What If They Had a Festival and Nobody Came?

Will the Black United Front blow it, as many hope it does? Or is Rev. Damon Lynch III smart enough to avoid a trap? Perhaps it's fitting that in a city whose name comes from Cincinnatus, military

May 17, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Will the Black United Front blow it, as many hope it does? Or is Rev. Damon Lynch III smart enough to avoid a trap?

Perhaps it's fitting that in a city whose name comes from Cincinnatus, military dictator of Rome, a debate over police violence last week devolved into breast-beating over festivals. It was in Rome, after all, that patricians offered free bread and circuses as a way to pacify the unruly streets.

Lynch angered city officials last week by leading a march on City Hall, and the ruckus led to cancellation of Pepsi Jammin' on Main. This in turn fueled speculation that the Black United Front would try to shut down Taste of Cincinnati, the annual gorge-fest that draws half a million people downtown.

If Lynch is smart, he'll let Taste of Cincinnati go unchallenged. Here's why: Lynch can't win that battle. A few hundred demonstrators — the most the Black United Front can put on the street — cannot effectively stop an event this large.

If Lynch tries and fails, he plays right into the hands of Mayor Charlie Luken, who last week cast himself in the role of defender of fun.

If Lynch were somehow to succeed at ruining Taste of Cincinnati, the prize will be the distinction of spoiling a good time.

Instead of letting Luken and other city leaders control the terms of the debate, the Black United Front would do well to take its protests to more meaningful venues. People sampling delicacies aren't in the mood for political discourse anyway.

The dismay that greeted Lynch's sit-in and march to City Hall last week (see "The Culture of Protest" on page 15) had the feel of wounded surprise, as though Lynch were reviving an issue that should have been laid to rest when the riots ended. In that sense, Lynch served a valuable public service — for African Americans, the issue of police violence is only now beginning to get attention. This isn't the time to be silent.

But a savvy leader picks his targets carefully. Instead of rallying against a festival, the Black United Front can more effectively highlight the federal grand jury meeting this week to investigate police assaults on peaceful protesters in Over-the-Rhine. Joshua Robinson of Louisville, an eyewitness, was to testify May 16.

Pickets at the federal courthouse would be more productive as a way to keep pressure on the city than any perceived threat to disrupt Taste of Cincinnati.

Indeed, Robinson's visit offers Lynch a double opportunity. Apparently unnoticed by the mainstream press, Robinson last week snubbed a Hamilton County grand jury subpoena of computer records from the Ohio Valley Independent Media Center, which has received cryptic e-mails threatening the life of Officer Stephen Roach. It was Roach's fatal shooting of an unarmed Timothy Thomas that touched off the protests and riots.

If Lynch wants to expand his support among white citizens — and he must, if he wants his movement to be effective — he could take the high road. Let Luken defend the festivals. Lynch should speak out against revenge, even as he denounces violence by the police.

Coalition for a Humane Economy has apparently learned the need for prudence. After intemperate language that initially condemned police "murders" of African Americans, the group now calls for an end to police "killings." The difference is important; needlessly strident language can alienate people of good will, minimizing support for the change that's so clearly needed in the Cincinnati Police Division.

Race is notoriously difficult for Americans to discuss. But dialogue is the only alternative to the rage that followed Thomas' death.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Michael Allen last week gave surprising detail on the evidence that led to Roach's indictment for negligent homicide and obstructing official business. Anticipating criticism of the indictments — for charges that are only misdemeanors — Allen told the public how many witnesses testified and what kind of evidence they considered.

Allen didn't have to be so open. Similarly, the Black United Front is under no obligation to stay away from a memorial march Friday in honor of officers slain in the line of duty. But staying away, out of respect for the dead, is what the Black United Front has chosen to do.

Cincinnati needs vigorous protest right now, even as it needs straightforward communication from public officials. But the way we protest injustice is as important as the message itself. Can Lynch find the right venue?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.