Kabaka Oba's death, like much of his public life, contained a major element of absurdity. Gunned down in front of City Hall after his weekly diatribe against racism on the police force, it's hard to frame the killing as anything other than an assassination.
But he was the leader of a movement virtually without followers, and his shooting appears to have been rooted in nothing more portentous than a tawdry ghetto feud.
Oba always defied classification. For an angry black militant with a reputation for staging nasty confrontations, he was a surprisingly friendly man. A few weeks ago, I was walking down Ludlow Avenue in Clifton when a Metro bus stopped. The door opened, and Oba, the bus driver, yelled, "Hey, Greg! How's it going?"
We weren't friends. In fact, in 2002 Oba picketed CityBeat after I wrote a column criticizing an anti-Semitic rally he'd organized on Fountain Square. The Black Fist, as his tiny organization was known, had protested the placement of a menorah on the square, saying the Jewish organization that had successfully sued to overturn the city's ban on religious symbols thereby cleared the way for the Ku Klux Klan to put its cross in the same place.
It was convoluted logic, opposing free speech because a hate group might take advantage of it. But it was hard to take Oba's analysis at face value, because he was, after all, the same person who'd once appeared in front of city council dressed in KKK garb.
That kind of conduct alternately consternated and amused the politicians and media who were unable to take Oba seriously but found it impossible to ignore him.
At CityBeat, we sometimes played along. Oba was a frequent visitor to our offices, and I instructed our former receptionist to announce his arrival on the public address system by invoking the full dignity of his faux military rank: "Five Star General Kabaka Oba is in the building." He came here because we gave him what he most wanted: space for some of his letters to the editor and publicity for his political stunts.
Preposterous though some of his arguments were, Oba was in many ways the embodiment of the kind of citizen activism CityBeat likes to encourage — a bus driver with a knack for stirring up political discussion.
But even those who admired Oba would be hard pressed to define his political program. The New York Times' account of his shooting called him a "community activist," a term that captures his public essence without really explaining it. Reporting his death, The Cincinnati Enquirer dropped "activist" and called him a "political agitator," a title he'd happily embrace. Mayor Mark Mallory came as close as one can get without overstatement: "Some of the ideals that he talked about — like economic inclusion, equality and justice — cannot be disputed and should be embraced by us all."
Above all, Oba was a clown. That's not to diminish the seriousness of his intentions but merely to define his methodology. He knew that humor and outrageous conduct could sometimes sting the public conscience in ways that speeches and position papers never could.
He once harangued former Mayor Charlie Luken, a white man, by calling him "nigger" all along a parade route. Oba said he aimed to show how demeaning it was to be called that name — the same name some Cincinnati cops have been caught using to describe African Americans. It's worth remembering that some of those cops — including the police chief, no less — remain on the force.
It would be easy to dismiss Oba as a racist. It's true that he dabbled in anti-Semitic rhetoric and organized the 2002 rally that proved so ruinous to the civil rights boycott of the city. Yet he gladly marched alongside white progressives to demand reform of the police department.
It's tempting to dismiss Oba as a troublemaker. But in fact he was more than once a calming influence. During some of the heated impromptu rallies that formed downtown in support of the boycott, one white organizer marveled at the way Oba gently reigned in activists whose demeanor came close to inciting fights.
In the first hours after Oba was gunned down outside City Hall, Mallory appeared on live TV to make sure everyone knew the attack was "targeted." This was not a random act of violence, and the mayor wanted people to know it.
The exercise in damage control was futile: Mallory was trying to say downtown isn't dangerous, in spite of the brazen shooting of Oba. But the city center is increasingly dangerous, and pretending otherwise can only forestall a meaningful change.
Kabaka Oba's death is a clarion call for a city that's coming apart and yet ignores the fissures. You needn't embrace his methods or his message to say that he was onto something all along: The police department in Cincinnati urgently needs new leadership.
If we won't change the leadership because it has allowed racial injustice to fester, we should change it because it has failed to address the surge of violent crime throughout the city. If enough of us finally heed that message, perhaps Oba will have made a difference after all.
CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: gflannery(at)citybeat.com