On the Road Again

Fresh off representing plaintiffs in a huge Supreme Court case, Al Gerhardstein hits the road for another big cause

May 6, 2015 at 10:11 am
click to enlarge Al Gerhardstein and Jessica Gingold ride out of Washington Park May 2, kicking off a 1,350-mile bike trip to raise money and awareness for justice system reform.
Al Gerhardstein and Jessica Gingold ride out of Washington Park May 2, kicking off a 1,350-mile bike trip to raise money and awareness for justice system reform.

How do you unwind after helping argue a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court? If you’re Al Gerhardstein,  you go on a 1,350-mile tandem bike ride.

Just days after the April 28 oral arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, which may be one of the most important same-sex marriage cases in history, the 63-year-old Cincinnati civil rights attorney is riding with his daughter Jessica Gingold from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

It’s not just a fun father-daughter trip — along the way, they’ll stop in Ferguson, Mo., where Gerhardstein will meet with officials to share work he’s done on police accountability, another huge national issue in which he’s been incredibly active. The ride, which the two call Pedaling Justice, is also intended to raise money for two Greater Cincinnati legal organizations that seek to reform inequity in the justice system: the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which Gerhardstein founded in 1997, and the Children’s Law Center, based in Northern Kentucky.

The 20-day journey is timely. Last summer, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson focused national attention on questions around race and America’s justice system. A spate of other police shootings of unarmed people of color, including the recent deaths of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have kept the issue at the forefront of national conversation.

“The overarching issue here is that there has not been a time in my career when the nation has been so focused on police reform and the need to treat African Americans fairly in the justice system,” Gerhardstein says. “And that’s exciting.”

Biking was a natural way for the two to advocate, Gerhardstein says. He’s been an avid long-distance cyclist for years and often bikes the 20 mile roundtrip between his home in Kennedy Heights and his office downtown. This isn’t the first long trip he and Gingold have taken together — they rode from Alabama to Cincinnati a few years back.

“If I hadn’t been a regular rider, I’d be more nervous,” Gerhardstein says, though he admits he’s been too busy lately to prepare as much as he would have liked. “My practice has always been, just get the miles in. I don’t rush it. If you’re on a flat surface, a tandem is a beautiful machine. You can cruise at 20 miles an hour without even trying.”

That will give the two the opportunity to discuss the weighty issues in which they’re both involved.

“What I look forward to, other than the father-daughter time, is our dialogue about justice,” Gingold told Legal News, a Michigan-focused online legal publication. “I have new questions I can ask him and ways to understand and engage with his analysis and critiques of the system.”

Gingold, who just finished up finals for her second year as a law student at University of Michigan, is a seasoned juvenile justice advocate who is in the midst of launching her own career fighting for children underserved by the justice system. She already has a master’s degree in education from Harvard and will graduate law school next year. This summer, she’s working for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights in New Orleans.

The trip to her new job is a bit of a passing of the torch, Gerhardstein says.

“I’m in my last stages of my work as a civil rights advocate, and she’s just about ready to burst onto the scene.”

Gerhardstein and Gingold kicked off their ride May 2, gathering with a couple dozen friends and family in Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park to show off their shiny new Cannondale tandem, eat some bagels and talk justice. Among those in attendance were Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and other members of the police department. Is that surprising for an initiative focused on police reform led by a man who is known to boast, “I sue cops?” Not at all.

“These are certainly necessary conversations,” said Cincinnati Police Department District Four Chief Maris Herold, who was suited up in her cycling gear for a seven-mile sendoff ride with Gerhardstein and Gingold. “We’re proud to support him in this.”

The gathering in the sunny quiet of the park underscored the change the city has seen. Fourteen years ago, the same neighborhood was mired in deep civil unrest as anger bubbled over police shootings of black men.

In April 2001, white officer Stephen Roach shot 19-year-old unarmed black man Timothy Thomas just blocks from the park. Thomas was the 15th person of color killed by the police over the course of the preceding five years.

During the months after the unrest, Gerhardstein worked alongside Cincinnati activists like Iris Roley and Rev. Damon Lynch III to negotiate the city’s historic collaborative agreement, which brought new accountability, including federal oversight, to the Cincinnati Police Department. It also began a shift toward community-oriented policing for CPD, a change that has led to a less arrest-oriented approach to addressing community issues.

In the wake of the deaths in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, officials from across the country have sought lessons from Cincinnati. In January, for example, President Barack Obama convened the White House Panel on 21st Century Policing to explore those issues, and the panel spent two days in Cincinnati to learn about reforms here.

Despite the changes in Cincinnati, there is still a lot of work to be done, Gerhardstein says.

Issues around racial inequities in the justice system are more relevant than ever, especially in Ohio. Just two days before Michael Brown lost his life in Ferguson, John Crawford III was shot to death in a Walmart in Beavercreek. He had a toy rifle slung over his shoulder. A Greene County grand jury declined to indict officer Sean Williams in the shooting. Crawford was black, Williams is white.

In November, another tragedy occurred in Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police on a playground while playing with a toy pistol. A 911 caller clearly told a dispatcher that he thought the gun was fake.

A 21-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the Cleveland Police Department released in the weeks after Rice’s shooting found many patterns of misuse of force there. Among the most troubling was the case of Edward Henderson, who in 2011 was kicked and kneed by officers while handcuffed. Even though 10 officers witnessed his abuse, there were no use of force reports filed and no officers were punished for the abuse. Henderson later won a $600,000 settlement after suing Cleveland.

The issues go deeper than just the police. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Ohio has 2,336 black, 1,072 Hispanic and 422 white prisoners per 100,000 people. This despite the fact the state is 83 percent white. Since 1989, more than 40 people statewide have been exonerated after they’ve been wrongfully imprisoned. Thirty-one of these exonerees have been people of color, who are statistically much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated even though they make up a minority of the state’s population.

Then, of course, there are the troublesome questions around juvenile discipline issues and incarceration.
Last November, the Children’s Law Center filed a suit in U.S. District Court against Hamilton County, charging that its juvenile justice system routinely arrests and holds minors without probable cause, violating their civil rights. In 2013, the county arrested more than 6,000 juveniles and held more than 2,000 after their arrests, the suit says, highlighting disturbing stories of teens held for 30 days or more without due process.

Clearly, Gerhardstein and Gingold will have plenty to talk about on their ride.

A dozen or so friends joined the two on the first bit of their trip, which wound through Queensgate and Lower Price Hill before ending at Anderson Ferry. Gerhardstein and Gingold went on to ride 80 miles their first day, braving rough gravel roads, closed routes and a wide creek they had to wade across carrying their bike. A tough first day, maybe, but Gerhardstein is sure there will be plenty of recompense.

“I see people at their worst,” he says of his legal work. “Whenever I do a long ride, I interact with people and just see them at their best. People handing me a bottle of water or offering me a place to stay. That’s refreshing and affirming and helps you remember that people are good at their core. I need a dose of that.” ©