News: Un-civil Rites

Hecklers test the limits of free speech at city-council meetings

Oct 5, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Kobaka Oba (left) and Abdul Muhammad Ali at a recent city council meeting.

To hear some regular observers tell it, Cincinnati City Council is made up of an Uncle Tom and white devils headed by a "punk faggot." Heckling and name-calling at meetings has council debating whether to adopt tighter rules for speakers, enforce existing rules or do nothing. At the center of the debate is Minister Abdul Muhammad Ali, legally known as James Hardy, 59. Ali has been addressing city council for nearly 30 years — as long as citizens have been allowed. Wearing his trademark black hat with "UNITY" on the front and holding a poster-board sign containing pictures of civil-rights leaders, Ali is one of several protestors steadily pushing council members' buttons since the spring. Parts of their speeches point out past injustices, such as the founding fathers' failure to regard African Americans as equals. At other times, Ali and his allies talk about shootings by the Cincinnati Police, Chief Thomas Streicher's use of the word "nigger" during a training session or restaurant closings during the Ujima Festival. Sometimes speakers shout insults at their favorite targets, Councilmen Phil Heimlich and Jim Tarbell and Mayor Charlie Luken. Ali's most infamous comment might have been calling Luken a "punk faggot." Ali is proud of the remark — retaliation, he says, for Luken not disciplining Streicher over the racial slur.

Kobaka Oba, Ali's friend and a regular at council meetings, likes to open his remarks by saying the white man is a devil, quoting Elijah Muhammed, late leader of the Nation of Islam. Oba sometimes closes by referring to the U.S. as the "Jew-nited snakes of America."

Ali was arrested earlier this year, but not for his behavior at the podium. It was his behavior in the audience that got him in trouble. Sitting behind council, Ali has a habit of heckling members and letting out a loud, sarcastic "Huh!" whenever he finds something funny or unbelievable. Sometimes he shouts comments or talks loudly when others are speaking. That's what he was doing before his arrest for disturbing a council meeting.

Ali subpoenaed the entire council for his July trial, but only Charles Winburn and Tarbell testified. The trial ended without a conviction; Winburn said Ali's behavior hadn't caused a disruption. Ali cites this as evidence he can continue behaving as he has.

"We went to court and tore them up, me and (attorney) Ken Lawson," Ali says.

Luken, who doesn't want to be seen as restricting citizens' right to speak, has given Ali and the others a wide berth. Now even Winburn says something should be done about Ali, Oba and several other speakers, who have called him an Uncle Tom for some of his votes.

"There have been some individuals that have went way beyond their right to be retained in city council," Winburn says.

Although Ali and company frame the issue in terms of free speech, council has rules for speaking during meetings. Before 1971, citizens could only speak during committee meetings, according to Bobbie Sterne, a councilwoman from 1971 to 1985 and 1987 to 1998. In 1971 council began granting members of the public two minutes to speak about any issue at the meeting's end, or earlier if council is voting on the issue. Speakers must fill out a card and submit it to a city clerk, and no more than three speakers may talk about each side of an issue.

The mayor is in charge of enforcing the rules, which also cover the tone and content of speech by and in front of council. For council members, "debate ... should never become a personal attack which criticizes the character of the speaker rather than the wisdom of his or her ideas," the rules say.

The rules also say the mayor "shall preserve order and decorum, prevent attacks on personalities or impugning of members' motives and confine members in debate to the question under discussion."

Some say the recent incidents are the worst in a long time, maybe ever.

"I haven't seen it any more blatant than it is now," says Clerk of Council Sandy Sherman, who has sat next to the mayor during council meetings for more than two decades. "The cup is running over."

"The kind of behavior you see never used to be tolerated," Sterne says.

Ali and company say council members are trying to silence them because of the issues they raise. But Heimlich says he doesn't care about personal attacks; he just wants to return some order to the chambers.

"We've got to tighten the rules," Heimlich says. "It's not right to come in and disrupt the meeting. They're preventing other citizens from enjoying their First Amendment rights."

Heimlich says he doesn't want to be heavy-handed, but if someone is ruled out of order, he should lose his speaking privileges that day.

Tarbell says Ali, Oba and others are obviously breaking the rules.

"It has little to do with race relations in the city," Tarbell says. "It has a great deal to do with people ... pushing their own selfish agenda."

Tarbell says black leaders should come forward and help ensure a more civil atmosphere.

At its next meeting, council's rules committee will begin ironing out details of council's operation under a strong-mayor system that takes effect in 2001. Councilwoman Alicia Reece, chair of the committee, won't say whether she thinks speakers are breaking the rules. Instead, she talks about the issues they raise.

"I was insulted when the police chief used the N word," Reece says. "The rules should be enforced, and they should be enforced equally."

Are they doing that now?

"I don't know," she says.

Reece suggests Luken meet with speakers to find out why they're upset. She says her motion to establish a policy on the use of racial and ethnic slurs by city employees needs to be discussed.

"To date, there has been no policy," Reece says. "It would help to establish a decorum."

Vice Mayor Minette Cooper, who presides over meetings in Luken's absence, can see both sides of the issue. When Cooper, a black woman, asks speakers to be civil, she gets more respect than does Luken, a white man. Oba says Elijah Muhammed taught him to respect black women.

Cooper says speakers could be more polite, but there is also value in civil disobedience. People are more likely to be heard when they do things in a different way.

Council should be wary of new rules, because they will become the focus of debate, instead of the issues, Cooper says.

"If he's not menacing us and he's not interfering with us doing our business, then we need to leave it alone," she says.

Luken, meanwhile, seems torn.

"I don't really want to have anybody arrested, which is what this leads to," Luken says. "However, I do think there's no place for racial slurs or personal attacks."

Before the Sept. 27 council meeting, Luken planned to enforce council rules more tightly, even ordering people to leave, if necessary to keep order. Luken banged his gavel a few times and declared speakers out of order, but their allotted two minutes were almost over anyway.

Ali's behavior — especially his body language — is flamboyant in any context, but especially in the mundane confines of a city council meeting. During a meeting packed with high school students, Ali paraded around the room with his civil-rights sign, drawing giggles from some of the students.

Speaking to Ali and Oba is a bit of an adventure; it's difficult to get a word in edgewise or finish a question before they begin answering.

Ali and Oba acknowledge the rules should be followed, but fend off questions about their behavior by pointing out other rules they believe are being broken. Ali asked why the Cincinnati Police protect Ku Klux Klan members during their Fountain Square gatherings when the city has an anti-hood law. Passed in 1990, the ordinance forbids appearing in public wearing a mask, hood or other device that covers the face in order to conceal a person's identity.

Ali vows to block efforts to bring the Olympics to Cincinnati and to discourage groups from visiting until the city starts dealing with its race problems.

"We don't want nobody to come to this city," Ali says.

Ali also vows to fight attempts to change the rules for speaking in front of council.

"We'll die before we let anybody infringe on our constitutional rights," he says. ©