News: A Little Respect

Council's response causes almost as much anger as verdict

Oct 4, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Helpful police officers escort the Rev. Ronald Sherman from city council chambers on Sept. 26.

In Cincinnati, a black man who interrupted the mayor's speech got 60 days in jail. But a cop who killed an unarmed black man — then changed his story — walked free, found not guilty of any crime. Both decisions came from Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph Winkler.

The acquittal of Officer Stephen Roach last week showed how little a citizen's life is worth, according to the Rev. Damon Lynch III. But the fact that it was Winkler who exonerated Roach — the same judge who locked up activist Nate Livingston — aggravated the insult felt by many African Americans. The implied message: Vocal blacks go to jail, while cops who kill blacks go free.

"It cheapens every life," Lynch said.

Protesters who packed City Hall to denounce the verdict Sept. 26 complained that city council showed a lack of respect for African Americans, holding a normal business session before listening to them. Alicia Reece was the only member of council to even make a statement about the verdict before the public was allowed to comment.

"Only one of you has even stopped to acknowledge the gravity of what has happened here today," said Carwyl James.

Mayor Charlie Luken complained about lack of respect, too — lack of respect for himself, that is, because a man in the audience gave him the finger. Luken tried to have a cop remove the man, but he left on his own.

'By now we're used to this'
Nearly six months have passed since Cincinnati first heard the name Timothy Thomas, who was running from arrest on traffic warrants when he was killed. Since then the city has experienced rioting, a national march against police violence and racism and beanbag missiles fired at children by police.

But city council seems not to have learned much from the experience, according to Lynch.

"You look like deer caught in the headlights," he told council on Sept. 26. "Open your mouths. Until then there is no leadership in Cincinnati, black or white, coming from these chambers. You blew it today."

Since April, Lynch has repeatedly warned Cincinnati against returning to "business as usual" without addressing the problems that erupted after Roach killed Thomas. But instead council voted on a historic-preservation designation for Over-the-Rhine and other routine business before listening to the protesters.

"When there's crisis in the community, real leadership comes forward," Lynch said. "(Council) chose to sit still until challenged to speak. By now we're used to this."

When council did start listening, it heard expressions of anger and fear.

Velma Sanders said she has spent much of her time praying lately. Sanders said her grandson has been arrested because he was wearing an outfit similar to that of a suspect police were looking for.

"Where are we going?" Sanders said. "I cry every day because I have a teen-ager who is out on the street."

Sanders said the verdict in the Roach trial moved her to tears as she thought about all of the young people in jail for charges much less serious than he faced.

"God is not pleased with what is going on in this city," Sanders said. "I listen to these children and they say, 'I made a mistake.' But the judge didn't see fit to let them go."

Leonard Groomes, who lives in Over-the-Rhine, dared Luken to tell him he would be treated the same as Roach if he killed someone.

"Look me in my eye and tell me: If I was to kill a man on this street, would I be found guilty or not guilty?" Groomes said.

Luken started to respond.

"I hope and pray ... ," he said.

But Groomes cut him off.

"You hoped and prayed all your term," he said.

The mayor's skin problem
Protesters held up fliers containing a picture of Roach. The fliers said, "He walks. Timothy doesn't."

But not everyone criticized the verdict.

Melva Gweyn told city council the protesters' behavior during the council meeting showed why Cincinnati was in turmoil.

"A young man is dead because we have tolerated this kind of disrespect for authority for too long," Gweyn said. "We need to support our police."

The woman's remarks caused so much booing that Luken called a recess and left the room. Ten police officers filed into the room, facing the audience, which started chanting, "No justice? No peace!"

When city council reconvened about 15 minutes later, mayhem nearly resulted when a line of police temporarily blocked the main door to City Hall, refusing to allow protesters entry.

"Let us in! Let us in!" the crowd chanted, and the officers relented.

Councilman Phil Heimlich gave a speech on the importance of law and order.

"I support the system," he said. "People think I'm pro-police. I am pro-system. I am pro-justice system."

Heimlich said many had condemned Roach before he ever made it to trial.

"A judge heard the evidence and found him not guilty," he said. "That's the way the justice system works."

Heimlich said some have claimed that 15 African-American men have been "murdered" by Cincinnati Police.

"We know in at least 13 of those cases the person who was shot had viciously attacked the police officer or another citizen," Heimlich said. "If you want us to speak, then let's speak the truth."

Lynch was quick to retort.

"How can you conveniently forget that the biggest liar was Officer Stephen Roach?" Lynch said. "We will never hear you talk about Officer Roach and his lie."

In acquitting Roach of obstructing official business, as well as negligent homicide, Winkler ruled that the inconsistencies in Roach's story were insignificant.

Luken responded to Lynch's request for council to speak. It's not that council members don't want to speak, he said. The problem is the audience shouts down opinions they disagree with.

"We seek to find common principles and common ground that will move this city forward," Luken said.

At one point Luken asked a man in the front row to remove his sign, which said, "Fuck the Police." Instead the man showed the mayor his middle finger.

When the man left, the Rev. James Jones urged Luken to listen to criticism.

"We're going to try to keep order for you, but you have got to not have a thin skin," Jones said.

Luken bristled.

"I have been called just about every name known to man and I do not have a thin skin," Luken said. "This is a chamber where ideas are exchanged. This is not a chamber where ideas are shouted down."

No slowdown on protest patrol
The street, however, is a place where ideas are shouted down. Late that night Luken clamped a two-day curfew on the city. He cited a handful of fires that were set in Over-the-Rhine and isolated reports of rock throwing.

Yet next day Luken all but suggested the curfew was needed as the result of a peaceful march and prayer service Lynch led in Over-the-Rhine. The insinuation angered Lynch's supporters, who had extinguished trash-can fires during the march.

If anyone doubted the city would continue its heavy-handed response to civil rights demonstrations, protesters at the Hamilton County Courthouse learned Sept. 28 what happens when people hold up signs criticizing Cincinnati Police. Monitoring the six protesters were police in seven patrol cars, three vans and two unmarked cars. Police turned out in almost the same numbers next day, when the NAACP held a small press conference at the courthouse.

The practice of intimidating nonviolent protesters is not the stated reason city council is considering hiring 75 more cops or why it recently approved $250,000 in overtime. But it can't hurt. Two more officers are scheduled to stand trial later this month for killing Roger Owensby, another unarmed suspect, this time by suffocation.

One idea that did not make it to the floor last week was a proposal to pay for the 75 new cops by cutting funding from the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.

Lynch urged council to reject the idea.

"If there's any (city) that needs human relations, it's this one," he said. ©