 98 percent of the wealth in America, so how far have we come?"

Councilwoman Minette Cooper worries about the mood of the city.

"I'm a little concerned, quite frankly, that we're on our way into a summer where feelings are bad," she says.

But some small signs indicate dialogue might yet be possible. Pepper acknowledges the consolidated boycott demands represent real issues facing major cities — issues not too dissimilar from his own agenda.

"Basically what it is is a blueprint of urban issues," he says. "If you look at my list of things to do on council, there's a lot of overlap."

The disagreement, then, is sometimes a matter of means, not ends.

"Of course we want to solve health disparities, but the point is how do we get there?" Pepper says. "There's no immediate answer to these things."

Cooper believes many of the concerns of the boycotters are also the concerns of everyday citizens who are too afraid to speak up.

"As an African-American woman, I can walk in any store on any day or any number of places and be treated in a rude way," she says.

However, she says, many people who share the boycotters' concerns are afraid to step forward and say something.

"The people that we hear the most from are the people that have nothing to lose," Cooper says.

Tarbell says he liked the Rev. James Jones' suggestion to put $50 million in economic development, focusing more effort on the improvement of neighborhood business districts.

"There was one point in this whole debate when there was some focus," Tarbell says. "That's something everybody should be concerned about. It needs to be done anyway."

With agreement on the need for change, Cincinnati's officeholders and its civil rights activists have to find a way to define it and pursue it.

"The city is at a fork in the road," LaBotz says. "Will it be a blighted city or a progressive city? The future of the city and the future of corporations depends on their becoming more cosmopolitan, being more open to different cultures.

"What all of us ought to be thinking about is, if this city is going to be attractive for development or attractive for college graduates, it has got to be a different place. If you don't like the boycott, find a way to do that." ©