News: 'Sorry' Seems to Be the Hardest Word

So downtown restaurant owners don't say it

Leaders of Cincinnati Black United Front are claiming victory after downtown restaurant owners apologized for closing shop during an African-American cultural festival this summer.

The only problem is the restaurant owners didn't say they were apologizing. Nor did they say they were sorry. Nor did they say they did anything wrong.

The letter from the Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Association instead seems to argue that criticism of its members is misguided. The letter, addressed to "Greater Cincinnati African American Community," never uses the words "apology," "sorry" or "wrong." In fact, the only mistakes the letter mentions are alleged misinterpretations by the public.

"We wish to rectify any misconceptions evolving from the downtown restaurant closings during the Ujima Cinci-Bration Festival weekend ...," the letter says. "It is unfortunate that the decision to close some individual businesses was perceived as insensitive."

But the letter shows that recent picketing by Black United Front succeeded, according to Rev. Damon Lynch III, spokesman for the group.

"It is an apology letter," Lynch says. "In each paragraph, there's some language that speaks to it. This is a success. This allows us to move onto some of the broader issues within the community."

Signed by Mark LaRosa, Nat Comisar and other members of the executive committee of the restaurant association, the letter says restaurants that closed during the July 28-30 festival meant no harm. Ujima drew an estimated 150,000 people downtown.

"It was not the intent in any way to offend or disrespect anyone with the choice to stay open or to close the respective restaurants ...," the letter says. "We embrace and welcome the patronage of all ethnic and cultural groups, as we continue to become more diversity sensitive."

The Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC) hailed the letter as a successful resolution of accusations the restaurants closed rather than serve blacks.

"As a result of ongoing efforts between the parties, a final resolution of this issue has been accomplished," says a statement by the CHRC.

Maybe.

But even as it trumpeted the agreement between the restaurants and black protestors, CHRC noted continuing concern about racism — another word that never appears in the restaurant association's letter.

Nor is the work of Black United Front finished. Lynch already is contemplating another effort to exert economic pressure on downtown businesses.

If the Ku Klux Klan erects a cross on Fountain Square in the upcoming holiday season, Black United Front might organize a boycott, according to Lynch.

"We're seriously looking at asking African-American people not to come to downtown Cincinnati to shop during the holidays if this is an area that has the KKK on Fountain Square," he says. "We think the downtown businesses and the city of Cincinnati have the responsibility to say this is not the Cincinnati we want to be."

The agreement announced by the CHRC amounts to little more than a promise by restaurants to think hard before making unscheduled closings and to be creative in drumming up business.

"We assure the entire community that serious consideration will be given before making any decision to change business hours during future events," the letter says. "A concerted effort will be made to explore creative ways to attract customers to create a viable situation for all to enjoy."

Lynch says he believes the restaurant owners are up to the task, now that they've had a little urging.

"We had always said they were intelligent enough that, with 150,000 people milling around the streets of Cincinnati, they would be profitable and stay open," Lynch says.

Black leaders and restaurant owners alike have criticized Cincinnati Police for closing most downtown streets during the two nights of Ujima Cinci-Bration. Mayor Charles Luken helped negotiate a resolution of the dispute, according to CHRC, though the letter never mentions the street closings. ©

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