Keep Eyes on the Prize

As it plays out in the local media, the struggle between Cincinnati's Powers That Be and the economic boycott groups is a political contest. On the surface, it's about the same thing every political

Mar 28, 2002 at 2:06 pm

As it plays out in the local media, the struggle between Cincinnati's Powers That Be and the economic boycott groups is a political contest. On the surface, it's about the same thing every political contest is about: image, power and momentum.

And, as with politics, the boycott players and the media covering them focus primarily on the contest itself — who's winning, who's losing, who looks good, who looks bad. Eventually, after weeks and months of such coverage, the participants lose sight of the people they're supposedly serving, and everyone forgets the very issues at the heart of the struggle.

It's called keeping your eyes on the prize — a phrase that recalls, as does much of the current boycott debate, the country's civil rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s. And the prize here hasn't changed since Stephen Roach killed Timothy Thomas last April: fundamental change.

It's the one thing everyone involved in the boycott struggle can agree on. Mayor Charlie Luken announced during the riots last year that he'd be satisfied with nothing short of fundamental change. Each group supporting the boycott demands fundamental change.

Anyone who cares about Cincinnati — business leaders, government officials, editorial writers, bus drivers, school teachers, artists — knows that our collective future depends on fundamental change.

Focusing on that basic idea would be a great first step in breaking the stalemate that currently exists with the boycott struggle. And once this common goal is reaffirmed, two important steps should be taken.

· City officials must stop demonizing the boycott groups. Luken likes to characterize the clergy and volunteers who lead the various boycott groups as people hell-bent on 'tearing down the city.' It's a good soundbite and a classic political tactic. But the label is ignorant at best and dishonest at worst.

One of the biggest problems in Cincinnati is our collective lack of engagement in determining where this community is going. We're much too keen on letting corporate executives and politicians mold the city in the image that best suits them, believing that positive outcomes will somehow trickle down to the rest of us.

Then came the boycott efforts, led by a motley crew of ministers, office staff, medical workers, college students and volunteers. In other words, ordinary citizens — the very citizens we complain about not being engaged.

They should be applauded for standing up for a cause, for exercising their Constitutional rights and for getting involved. By breaking out of their day-to-day lives and looking beyond the ends of their noses, they've demonstrated a love for this community that no one can take away from them.

As much as I've criticized Luken for his inaction and lack of leadership over the past year (and before), I applaud him for his own dedication to this community. After the shit he got post-riots, it would have been easy for him not to run for re-election and instead join some big-bucks law firm. He clearly wants to be the person who leads Cincinnati into a better future, and he deserves recognition for that effort.

As the elected leader of this city, however, Luken should break the ice by stepping up and recognizing the boycott leaders for their own desire and dedication.

· Boycott groups must reduce their demands to a manageable few. I don't blame Luken for refusing to negotiate with boycott leaders. There are too many groups with too many demands — some of which overlap and others that contradict — and no sense of how many demands need to be met before the boycott is lifted.

Unfortunately for the boycotters, the number and confusion have given Luken an easy excuse to avoid dealing with their demands. And the occasional exorbitant demand — such as amnesty for those arrested during the riots — allows detractors to paint all boycotters as extremists and loonies.

Each of the three groups calling for an economic boycott of Cincinnati has its own demands, and each has initiated its own contact with celebrities scheduled to perform in Cincinnati. They popped up independently of each other and operate independently.

As the boycott struggle drags on, however, these groups must see the bigger picture and keep their eyes on the prize.

If the boycott really is about affecting fundamental change in Cincinnati, the groups should consolidate their demands and coordinate their efforts. If this is about showing up Luken and/or getting a payoff — monetary or political — in the end, then by all means remain fragmented and disjointed.

This town can be a lonely place for those working for real change. Why maintain three separate camps of lonely people?

Besides, the only way to get the Powers That Be to deal with demands for change is to make those demands concrete, easy to understand and measurable and then map out a real exit strategy.

With no strategy, there's no exit. And with no exit from this stalemate, there's no hope for fundamental change.