We Can Do Better: Boycott Issues Can Be Solved

A little more than two years ago, Cincinnati was rocked by rioting and curfews following the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. After order was restored, everyone -- white, black, politician, citiz

A little more than two years ago, Cincinnati was rocked by rioting and curfews following the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. After order was restored, everyone — white, black, politician, citizen, business leader, police officer, city dweller, suburbanite — understood that our community was deeply conflicted.

Mayor Charlie Luken challenged all of us to come together to forge "fundamental change."

Citizens took to the streets to clamor for change. Business executives volunteered to head up committees to study the issues. The media organized town hall meetings. All seemed to have good intentions.

But you know the saying about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Two years later, Cincinnati slides slowly into Hell, stalled temporarily perhaps in Purgatory.

Purgatory is the pro-boycott and anti-boycott sides hardening their positions, refusing to acknowledge progress from the other side.

It's the boycott groups squandering post-riot unity through internal bickering. It's the city refusing to address the police department's treatment of African-American citizens.

Mainly, Purgatory is a disengaged and resigned general population that's given up hope for fundamental change and is willing to settle for things not getting any worse.

As this week's cover story points out, there's plenty of blame to go around. A few key missteps, however, have contributed greatly to the current stalemate; each can still be resolved.

· City leaders have demonized the boycotters. A rich (white) football team owner can threaten to move his/our franchise to another city if his demands aren't met, and city and county officials negotiate with him. An upscale (white) department store can threaten to leave downtown if its demands aren't met, and city officials negotiate with its owners.

But ordinary (black) citizens threaten to boycott downtown events if their demands aren't met, and city officials say, "We don't negotiate with economic terrorists." The hypocrisy is galling and, as many black activists say, indicative of how Cincinnati treats its own people, particularly African Americans.

Negotiation has become the new "N word" here — a word that certain city leaders won't say in public. Even though many of the boycott groups' economic justice demands are right in line with what City Council Democrats usually embrace, those Democrats can't bring themselves to "negotiate" because of the hellacious backlash they'd receive from downtown business interests.

City council and boycott leaders need to sit down and talk, and there seems to be movement behind the scenes to make this happen. Don't call it "negotiation" if you don't want to.

· Boycotters have lost the moral high ground. Many claim the Bush Administration's biggest blunder in its rush to war in Iraq was squandering national unity and international goodwill after 9/11. Similarly, the boycott has aliented many of its original allies and let much of its widespread support slip away.

There's no mistake that the boycott leaders are on the right side of the major issues — Cincinnati can no longer condone economic, legal and social injustice. April 2001 was a wake-up call for white and black Cincinnatians alike that this city has deep-seated problems, and for a brief shining moment "status quo" became dirty words around here.

But after all the infighting, group splintering, publicity stunts, insulting signs, shifting boycott zones and selective cancellations, the boycotters have turned off too many people. A majority of whites and a good many blacks have become the France and Germany of this local war: "It's your fight, we're not interested."

The Rev. Damon Lynch III and others need to recast the boycott in moral terms, as only clergy can. This isn't about paying someone off, they must say, it's about right and wrong.

· We must decide who is running the police department. As three high-profile wrongful death lawsuits (Michael Carpenter, Roger Owensby Jr. and Thomas) work their way through the courts, it's possible the budget-strapped city will pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in judgments. And it's likely the new police guidelines forced on the city by the U.S. Department of Justice and the "collaborative agreement" will cost millions more.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Police staged a well-documented work slowdown in protest, and in its current contract negotiations the Fraternal Order of Police has tried to undo a public referendum that reforms police leadership.

Say what you will about economic justice demands — the police department's relationship with African-American citizens has been and remains the No. 1 issue. City leaders, of course, won't touch it with a 10-foot pole. No politician wants to find himself on the outs with the FOP, which wields huge influence with certain city voters. So real reform awaits.

We don't need another two years of stalemate. We can do better. We have no other choice.

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