Seeking the 'There' There

The writer Gertrude Stein was asked her opinion of her childhood home, Oakland, Calif. She replied, "There is no there there." The line comes to mind as I consider where Cincinnati is headed at the

Apr 4, 2002 at 2:06 pm

The writer Gertrude Stein was asked her opinion of her childhood home, Oakland, Calif. She replied, "There is no there there."

The line comes to mind as I consider where Cincinnati is headed at the one-year anniversary of Timothy Thomas' death. Where are we going, and how will we know we're there? And once we arrive, will there be any "there" there?

Last week, I wrote about the need for both sides in the boycott struggle — city officials and the boycott organizations — to focus on the big picture (see Keep Eyes on the Prize issue of March 29-April 3). If those involved are truly interested in the city's welfare, they must work toward producing a win-win outcome.

Otherwise, we'll be left with a community much like the one we've had for the past year: divided, distrusting, drifting, directionless. That's not the "there" I'm envisioning.

Our cover story package this week looks at the high-profile developments since Thomas' death: the racial profiling collaborative negotiations, the U.S. Department of Justice's critique of the Cincinnati Police Department, the boycott and various lawsuits against the police. All of us — the media, politicians, small business owners, activists, average citizens — are buffeted daily by these big issues, which bounce us back and forth between rocks and hard places.

Meanwhile, no one stands back and analyzes how all the puzzle pieces fit together or how Slot A connects to Tab B. Hell, Slot A and Tab B won't sit in the same room with each other.

The closest I've seen anyone come to presenting the big picture of Cincinnati's core problems is the document published last fall by the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, one of the lead boycott groups. The document lists 26 demands for change in four major categories: ending social and economic apartheid, restoring public accountability of the police, supporting and enforcing civil and human rights and enacting city government and election reform.

As you can see, their view of Cincinnati's future goes way beyond simply improving police-community relations. It's comprehensive and far-reaching. It offers a "there."

But the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati can't even get a meeting with city officials.

Saks Fifth Avenue officials threaten to close their downtown store, which would severely harm surrounding small businesses, and they get a meeting with the city. The city proposes a win-win remedy, and everyone moves on.

Cincinnati Bengals officials threaten to move the team to Baltimore, which would severely harm downtown's image and businesses, and they get meetings with the city and county. Local politicians propose a win-win remedy, and everyone moves on.

When corporations threaten the welfare of downtown, it's called "negotiation tactics." When boycott groups do it, it's "economic terrorism."

But the city has shown before that it can squeeze win-win outcomes from thorny impasses. It doesn't make sense not to try here as well — on issues that certainly are more important than whether Cincinnati retains an upscale store or a professional football franchise.

Last week I recommended that the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and the other boycott groups, in order to better forge a compromise with the city, consolidate their demands into a manageable few. The coalition responded in this week's Letters section by saying it would negotiate its demands only during a meeting with the city, not before.

If such a meeting were to take place — as it should — I'd suggest a "manageable few" demands could be found in the nine-point plan CityBeat offered as Cincinnati MUST (see issue of Aug. 9-15, 2001). The plan sought:

· The resignation of Police Chief Thomas Streicher;

· Establishment of police foot patrols in Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods;

· Giving the Citizens Police Review Panel subpoena power;

· Finishing the stalled rehabilitation of Findlay Market;

· Cleaning up the abandoned buildings in Over-the-Rhine;

· Requiring city employees to live in the city;

· Ending official discrimination against gays and lesbians by repealing Article 12 of the city charter;

· Enacting civil-service reform, making department heads more accountable and opening city services to outside ideas and personnel;

· And establishing an ombudsman's office empowered to help citizens cut through the bureaucracy and gain access to city services.

Three points have been or are being accomplished: foot patrols were reintroduced to Over-the-Rhine, the Findlay Market project is being finished and Issue 5 was passed by voters last fall, reforming civil service. The other six points remain to be tackled.

There's a lot of movement this week as the anniversary of Thomas' death approaches. The big issues play out in a federal courthouse, while Cincinnati CAN announces long-awaited action plans. Meanwhile, dozens of issues remain on the table, to which certain citizens aren't invited.

But let's not confuse movement with progress. There's only one measure for determining if Cincinnati gets "there": fundamental change.