News: The Social Justice Crisis in Cincinnati

National Hearings on the Crisis in Cincinnati

My name is Dan La Botz, and I am a resident of the Clifton neighborhood and a visiting assistant professor of history and Latin American Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I am also a writer on American, Mexican and Indonesian labor unions and workers rights issues, and I am affiliated with Labor Notes, the Detroit-based labor education center. I am a member of Cincinnati Progressive Action (CPA), and have been active in the civil rights struggle here, organizing the March for Justice and have participated in the boycott activities. I am proud that my whole family, my wife Sherry Baron, my children Traven and Reed La Botz, and many friends have also been involved in this movement for civil rights her in Cincinnati, at meeting, rallies and picket lines. It is a pleasure to be here with friends and associates in that common struggle.

I want to thank to the Black United Front and the other groups and individuals who organized these hearings, and also the visitors from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the other national organizations who have come here to participate in them, for giving me this opportunity to testify. I am here to testify, knowing that this testimony will be published and will be presented to the city and county governments and to the public, but I also want to speak here to those of you whom I think of as my brothers and sisters in our common movement for justice.

Cincinnati, Rogue city
Cincinnati is know nationally as a corporate city, the headquarters of Procter and Gamble, Kroger, Chiquita Banana and Cintas and as the home of the sports corporations, the Bengals and the Reds. These are the corporations that rule Cincinnati and dominate politics here, and they do not do so in the interest of working class or poor people. Sometimes it seems as if they are not even capable of running the city anymore in the interests of the rich and powerful, for they have made a mess of it. They have won Cincinnati the international reputation of a rogue city where human rights of all sorts are disrespected.

Cincinnati has become an icon around the country, a symbol of the systematic disregard for human rights. Cincinnati is known nationally not only as a conservative city, but also as a reactionary and racist city. When I travel to other parts of the country and introduce myself as a resident of Cincinnati, people almost invariably shake their heads or give me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, or say something like "Wow, Cincinnati, that must be some place to live, huh?" Everyone has heard of the murder of Timothy Thomas, and of the civil unrest, many have heard or Article 12 and the anti-gay and lesbian legislation in the city. Some have heard of the city's recent attack on labor unions through contracting out jobs. We are known for being Cincinnati, the city where civil rights stood still, and slipped backward.

Cincinnati has become notorious:

· We are known as a national center of the Right to Life movement here, a misnamed movement that, supposedly in the name of God, would deny women the right to choose, and force our wives and daughters back to the era of illegal, self-induced and dirty back room abortions.

· We are known as a homophobic city, for Article 12 in our city charter, which would deny gay and lesbian citizens the full civil rights protection granted other citizens.

·We are becoming known as an anti-union town where the Democratic Party majority on city council moves to privatize union jobs, in effect denying workers the right to labor union representation, collective bargaining agreements and decent wages. At the same time, of course, the city passes a weak "living wage" law, a law improving wages for a handful of workers, in an attempt to cover up its attack on unions representing thousands of workers.

· We have some notoriety nationally for the lead levels in the streets of Over-the-Rhine and schools of our neighborhoods and for the toxic chemicals in neighborhoods like St. Bernard.

·We are known as a city that denies dissent and the right to protest. When almost three years ago about a couple hundred religious, labor and students activists organized to Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), a private club of rich corporations, the police used massive police power to deny those protesters their rights, and arrested 50 people, some for simply fitting the profile of a protester by wearing black clothing.

· Most of all, of course, we have become known as a city where the police department shoots and kills black men. The long series of police killings has made us notorious around the country, while the failure of the local government to respond to those killings has made us known as a rogue.

I don't think I can add a great deal to the testimony presented here in terms of the presentation of fact or in terms of first-hand experience. Many other speakers have explained the Cincinnati Police Department's racist and violent treatment of our citizens, particularly of African-American men. Some of the speakers have been the victims of it and can speak to that far better than me. The people of Cincinnati, and all of Ohio and the United States, have followed the series of police killings of unarmed black men and men held in custody with horror and revulsion.

Nor do I think I can add much to the presentations dealing with racial segregation and economic apartheid. Dr. Stanley Broadnax and others have detailed the city's patterns of financial favoritism toward wealthy white communities, while short-changing African-American, Appalachian and what are becoming our new Latino communities. One need only drive through Cincinnati to see the striking differences in the city's maintenance of white and black communities, and to see the differences in wealth between the white and black communities, in large part the result of long-standing patterns of discrimination in employment and other economic opportunities.

I agree with many of the others who have testified that the Cincinnati Police force behaves like an occupying army and that our black citizens are often treated like a conquered people, denied the economic opportunities of the conquerors. I think this is a metaphor that probably has more significance today, after the U.S. conquest and occupation of Iraq.

What happens in Cincinnati, while egregious, is not so different from what happens in other cities, such as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Throughout the country we have a pattern of police racism and violence, of police shooting and killing black men who are unarmed, in custody or in prison. The difference is in the way the city and the Cincinnati Business Committee, made up of the most powerful corporations, respond to this situation.

In other cities, when the police chief is exposed as racist, violent, or corrupt or ineffective, the city fires him or forces him to resign. Firing the police chief does not always solve the problem, but it is a concession to the critics, it is a form of recognition of the issue, it may be a first step toward resolving the problem. Clearly, the man who heads the police force has to take responsibility for his officers' actions, and if his department is corrupt, racist and violent, then he is fired — everywhere but in Cincinnati. Here Mayor Charlie Luken says the police have done nothing wrong, and praises the police chief, promising that he will not fire him and says he can stay as long as he wants.

That is the difference between the rest of the country and Cincinnati. Here the powers-that-be will not even recognize the problem, will not make one concession, will not admit wrong. We see the same pattern in the breakdown of the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement reached between the Black United Front, the ACLU and the city police department and Fraternal Order of Police. The collaborative has broken down because of the failure of the Cincinnati business community, the city of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Police Department to make real changes here.

At a Fork in the Road — A Need for Vision
The city of Cincinnati, Hamilton County and the region stand at a fork in the road. If the Cincinnati Business Committee and the city continue to resist reform, the city could become another Midwestern rustbelt ruin where political intransigence, racism and white flight, followed by corporate down-sizing or abandonment, strip the city of its tax base and reduce it to a state of devastation. On the other hand, if we take the opportunity, we could make Cincinnati a kind of Midwestern model city based on attention to education, employment and the environment. The corporations and the city government seem headed for rustbelt ruin, so we have to be the advocates of and the fighters for a model city, based on civil rights and social justice for all.

What should be our vision for the city? What are the most important elements of that vision?

· Criminal Justice: The first point has to be a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. The city must fire Police Chief Tom Streicher and overhaul the police department to change the policies and procedures. Had there been the political goodwill in the city, the Collaborative Agreement might have done this. But however it is done, by court order, by the Justice Department or by a change in city government in the coming elections, there has to be a change in the police department brining about many of the measures sought through the collaborative: community policing, a more powerful police review board, changes in policies and procedures governing the use of force. At the same time, there should be an investigation into the county prosecutor's office which so obviously operates in a racist fashion, and we should do everything possible to see Mike Allen removed from office as well. The Republican Party must be forced to renounce and abandon Mike Allen and other such reactionary and racist figures.

· Economic Justice: We need the city to prioritize the neighborhoods over downtown, and to make available to local communities the funds given to the city for that purpose by the Federal government. We need to see that minority contractors get their fare share of public sector and private sector contracts, and we need affirmative action in that area. But most important, we need to create an environment that encourages the organization of labor unions and collective bargaining agreements. Where workers have labor unions, they have more job security, higher wages, benefits such as health insurance and better working conditions. We need a real living wage in this community, and most people recognize that a living wage begins some place around $15 an hour, and that living wage should be enforced on all city and county workers, contractors and subcontractors, leasers and others with any business relationship to the city or county. Other pressures should be brought to extend it to most of our city's workers in all businesses and industries. The economy thrives when workers have purchasing power. Most African Americans and most whites are wage earners, and in the fight for labor unions and contracts there is common ground to build a united movement of working class people in this community.

· Gay and Lesbian Rights: Give our gay and lesbian citizens full civil rights protection. Some of my African-American friends and allies here may say, "Why bring that up? Why can't you forget that? The gay and lesbian issue remains unpopular in our community, where many believe that being gay or lesbian is a sin. Gays and lesbians don't make up that large a part of the population. Or, perhaps, we can take up that question some other time, but the African American criminal justice and economic issues are more important right now."

I disagree. The gay and lesbian issue — what is called homophobia or fear of homosexuals — is important to all of us, and perhaps especially to the African-American community and important now, because it is about intolerance. It is about discrimination. It is about hatred. It is about hatred that excuses violence.

We are all aware of the murder on Dec. 31, 2002 of Gregory A. Beauchamp, a young black man killed in Over-the-Rhine, because he was a homosexual. It was that crime that led to the city of Cincinnati, to its credit, passing the new hate crimes law. Perhaps you also saw the story in the newspaper the other day about the 15-year-old African-American girl, Sakia Gunn, who was murdered in Newark, New Jersey by two men. She was apparently murdered because they thought she was gay, that she was a lesbian. Gregory A. Beauchamp and Saskia Gunn are the Emmett Tills of our times, and we should join together to end the climate of sexism and homophobia that led to her murder. I would like to appeal to the African-American community here today to join in the fight to repeal Article 12 and end homophobia in Cincinnati, for all of our children who we love, however they may choose to live.

· Environmental Justice: In Cincinnati, as everywhere in the country, corporations and governments make poor people, people of color and low-income workers the victims of environmental policies that serve big mining and manufacturing corporations and real estate and construction companies. Whose children suffer lead poisoning in the inner cities? Which communities find themselves surrounded by dangerous manufacturing plants spewing toxic chemicals? What communities are chosen for garbage dumps, toxic dumpsites, and others dangers to our health and well-being? In too many cases, corporations and governments dump on the poor, the African American, the Appalachian, and the Latino. I think of the Lower Price Hill community, a community of just such peoples and just such races, where Cincinnati Barrel employs the poorest workers in the cleaning of barrels full of toxic chemicals. We don't find Cincinnati Barrel in Indian Hill, and we don't find any white people working there. We need county-wide development plan, a light rail system, a plan to prevent urban sprawl, to get workers union jobs and a way to revitalize our city while making sure that our current neighborhood residents participate in that revitalization.

An Example of an Alternative Approach
Lets think about how things could progress differently in Cincinnati. For example, consider the school bond authorization for $0.5 billion with a matching $0.5 billion from the state. If this $1 billion enterprise advances in the traditional way, there will be lots of private hustlers nibbling away at the potential windfall of contracts through the usual old-boy and patronage networks. Backroom deals will settle the big questions. The political parties will be competing facilitators of largess distribution and the AFL-CIO will at best be able to preserve the labor status quo. The planning will be isolated from the total city picture, secretive and probably incompetent to boot.

Here's an alternative. What if we had an integrated approach to the siting of new, and rehabilitation of old, school buildings taking into account a long term plan for mass transit, for parks, greenbelt, waterfront, cultural and recreation development; for adult education and life-long learning programs? The process would have input from the Sierra Club, Urban League, the NAACP, the Black United Front and other African-American groups, from Su Case, the most important Latino center, and from university and city planning resources, housing master plans, community development, the art community, etc., all with public review and debate. Instead of removing all the poor people and black people from Over-the-Rhine, we would create new jobs and greatly improved incomes that would allow many of the workers needed downtown to actually live downtown, in decent housing and neighborhoods.

The construction implications of the school funding offer enormous opportunities. For example, require all construction to be union; require all contractors to be union; establish, regulate and monitor apprentice training programs that bring lots of local youth into permanent high wage job prospects; define very explicit affirmative action performance criteria. Black contractors, who frequently avoid unions in order to compensate for a playing field that isn't level, would be encouraged to go union, bid on bigger jobs and get into the mainstream. This would require a sea change not only for the contractors associations but also for the AFL-CIO, the building trades and for minority construction businesses. It would be sustainable only with long-term planning for public projects encompassing the schools, mass transit and housing.

Interestingly, the school system (and community colleges) itself could even be integrated into the apprenticeship program, providing remedial and special instruction for the skilled trades and career development programs. Schools could get kids interested in real careers as competitive alternatives to dealing drugs or other less appealing options. All of this planning would have to involve the private financial sector, which is where the Cincinnati Business Committee would play a key role. The upside for organized labor would be that a huge gain in unionization would result, while nepotism, discrimination and anti-democratic practices in skilled trades entry would have to be curtailed. For business, the upside would be a transformation of Cincinnati to an exciting place to which people with marketable skills would be attracted and in which many new investment opportunities would arise. The down side for business would be higher costs in some areas and less freedom to do whatever they want.

This is a vision that offers an exciting prospect for not only for the African-American community, but also for most white working people in the Cincinnati area. Cincinnati was once a union town where working people could thrive. It could be a union town again. To bring about this change, we need political change in Cincinnati — dumping the politicians, prosecutors and judges who have built their careers on racism and who stand in the way of all progress. The alternative is a Cincinnati that slowly dies.

Our Movement
I am here mostly because I believe in our movement. We have been protesting against racism together. We have also been protesting, many of us, against the war together, and I have felt proud to be part of that. But if we are going to succeed in changing this city, we must have a movement that puts forward a vision, and is itself to some degree a model of that new vision. We should ourselves be building a movement of working people of all race and religions.

I see, in the plans for Cincinnati Freedom Summer 2003 many churches involved, and I understand that the church has stood at the center of the African-American community. But we must build a movement that includes HERE, SEIU, the Laborers International Union and other labor unions such as those with large African-American memberships, and also with their white members. I see a plan to address the racism and violence that affects African Americans, but we should also address the discrimination and violence that affect our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We have the churches involved, but we should also have the Sierra Club involved. The Sierra Club recently entered into an alliance with the United Steel Workers of America, the labor union, a labor union with many African-American workers, too. Shouldn't there also be an alliance between the Sierra Club and the city's African-American organizations? If the African-American movement, the labor movement and the gay and lesbian or GLBT movement, and the environmental movement exerted their power together, we could really change this city. The African-American community will clearly be the leader in the fight for civil rights in this city; but to win it needs allies, and those potential allies also need relationships with the African-American community.

Let me end by saying that we need to build a progressive political movement here, one based on the African-American community, the labor movement, the environmental organizations and the gay and lesbian movement so that we can take power from the corporations, put that power in the hands of our city's majority of working class people of all races and religions and build a Cincinnati that would be a model community for our children, and our grandchildren. We need to be able to run political slates of African-American and white progressives (and as our Latino population grows, also Latino progressives) for city council. We need to transform our social movement into a powerful political movement. If we do, we can begin to bring about the change we know is needed.

We need to change the law to create voting by district so that African American, working class and later Latino areas can be fairly represented on our city council.

Finally, just one more word — and here I speak for myself and not for Cincinnati Progressive Action. The Republican Party, and the Democratic Party in this city which dominates the city council, have made it clear that they are not and cannot be the vehicle for the African-American community, or for the labor movement. We need to build an independent political movement here and join with other independent political forces throughout the country.

It is good to be here this afternoon with others who fight for human rights in Cincinnati. Thanks once again for inviting me to testify.

Many of the points made here appear at, the Web site maintained by Cincinnati Progressive Action. You will also find there links to the most important news clips on development in Cincinnati.

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