News: Get Up, Stand Up

March for Justice opposes police violence

May 24, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Many in Cincinnati want to put last month's unrest behind them, move forward and return to everyday life. But at least 40 groups participating in a national march June 2 say, "Not so fast."

Something caused the riots, and until the problem is identified and resolved, the unified image promoted by city leaders is little more than a mirage. Organizers of the March for Justice hope to draw people from across the country to highlight the issues that led to rioting.

"We think that the most important thing people can do in Cincinnati is show that there are white and black people together who are opposed to the racist behavior of the police department and the city government," says Dan La Botz, a member of the March For Justice Committee.

The march is a chance for people of all races to show solidarity with one another and prove they want change, according to La Botz. The list of organizations supporting the protest continues to grow, with endorsements from groups as diverse as the National Organization for Women, the American Indian Movement, a Catholic parish, former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan and the West End Community Council.

International Action Center (IAC), in New York, plans to send "several carloads" of marchers, according to Deirdre Sinnott, co-coordinator of the organization. Founded 10 years ago, IAC opposes racism, war and U.S. military intervention. According to Sinnott, IAC endorsed the March for Justice because "it's a fight against racism and state repression."

Members of Stand Up 4 Democracy plan to take to the streets and join the June 2 march, according to Sam Robinson, an active member of the group.

"I expect a very good turnout," Robinson says. "The response from our group on this justice issue has been very big."

Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, pastor of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, has called on his congregation to help effect change in Cincinnati by attending the march. Van Kuiken, an official endorser of the March for Justice, says he has been "talking it up" within his church.

"Jesus was someone in his life who demonstrated a challenge to institutions and systemic injustice," Van Kuiken says. "The powers of domination and oppression responded to him and his life. From a faith-community perspective, we're really called to work for justice, and we need to respond to what I would call a plea for justice."

The West End Community Council has been circulating fliers in support of the march.

"The plan is to get as many people as we can," says Henderson Kirkland, a member of the council's board. "We are a predominantly black community and we want equal justice for everybody — white, black, it doesn't matter. We don't see anything wrong with asking for peace and harmony, not just from the police but from the community."

The executive board of the Ohio State Labor Party unanimously voted to endorse the march, according to party chair Jerry Gordon. He describes the party as a "working-class political party" whose platform includes opposition to police brutality "and other forms of criminalization of dissent and poverty."

"We think a peaceful, orderly, legal demonstration where these demands can be heard is totally appropriate," Gordon says.

Police say they'll use their 'tools'
Considering the recent conduct of the Cincinnati Police Division — three officers indicted in the deaths of suspects since November, lawsuits by dozens of people accusing police of assaulting peaceful protesters and a federal grand jury investigating police violence — a national march might indeed be appropriate. But it isn't going to be easy.

The first difficulty is within the protest movement itself. Sometimes cracks seem to appear in the coalition. Rev. Damon Lynch III, spokesman for the Black United Front, is one of the speakers for the Fountain Square rally preceding the March for Justice. But the Black United Front has not endorsed the march. Lynch says this reflects only the fact that the group's schedule is already full, but he is sure members will participate in the march.

Yet Rev. William Land, chairman of the political and social action demonstration committee of the Black United Front, is less than ebullient in his comments, calling the march an effort of "the European community."

"We'll participate to support white folks supporting us," Land says.

The second difficulty is city regulations. Lt. Gary Brown says the city will probably deny a permit for the march, because the application is missing information and was filed too late.

Brown says the committee applied for a permit for a march by 5,000 people, but an event with more than 3,000 requires an application at least 60 days in advance. The March for Justice committee didn't meet that requirement.

"We just don't have time to do it," Brown says. "The time restriction was the major reason."

But, Brown says, no permit is needed for a sidewalk march if the group obeys all traffic and pedestrian laws. This, too, is a potential problem. The March for Justice will draw many of the people who protested against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue last year. Although that march was nonviolent, some protesters bristled at what they saw as compliance with unfair rules and restrictions by police.

Lynch has called on fellow ministers to practice civil disobedience. But Heather Zoller, spokesman for Coalition for a Humane Economy, says the March for Justice is not the venue for that kind of action.

"The sort of refrain over and over again has been this march has to be legal and peaceful," Zoller says.

Without a permit, marching on the street is against the law. Can organizers keep 5,000 protesters on sidewalks? Zoller says the committee is determined to keep the march legal.

"People can come together in Cincinnati and peacefully express their political point of view," she says.

The final difficulty is the very issue behind the march: police violence. In protests last November and last month, police used rubber bullets, "beanbag" missiles and chemical spray on nonviolent protesters (see "A Police Rampage," issue of May 10-16). In a statement May 21, Lt. Col. Richard Janke detailed police plans for the March for Justice.

"The police division will have sufficient personnel to ensure a safe environment, and the division will use tools that have proven to be safe and effective," Janke said.

The statement lists those tools: "beanbag" shotguns, 40-millimeter "foam rounds" and tear gas.

The effect of those tools is familiar to Pat Clifford, general coordinator of the Drop-Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine. The Drop-Inn Center has endorsed the march.

"Any movement that's going to try to break down barriers — that's what we're for," Clifford says.

The staff at the center set up a makeshift first-aid station last month to help several dozen people injured by police "beanbags." Clifford says children were among the people injured by the police ammunition (see "Firing on Children," issue of April 19-25).

A staff member at the center was gassed on the way to work, and some residents of the shelter were injured in Washington Park during protests.

A month after rioting ended, the need to protest police conduct remains, according to Clifford.

"I think some of the fear is that now that it's over, it's going to be swept under the rug and nothing is going to change," he says. ©