Cincinnati clings to an uneasy calm

The acquittal of an officer who shot an unarmed black teen prompts renewed outrage - but less violence.

In a sign of the conflicted emotions wracking this aging river city, Valerie Torberg and six of her girlfriends walked the streets late Wednesday night - praying, singing, and preaching nonviolence.

At the same time, two blocks away, protesters set fires and stoned cars.

Both reactions were in response to the acquittal that day of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black teen. Yet they also reveal the conflicting undercurrents that remain in this city five months after the shooting sparked three days of full-scale riots. Since then, local political and religious leaders and philanthropic groups have tried to heal that gap.

As far as many local African-Americans are concerned, Cincinnati is still a city tainted by racial inequity and injustice, just as it was in April. But this time - as the scattered nature of the violence shows - many of them are determined to take their outrage to the voting booth, not the street.

"Malcolm X talked about bullets or the ballot box," says Reggie Boyd, a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Democracy here and a fifth-generation Cincinnatian. "People are extremely upset about the verdict, but I think they decided awhile ago to choose the ballot box."

At 2 a.m. on April 7, Timothy Thomas, who was wanted on 14 charges, most of them traffic related, fled a dozen police officers and ignored repeated orders to stop. Chased into a dark alley by Officer Stephen Roach, Thomas reportedly reached for his waistband. Believing him to be armed, Officer Roach fired a single shot, killing the youth.

"It's a slap in the face; it's unjust," says Ms. Torberg, as the smell of smoke wafts across Over-the-Rhine, an economically depressed, largely black neighborhood. "Forget the ethnic part of this. He took the life of another human being and he's not being held accountable for it."

Mr. Thomas was the sixth African-American killed by a white policeman in Cincinnati in just over a year, and the 15th since 1995. In 13 of the cases, the victims were armed. The April shooting sparked the worst rioting the city had seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Dozens of people were injured, more than 800 were arrested, and damage totals reached into the millions of dollars.

It also left a stain on the reputation of a city once considered one of the most livable in the nation. Cincinnati mostly had avoided the perception of decay that marked other northern Midwest cities - such as Baltimore and Detroit - which have watched tens of thousands of people move away.

Its reputation for friendly Midwestern charm took a heavy blow in April, when images of burning, looting, and heavily armed police in riot gear filled the nation's airwaves and newspapers. There was fear that a not-guilty verdict this week would shatter the precarious peace that has prevailed since then and further rend the city's tattered social fabric.

Instead, although the city remained under an emergency order yesterday, the anger appears to have dissipated somewhat. Some say that many African-Americans had little emotional investment in the trial, since the charge of negligent homicide against Roach, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of nine months in prison, was considered "a joke."

Perhaps more important in dissipating the anger, there have been no further police shootings of African-Americans since April.

Others say the muted response is partly a reflection of people's unwillingness to commit more violent acts in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. But there are also voices in the black community that contend the hostility is still there, it has simply metamorphosed into political action.

Indeed, Courtis Fuller, an African-American and political novice, won a primary election for mayor earlier this month - besting two-term Mayor Charles Luken in what some have termed a huge upset. Held on Sept. 11, it garnered little national attention, but is widely attributed to a large turnout of black voters within the context of a low overall showing at the polls. The two men will face off in November's general election.

Moreover, a proposed amendment to the city charter that would fundamentally alter an anachronistic system of city government - originally conceived in the 19th century to forestall corruption - is on the ballot in November.

A key issue for the black community has been the lack of accountability when it comes to police leadership.

The city charter precludes the mayor from replacing the police chief, thus limiting political redress in the eyes of African-Americans. The ballot amendment would give the city council authority to hire and fire senior police and fire department officials. All nine members of the council have endorsed the ballot proposition, and it is widely expected to pass.

The Queen City has also witnessed an aggressive philanthropic push that has touched on deeper concerns about police-community relations, educational opportunities, and rescuing blighted neighborhoods.

"We are really seeing something new in Cincinnati with the philanthropic foundations coming together and putting real resources on the table," says Joseph Tomain, dean of the College of Law at the University of Cincinnati.

"The number of people who have stepped forward to say, 'I want to be a part of resolving the city's problems and contributing to its healing' has been as broad as anything I've ever seen."

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of the New Prospect Baptist Church in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, takes hope in the progress of a newly established racial-profiling collaborative. However, he is less sanguine that redevelopment projects proposed by an economic-inclusion committee will ever hit the neighborhoods where they are most needed.

"The major dollars have flowed into stadiums, convention centers, bailing out large department stores," he says on the sidewalk outside his church moments before a well-attended 11 p.m. prayer service scheduled to temper raw emotions. A short distance away, multiple police sirens wail. "Meanwhile, these three buildings" - he points to a row of boarded-up brick buildings across the street from his church - "have been vacant since I got here - which is 12 years."

While calling Wednesday's verdict a "travesty," Mr. Lynch says he refuses to let it alter his message of hope and optimism. "I was extremely hurt and angry earlier today. But being out here tonight, singing and praying, has refocused me, and prayerfully, it will refocus us all."

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