CINCINNATI — It's a blustery night in a city still staggering from police shootings and riots. In a gritty Cincinnati neighborhood, 300 people have filled the fluorescent-lit recreation hall of a Baptist church. They're here to listen to local voices of anger and hope.
A gang member raps an indignant rhyme. Another speaker intones how "the most dangerous thing in the world is an educated black man. Stay in school!"
Derrick Blassingame rips the older generation. "Our black leaders are not leading us," he says.
Most of the speakers stepping up to the mike, in fact, are teens - some as young as 13. Many are not old enough to attend an R-rated movie, yet they're agitating to change the racial zeitgeist of a city and a nation.
These are the voices of the new generation of activists. Like young people across the ages, they're itching for reform. Yet this group - here and in other cities - has an extra edge, a kind of intifada attitude born of living in prosperous times in often unprosperous neighborhoods.
They're too young to remember the civil rights gains of the 1960s. They see friends and relatives rising into the middle class - and leaving them behind.
As black teens in drug-ridden areas, they're the ones most likely to be harassed by police. Yet the adults around them, who were raised on Martin Luther King's nonviolence, counsel patience and negotiation.
Culture of discontent
It all makes for a culture of discontent that bubbles up in hard-edged rap lyrics, in ghetto-hip style, and, among Cincinnati youths anyway, rioting in the streets.
In terms of major advances in civil rights, "in their lifetime, nothing has changed," says John Dovidio, a psychology professor who studies race relations at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y.
For one thing, the gains of the '60s were concrete. There was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the dismantling of legalized segregation throughout the decade.
But the battle against racism has shifted away from courts and legislatures and more toward individual attitudes, a more subtle and stubborn terrain.
Indeed, it was Cincinnati youths' increasing despair over what they see as mistreatment by many police officers that led them to riot for three days after Timothy Thomas, a black unarmed teenager, was killed by a police officer April 7.
After imposing, and then ending, a citywide curfew, Mayor Charles Luken announced the creation of a commission to implement changes in the city's police department and economic structure.
Corporate leaders have pledged help to the black community, including building a new high-tech school. A grand jury will hear evidence in the shooting case and decide whether to charge the officer.
Many blacks say that even though the rioting has stopped, tensions are still boiling - and violence could return if the officer is not indicted by the grand jury and then convicted.
When frustration grows, the younger generation tends to react in two different ways, says Dr. Dovidio.
They drop out "and develop a separate culture - a culture in which blacks can succeed," he says. Whether it's rap or gangs or martial arts, which is seeing a renaissance in some inner cities, they create their own society.
Alternatively, they push to take charge of the existing civil rights leadership.
Back at the church meeting, some teens are downright combative toward the older generation.
"Our older people could have prevented all this," says Derrick, who organized the youth forum and is president of the newly formed Black Youth Coalition Against Civil Injustice.
Some in the audience holler in agreement. Some adults sit quietly, frowning.
As the forum ends, debate in the still-full hall continues informally over the youths' new role and how the adults fit in.
"If [older people] had just gotten a little angry, a little rebellious," says Yvonne Collins, a young mother with a bright smile. "Everybody is so comfortable, so debonair."
Youths want to take helm
As these young people see it, they've become the agitating force in the battle for respect and fair treatment.
"In the '60s, the adults were the backbone," says Kym Moon, head of the NAACP's Youth Council in Cincinnati. "But today young people are the backbone."
For some, the fact that youths took to the streets - and brought Cincinnati worldwide attention - means they're now the ones in charge.
Curtis Fox, a tall, jovial 20-something with corn rows, says, "Some leaders will only go so far in battle and then turn around and go home. So now we're the soldier-leaders."
Maturity or inaction?
As for the adults, some see all this talk as naive. Others see it as the consequence of their own inaction.
Dwight Patton is defiant. Speaking of Derrick, he says, "It's not his place to stand up and tell someone three times his age he's not doing enough." Mr. Patton is a member of the Cincinnati Black United Front, which has brought lawsuits and held protests. "We're plenty active," he says.
Carla Webb, a local activist who runs an after-school sports league, is less confident. "My generation has failed the younger generation," she says.
Referring to the 15 young blacks who've been killed by police in the past six years, Ms. Webb adds, "Each time we tell them, 'OK, this will stop.' But after the funeral, nothing happens."
Yet for all the bluster, many teens acknowledge that adults will play a crucial role in creating change.
Even Derrick allows, "We need their perspective, their education, and we need them to negotiate."
Bold to the end, though, he adds, "But it's our turn to stand up."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor