Battered Cincinnati looks for lessons

For Kimberly Thompson, the recent riots, the police shootings, and the decades of racial tension in her usually quiet Midwestern city all come down to one thing: "That could have been my son."

As this mother of four talks about African-American teenager Timothy Thomas, who was killed April 7 by a white policeman, it's clear that she and many of her neighbors see the riots that erupted after the shooting as a desperate but understandable reaction to a system that they consider utterly unfair. But many say the violence has also served a purpose, highlighting enduring grievances.

Now, as Cincinnati settles into an uneasy calm, enforced by nightly curfews, the question is whether this city that both literally and figuratively straddles the American divide between North and South can pull together and bridge its racial differences.

To a certain extent, Cincinnati is like so many other cities in the recent past - Los Angeles, Oakland, Baltimore, and others - that have seen a controversial police shooting, usually of a minority, break out in urban violence.

But Cincinnati is also unusual, and consequently its handling of the latest incident may hold lessons for other cities trying to deal with enduring tensions between blacks and whites.

The specifics of this case remain the subject of starkly different interpretations by the city's different factions.

What is known is that the 19-year-old Thomas didn't have a gun on that fateful night he was shot - though he did have a record of 14 misdemeanors. When Officer Steven Roach tried to arrest him, Thomas ran away. The chase continued down an alley, where Thomas was killed. Officer Roach says he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun.

Thomas was the 15th black man killed here by police in the past six years. Police are quick point out that 13 of the 15 victims were armed - and some shot police first. Both local authorities and the FBI are investigating the latest incident. After the shooting, two days of riots caused about $1 million in damage.

Behind all the specific complaints about police misconduct lie fundamental changes that have contributed at times to tensions in the city.

City problems

In some respects, Cincinnati has been in a state of slow decline since 1950. Once filled with 503,000 residents, the city now has only 331,000. For the most part, those who left have been middle class and white - and they have gone to the suburbs.

In 1970, Cincinnati was 28 percent African-American. Today, it's 43 percent black. With few other ethnic groups, the city is basically bipolar.

"Here, diversity comes in two colors and one language," says Daniel Hurley, a Cincinnati historian. "All issues become racial...."

On the surface, Cincinnati appears to be the model of a civil and civic-minded American city. It is bursting with Fortune 500 companies and cultural anchors: Procter & Gamble, Kroger Foods, and the city's symphony, ballet, and opera companies.

Yet it's also home to considerable poverty. Of the nation's 75 biggest cities, it is the 12th highest for people living below poverty, according to Census figures. It's also one of the top 10 most-segregated cities in the US.

Here, rich and poor often coexist side by side. A bevy of upscale stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co., stands less than half a mile from the poor neighborhoods where last week's violence broke out.

With the rioting over for now, neighborhood activists and others are watching to see what happens with the investigation into the shooting and what changes might come about as result.

"All the kids want is some real resolution," says Patricia Muhammad, a mother of nine dressed in a black pinstriped pantsuit.

On Saturday, she led a march of 20-somethings through Over the Rhine, the tattered neighborhood where most of the riots took place. Of her motivation for marching, she says with finality: "Most of my kids are girls, and they're going to need husbands."

At one point, the crowd walks toward a line of police clad in riot gear and armed with bean-bag shooting guns. As one group of teens edges toward the police, Ms. Muhammad yells, "This is a peaceful march. Y'all go and be gangsters if you want to, but this is a peaceful march."

The boys back down, and the crowd changes directions. It was a marked difference from the atmosphere of recent days. "The adults have arrived," says Robert Pace, head of the local Black Youth Movement.

Indeed, there's been no shortage of national leaders arriving in Cincinnati the past week. The Rev. Al Sharpton arrived yesterday. Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, led marches this weekend. Members of The New Black Panther Party, wearing black berets, carried the coffin at Thomas's funeral on Saturday.

A time for change?

Locals are skeptical that these recent arrivals will be able to get much done - or that they'll stay very long.

Already, some hints of changes exist. Justice Department civil rights attorneys are now investigating the practices of the police department. And momentum is building behind a plan to change the hiring procedure of the city's police chief. Currently, the chief can be chosen only from the rank and file, which makes reform less likely. A reforming chief hired from the outside, residents argue, would better be able to push through changes.

Says Randy Brown, a sinewy man in a Polo cap standing on a downtown street corner, "Sometimes it takes a revolution for peace to happen - for people to see what's really going on."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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