News: Hot: The Middle Ground

Ujima organizers, police, protesters look to be converging for another unpredictable weekend

May 31, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Maybe more than any other occasion, the events surrounding the Coors Light Jazz Festival and the accompanying Ujima Cinci-Bration have symbolized the dysfunction of race relations in Cincinnati. Could this be the year business owners, patrons and police find the common ground they've been searching for?

Three years ago, black and white leaders created Ujima — the downtown street festival with bands, comedians and vendors — to provide a family-friendly event during the concert weekend. In recent years 100,000 to 150,000 people visited Cincinnati during each of those weekends to see the all-star lineup of R&B, Jazz and Soul acts. About 150 Ujima vendors have offered a variety of food and goods on Fourth, Fifth, Race and Sycamore streets.

The festival's first year was the same one Cincinnati Police handled past cruising problems by closing downtown streets between Central Parkway and Fourth Street.

Before Ujima, crowds usually cruised downtown during the 39-year-old Jazz festival, causing mostly traffic problems. But in 1997 violence erupted, with one man shot and 97 arrested, prompting the creation of Ujima. Since then, the weekend has been much more peaceful.

Still, by last year, 14 of 34 downtown restaurants surveyed by Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

(DCI) closed during the festival weekend, citing a lack of business — partly because of street closings and partly because of a lack of patronage by the festival crowd.

The Black United Front, a grassroots group led by Rev. Damon Lynch III, wasn't buying those excuses and protested the restaurants that closed last year.

This year, the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce and DCI say the festival will be a more open and welcoming event with new activities, and they claim that most downtown restaurants will be open during regular business hours.

Definite changes for this year include a three-on-three basketball tournament, a slam dunk competition, a car show and an open-style dancing competition, according to De Asa Nichols, the African-American Chamber's executive director. Also, comedian George Wallace will perform on the main Ujima stage on Fountain Square.

Nichols says organizers are hiring a private security force to handle most of the event. She also believes the police will use restraint.

"We're looking at the police being able to offer a more friendly, welcoming presence," Nichols says, adding that Ujima should be handled the same way as other Cincinnati festivals.

The Cincinnati Police Division says it won't close streets unless traffic jams keep emergency vehicles from reaching downtown streets. Officers will be posted at a few key intersections to monitor traffic just like last year, according to Sgt. Rodney Carter of the Event Planning Unit.

But Lynch and the Black United Front want more than a downtown that simply stays open to accept concert-goers' money. The Coors Jazz Festival is the "most historically disrespected" festival in the Midwest, judging by how the hotel, bar, restaurant and business owners treat the festival crowd, according to Lynch. People who attend the Indiana Black Expo and Chicago Jazz Festival are treated much better by those cities, he says.

"You come here and they shut down the city," Lynch says.

Although the Black United Front hasn't announced plans to protest Ujima or any other summer festival except for Taste of Cincinnati, Lynch hasn't ruled out more protests as a way to keep pressure on the city to improve life for blacks in the city, especially concerning police policies.

Specifically, Lynch and his organization want:

· Passage by city voters of the charter amendment that allows the city manager to hire a police chief from outside the police division's ranks. As it stands, the top three test scorers in the division compete for the job;

· A settlement agreement for the racial profiling lawsuit, currently under mediation by a consultant. The process could end in a few months;

· Subpoena powers for the Citizen's Police Review Panel, an independent organization that investigates citizens' complaints about police conduct. As it stands, the panel must ask city council to subpoena people;

· And significant investment in Over-the-Rhine with at least the same priority as the recent concentrated efforts to develop the riverfront, attract the 2012 Olympics or build a light rail line.

Lynch says he's considering protests for all the summer festivals, no matter who shows up, because all of them benefit downtown business owners. An economic boycott, Lynch believes, is the only way to get these powerful people to pay attention to problems in Over-the-Rhine, just like losing $63.7 million in convention business because of Issue 3 — the city law that excludes gays and lesbians from certain legal protections — has people reconsidering that law.

Ideally, Lynch says, Ujima organizers should move the event out of the city. He acknowledged, however, the Black United Front and related groups don't have anywhere near universal support for that significant of a move.

For now, he says, people are content to drink, party and have fun — and that won't change until there are more police shootings and disrespect from city leaders.

Nicholson's owner Nick Sanders said he tried to be welcoming in 1998, Ujima's first year. But the street closings kept his regular customers from getting to the restaurant, located at 625 Walnut St., and the festival crowd didn't eat there. Business dropped by 50 percent, according to Nicholson's General Manager Kevin Fryman.

Sanders doesn't know if every side — business owners, festival patrons and the police — can be satisfied.

"I'm concerned that having it in the middle of downtown like that makes it harder to satisfy everybody's needs," Sanders said, adding that that doesn't mean he wants Ujima kicked out of downtown, just that a large park might work better.

Sanders says Nicholson's will be open during regular business hours throughout Ujima this year.

That brings up a few key, tough-to-answer questions: How many restaurants and businesses closed in recent years, because they didn't want to deal with the concert weekend's mostly black crowd? How many of the closings were the end result of a chain reaction that began when festival-goers cruised downtown streets and blocked traffic — behavior that doesn't happen during other downtown festivals? And will Black United Front protests, if they happen, derail efforts to find the middle ground that's eluded festival organizers and city leaders so far?

While restaurant owners give the festival one more chance and Lynch and his organization ponder their protest options, Nichols, ever hopeful, is fighting the post-riot uphill battle of making a traditionally black-attended downtown event into a weekend that's inviting for everyone.

"And we mean everyone," Nichols said.

WHO: 2001 Ujima Cinci-Bration. · WHEN: 10 p.m.-2:30 a.m. July 20, noon-2:30 a.m. July 21 and noon-8 p.m. July 22. · WHERE: Fifth Street around Fountain Square. · TICKETS: Free. · INFO: 513-563-9380.