Lessons from Our Past

Police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., Beavercreek, Ohio bring a new round of soul-searching to Cincinnati

click to enlarge Attendees at an Aug. 14 vigil in Roselawn observe a moment of silence for Michael Brown, John Crawford and others who have been killed by law enforcement officers across the country.
Attendees at an Aug. 14 vigil in Roselawn observe a moment of silence for Michael Brown, John Crawford and others who have been killed by law enforcement officers across the country.

Before last week, Ferguson, Missouri, a working class suburb of St. Louis, wasn’t on many peoples’ radar, and few would have thought to suggest it had much in common with Cincinnati. But after the police shooting Aug. 9 of an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, which have drawn hundreds into the streets, many are reminded of the challenges Cincinnati has faced when it comes to race relations and law enforcement. 

Now, activists and community leaders who dealt with the aftermath of Cincinnati’s 2001 civil unrest have headed to Ferguson to share what they learned during that trying time. As they do, many in the city are reflecting on the parallels between the two cities and asking hard questions about the national problem of police violence.

“The call right now is to remember those who have died at the hands of police brutality. … It’s a call to demilitarize our police force,” said Rev. Damon Lynch III at an Aug. 14 vigil for Brown at New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn, where he’s pastor. Lynch is among the group of Cincinnatians who traveled to Ferguson.

More than a week after the shooting, tensions there remain high. Differing stories of Brown’s shooting have trickled out at a frustratingly slow pace. The story police officials gradually released holds that Officer Darren Wilson stopped Brown and another man, Dorian Johnson, while they were walking in the street. Police say Brown pushed Wilson back into his patrol car as he was exiting the vehicle. He then assaulted Wilson and tried to take his gun, officials say. Wilson then fired on Brown. 

But eyewitness accounts differ markedly. At the time of the shooting, Johnson says Officer Wilson pulled up close to the two, cursed at them, and then, after a brief argument, attempted to open his door. The door bounced off Brown, and Wilson then grabbed Brown by his shirt. Johnson says he then heard Wilson threaten to shoot them and saw the muzzle of the officer’s gun. 

“I seen the fire come out of the barrel,” Johnson told reporters a few days later. “I could see so vividly what was going on because I was so close.”

That round hit Brown. Both he and Johnson then attempted to escape, according to Johnson’s version of events. Wilson kept firing, Johnson says, even when Brown put his hands up. 

Brown crumpled and died in the street. Police left his body there for five hours as crowds gathered, drawn at first by the gun fire and later by the spreading news of the incident. 

It took days for the Ferguson Police Department to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting. The day the department did, it also released video footage allegedly showing Brown participating in a robbery at a nearby convenience store before the shooting. Police Chief Thomas Jackson has said Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect in the robbery when he stopped Brown and Johnson in the street. 

Autopsy results released last week reveal Brown was shot at least six times.

The crowds in Ferguson turned into protests, which in some instances then turned into violent rioting. Buildings have been burned and businesses looted. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon instituted a curfew as clashes between protesters and increasingly aggressive police intensified. 

The ongoing anger in Ferguson echoes Cincinnati’s April 2001 civil unrest sparked by the police shooting of Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine. Thomas, 19, was unarmed when he was shot in an alley by Officer Stephen Roach. Roach said he thought he saw Thomas reaching for a gun in his waistband, though no weapon was ever discovered. Thomas was black, Roach white. Protests, sometimes violent, went on for a week after the shooting before a curfew and some intense conversations between the Cincinnati Police Department, the city and community groups finally calmed the anger. Thomas was the 15th black male to be shot and killed by police in a six-year period, causing simmering anger and mistrust among Cincinnati’s black community to boil over. 

By many accounts, Ferguson has had a similar, slowly building problem. Only three members of the city’s 53-strong police force are black, even though the city is two-thirds black. In 2013, black residents accounted for 92 percent of arrests and searches in the city. Reports of officer misconduct toward African Americans have bubbled up to national attention in the wake of the unrest in the city, including an incident in 2009 when a 52-year-old man named Henry Davis was pulled from his car and arrested without explanation, taken to jail, beaten and then subsequently charged with bleeding on officers’ uniforms. It turned out the police were looking for a different Henry Davis. 

Even Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson says he knows his department has problems. At a community meeting last week, he described the escalating dynamics that suck people in the community into the justice system. It starts with a few traffic tickets people can’t pay, he said, and continues through warrants, missed court dates and arrests, an ugly cycle that can be hard to escape.

That cycle will sound familiar to those who remember Thomas, who was running from Cincinnati Police officers because he had warrants for traffic tickets when he was shot.

Cincinnati has faced a long — and some say unfinished — road to healing racial wounds after Thomas’ death. One measure that has had some success has been the Collaborative Agreement, a 2002 strategy aimed at making the Cincinnati Police Department more community-oriented. Lynch and fellow Black United Front activist Iris Roley have been handing out copies of that agreement in Ferguson. The Black United Front was one of many groups representing Cincinnati’s black community that negotiated the Collaborative Agreement. Other measures, including a boycott of downtown Lynch called for after the unrest, were more controversial.

As Ferguson continues to struggle, another recent police shooting an hour up I-75 in Beavercreek brings the issue even closer to home.

John Crawford III was at Walmart Aug. 5 carrying a pellet gun sold in the store. Other customers called police, reporting a man was carrying, and perhaps loading, an assault rifle. Officers Sean Williams and David Darkow arrived and demanded Crawford drop the weapon. When he did not immediately comply, they shot him to death. 

Police and officials with the state’s attorney general’s office have been slow to release information about the exact sequence of events and how many times Crawford was shot. A surveillance video Walmart provided police has yet to be released, and police have only said that officers acted “appropriately.”

But Crawford’s family has pressed for more information. On Monday, a group of about 100 protested outside Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office in Columbus, demanding release of security tapes and other information about Crawford’s death.

Many question the threat Crawford could have posed with a toy gun and point out that Ohio is an open carry state where it is legal to have an unconcealed weapon in public.

The shooting has led to vigils and protests in Beavercreek, Dayton and beyond. Local events often draw connections between what happened to Crawford and Brown’s shooting in Ferguson. Many also invoke memories from 2001.

About 100 people showed up at last week’s vigil in Roselawn, which was part of a national moment of silence for Brown, Crawford and others who have died at the hands of police. 

“Tonight is a night just to try and deal with the pain we all feel,” Lynch said during the opening of the vigil.

Many at the event decried the systemic dynamics they say keep black people down — unequal enforcement of drug policy, police profiling, and Cincinnati’s economic disparities .

The poverty rate for blacks is more than 46 percent in the city limits and 40 percent in the Greater Cincinnati area. Meanwhile, 23 percent of whites in the city and 11 percent in the wider region face poverty. 

Others in attendance acknowledged those challenges but also stressed personal responsibility, citing violence between blacks as an equally pressing concern.

“Yes, it’s wrong,” said B’Nai Ferguson, a social worker at the Central Community Health Board in Avondale, “but what are you doing to not make it that way? It’s just that we have to get educated.”

Ferguson, who is black, said she doesn’t think the country has made progress in terms of race but puts at least part of that responsibility on the black community. 

“It hasn’t changed because we haven’t changed,” she said.

Others at the vigil said police officers, invested with a duty to serve and protect, need to be held to a higher standard and that so-called “street crime” does not excuse, and is in some ways exacerbated by, racial inequalities.

“Three months ago, a young brother in this neighborhood stuck a gun at me,” one young man who didn’t identify himself said at the vigil. “I asked myself why that happened. It’s because he doesn’t have any hope. But a police officer? A peace officer? That’s because we don’t think black life matters.” ©

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