Wake up and Smell the Riot

Five years later, I'm not sure we've really learned anything. Other than that we don't know anything. And, ultimately, isn't that the real tragedy of a tragedy -- that we learn nothing from it and

Five years later, I'm not sure we've really learned anything. Other than that we don't know anything.

And, ultimately, isn't that the real tragedy of a tragedy — that we learn nothing from it and possibly are destined to repeat it?

This week we stop to recall the events of April 2001, when Cincinnati — the safe, conservative Midwestern model of normalcy — was ripped apart by a young man's shooting death, street protests, assaults, showdowns and a curfew. It was an ugly time, and it returns with media coverage of the five-year anniversary of Timothy Thomas' death at the hands of a Cincinnati Police officer and the events that followed.

Five years later, it's still ugly. And sad, confusing, infuriating, divisive and draining.

The search goes on for a sign of something positive coming out of those incidents and events — not to make us feel that it was all "worth it," but to prove that there was some ultimate point to the whole thing. That Thomas' death and the unrest following were anything but pointless.

That search for meaning is the thrust of CityBeat's cover story, "Long Live the Rebellion," on page 20.

After recounting the events of April 2001, Greg Flannery concludes that street-level political organizing kept a lid on what could have been a much more volatile riot and has managed to keep many Cincinnatians involved in their city over the past five years. Indeed, Mark Mallory's ascension as a unifying force in Cincinnati — the first direct election of an African-American mayor in the city's history — can be seen as flowing from that new political force.

Other aspects of daily life have, in fact, changed. The police department has responded in more thoughtful and collaborative ways to subsequent use-of-force incidents, explaining their seemingly justified actions instead of dismissing public concerns. A minority business incubator formed in the wake of the riots has helped people become entrepreneurs. The collaborative agreement has forced us all — the police, the city, the citizens — to face each other and talk.

Still, many of us feel that nothing significant has changed after five years. And many cling defiantly to preconceived notions and uninformed opinions.

To some, the Cincinnati Police Department is 15 African-American men killed by police, including Thomas. To others, the police are heroes who can't get enough public support.

To some, Thomas was a young man trying to untangle himself from traffic tickets and get his life in order. To others, he was a criminal who shouldn't have run from the cops.

To some, Officer Stephen Roach was a racist white cop afraid of patrolling Over-the-Rhine. To others, he was just doing his job and got thrown to the legal system as a sacrifice to political correctness.

To some, the protesters were venting frustration and anger from years, if not lifetimes, of second-class treatment from Cincinnati's police, government and corporate power structure. To others, they were nothing but punks who took advantage of a tragic accident to cause trouble and break the law.

To some, the subsequent economic boycott of downtown Cincinnati was the only way to get the attention of city leaders and force meaningful change in how power, money and opportunity are shared among all citizens. To others, the boycott demonstrated that its leaders simply wanted power, money and opportunity for themselves.

To some, CityBeat was (and still is) the leader of the blame-the-police-for-everything brigade. To others, CityBeat didn't (and still doesn't) offer enough support for the boycott or fundamental economic and social change.

Too many white people have no empathy for or interest in what's it like to be black in Cincinnati. They couldn't care less.

Too many educated middle- and upper-class people think Cincinnati would be a better place if the poor and uneducated would just quit complaining.

Too many inner city residents are convinced that all corporations, politicians, schools, developers and cops are out to screw them, and so they opt out of mainstream Cincinnati (and often end up in the only system that'll take them, the criminal justice system).

There surely are no easy answers five years after Thomas' death. It's difficult even to come up with the right questions.

Some people measure progress on an adding machine, figuring that increased convention business and new downtown apartments count for something. Some measure it in smiles, embracing fun as the antidote to despair. Some say a riot can't and won't happen again.

For me, though, putting the events of April 2001 back on the cover of CityBeat is an important way to keep the conversation going. We ran a number of pre-2001 cover stories on the state of race relations in Cincinnati, but it was hard to know if the topic ever got any traction — it's difficult to talk about, much less do something about.

At least in the past five years Cincinnatians have faced — often against our own will — the real-life circumstances and consequences of a separate and unequal society. It was our Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of black citizens roamed through Over-the-Rhine looking for answers and the rest of us could no longer pretend we didn't see them.

For those of you who still don't see them, here's your anniversary wake up call.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com

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