A tweet from local conservative activists has set off a wave of criticism, including calls for an apology from a prominent civil rights group.
The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes tagged Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard in a tweet sent the evening of Nov. 28 that read, "you are still being hunted. Think about it, eventually you will make a public appearance where Sheriff can serve you with your Grand Jury subpoena. Do you really want to make a spectacle of this? #cooperate #turnyourselfin #surrender."
In case anyone had any doubts about the manner in which the word "hunt" was used, COAST followed up with this tweet: "Two deputies with guns at their side are scouring the city looking for her. What term would you prefer? We'll switch it up."
The barbed social media missives come as COAST members Mark Miller and Brian Shrive, his attorney, press a lawsuit against the city alleging five council members, including Dennard, violated Ohio open meetings laws by group-texting during the stormy ouster of then-City Manager Harry Black by Mayor John Cranley.
That lawsuit is working its way through the courts. As it has, the five councilmembers — Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young — have been subpoenaed by a grand jury that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters convened recently. As of today, all have been interviewed by that grand jury and turned in their phones. There is no indication Dennard was trying to evade law enforcement or was being "hunted," officials say.
The tweets have drawn a lot of attention, most of it negative.
"COAST needs to publicly apologize to Councilwoman Dennard, the African-American community and all of Cincinnati for using this repulsive and polarizing rhetoric loaded with racist code," the Cincinnati NAACP wrote in a statement Nov. 28. "To characterize Councilwoman Dennard as prey to be hunted is reprehensible and unacceptable!"
COAST responded by calling the local NAACP chapter's leader "a thug," a term that many believe has negative racial connotations.
"We didn’t see his statement, but you mean the crook Rob Richardson, Sr. who runs the Cincinnati branch?," COAST tweeted. "He’s a complete thug. He’s no leader. We’d love to see his statement too. Send it along."
It's unclear who wrote the tweets. COAST leadership says several different people tweet from the account and have declined to name anyone specifically.
The tweets also led to a barrage of criticism on Twitter. Some users pointed out that COAST's assertions that law enforcement was carrying out a city-wide search for Dennard were inaccurate: she has been promoting public appearances in relation to her council duties. Others had a similar take to the NAACP, calling the tweet threatening and racist.
"If you are hunting a human, you don't deserve a political platform in this town," one user wrote. "The optics of this aren't good. Poor form, COAST. Wish I could say this was surprising."
Dennard's fellow Democrat on council Chris Seelbach suggested legal action.
Cincinnati Police say they're looking into the incident.
"The Cincinnati Police Department is reviewing recent social media posts that have raised concerns," the department said in a statement today. "The Police Department will review this matter with the Law Department to determine any necessary action."
COAST, which called Seelbach a "douche" in a tweeted response, says its tweets weren't meant to imply anything racial, and that the controversy over the use of the term "hunting" is an overreaction and distraction from the lawsuit around council member's text messages.
This isn't the first time COAST has pushed such buttons. Miller drew big backlash in 2011 when he compared the fight over Cincinnati's streetcar to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He was at the center of more controversy that year when an intern at the Hamilton County GOP tagged him in an altered photo showing a group of black men, some with guns, on a streetcar that was labeled "Cincinnati trolley." Miller allowed the picture to remain on his Facebook page for several weeks, but says he didn't knowingly post or display it.
The dramatic and ongoing war around the five council member's text messages has a political dimension.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman ruled last month that the city must release all texts sent by any of the five council members to each other during Black's ouster. The Cincinnati City Solicitor's office appealed that ruling.
Some of the texts in question were released in the aftermath of Black's departure. They reveal the five Democrats discussed how they would approach Cranley's attempts to fire Black, as well as chats about FC Cincinnati’s West End stadium and other impending city business. The messages at times use somewhat disparaging language about the mayor.
However, not all of the texts were released, leading to the protracted court battle. Ruehlman last month rejected a request from former City Council candidate Derek Bauman to join the lawsuit in order to seek the release of texts from councilman Christopher Smitherman, who was involved in a text group with all nine council members and Black. Texts from Smitherman, three other council members and Cranley will not be released under Ruehlman’s order.
Smitherman has announced he will run for mayor in 2021 and Sittenfeld is said to be strongly considering a run as well. Cranley and COAST are both allies of Smitherman, while Bauman and his attorney are Sittenfeld supporters.
The release of the texts of the five progressive council members to Shrive would give him a potentially powerful political weapon to use in the coming mayoral election. Shrive has not yet said which, if any, of the texts he will make public if he gets them. The First District Court of Appeals is currently reviewing the texts to determine which, if any, are public records.