Members, Don't Git Weary

'Members, don't git weary/ Keep your lamps trimmed and burning/ We're going down to the river Jordan when our work is done.' -- Max Roach When Roger Owensby Jr. died Nov. 7, 2000, at the age of

Aug 29, 2002 at 2:06 pm

'Members, don't git weary/ Keep your lamps trimmed and burning/ We're going down to the river Jordan when our work is done.'

— Max Roach

When Roger Owensby Jr. died Nov. 7, 2000, at the age of 29, his mother, Brenda, knew her oldest son was dead. She knew before she got to University of Cincinnati Hospital and saw for herself his battered and bloated body in the morgue.

Someone called that evening asking if Brenda and her husband, Roger Sr., had seen their son. Little Bit — Roger Jr. was a tiny baby — had just been home a few hours earlier laughing and joking as usual.

He was supposed to return. Roger and his father were going to work on Little Bit's car. Father-and-son stuff.

Roger was at the Bond Hill Sunoco, the caller said. But there was trouble up there.

When the Owensbys got to the hospital, they waited 90 minutes before anyone spoke with them. They were told to 'see the social worker,' a signpost of imminent grief.

Once they saw Roger, they weren't allowed to touch him. Roger was evidence.

Officers Robert Jorg, Patrick Caton and David Hunter Jr. responded to a drug bust next door to the Sunoco. An officer spotted Roger, thinking he was a man who previously eluded police.

Jorg, standing spread-legged in a riot stance, blocked the Sunoco entrance. When Roger approached to exit, Jorg frisked him long and vigorously.

Other cops approached. Roger dipped like a scared rabbit. Outside, the cops took him down.

'Is he fucked up?' one unidentified cop asked.

By then — according to later police testimony — Roger had been wrestled down by five cops, handcuffed, Maced, hit in the back by Caton and hit again by Caton while still handcuffed in the back of a cruiser.

Jorg walked past a cruiser's camera. His sleeve was smeared with blood. He ripped it from the shirt and flung it into the trunk of his cruiser.

In the morgue, Roger's stomach was fully distended. His body, face and neck were littered with bruises and abrasions. Blood flowed from the back of his head onto a hospital pillow. The official cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation. Then his eyes.

April Martin the CityBeat intern and fledgling filmmaker is nearing completion on her documentary, Cincinnati UpSouth. It's an account of former Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach's April 7, 2001, fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas, the ensuing demolition of Over-the-Rhine and the little boycott that could. It's also about how police police us and politicians politic us.

To get here from there, she's filled videotapes with interviews, footage, explanations, descriptions, excuses and accounts.

The Owensbys have everything and nothing to do with April 7, 2001. 'If you want to know the end look at the beginning,' goes the African proverb.

Interviewing the Owensbys wasn't my gig. April the intern asked me to ask the questions so she could run the camera. I didn't take notes. This is painted from memory.

But one detail hovers: Then his eyes.

'Roger looked more like his father, but he had my eyes,' Brenda says.

We sit around a modern dining room table in the Owensbys' middle-class, split-level home. Myesha, Little Bit's 11-year-old daughter, sits beside her grandfather.

As Brenda undresses the details of her son's corpse, Myesha bows her head and weeps.

'His eyes were always happy and what struck me was the fear in his eyes,' Roger's mother says. 'They were wide open and so full of fear.'

I ask her to take us through those details as a means of deconstructing the monotony of dead black men in Cincinnati.

Roger Sr. reminisces over how his son was really his buddy and about how, as a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, he'd taken his family across the globe. His son was a citizen of the world unafraid of different cultures.

The Owensbys are a cliché, and it takes one to describe them: They're a study in contrasts.

Brenda and Roger have known one another since 1969. They married a decade later. Where Brenda is gentle, soft-spoken, positive and leans on her faith in God, Roger is brash, outspoken and angered by the truth of their predicament.

Brenda's eyes are bright; Roger's are dark. She folds her fair-skinned hands gently or gesticulates for effect when she talks about Little Bit. Roger drops his head and wrings his dark hands; he bites back tears, his jaw tightening at the mention of his son's name.

Yet he laughs, easily and mightily.

Even as he harangues cops, city officials and prosecutors for answers — a report, a word, anything — Roger Sr. says he's learned from his son's death. He cherishes his family. He laughs more. He honors his son's memory and legacy by pursuing justice.

It drives him to distraction and obsession. He gets tired. He's biting his tongue more these days and waiting for answers, though he feels justice has already evaded his family.

Despite, or because of, who Roger Owensby Jr. was, his parents are to be marveled. If they don't get justice, maybe they can get a piece of peace.

I hope they don't get too weary, 'cause there ain't no rest for the weary. And they deserve rest most of all.

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