The frustrated view from Race Street

Cincinnati remains calm but on edge after indictment of white officer, as racial tensions persist.

Race Street runs several blocks from Cincinnati's gleaming downtown to a poor minority neighborhood, like countless others that can be found in big American cities.

Groups of black men loiter in front of dilapidated four-story buildings, and on this particular night, they're angry. A white police officer, who last month killed an unarmed black teen near here, has just been indicted - not for a felony, but for two misdemeanors. "It's wrong," says Gregory Edwards, dodging raindrops outside a store. "What's a misdemeanor compared to a man's life?"

For any black with such charges against him, "that would be life," says Cortland Webb, taking shelter in a doorway nearby. He believes, as many do here, that police literally get away with murder.

Such is the state of race relations on Race Street, indeed along racial divides across urban America.

Poor residents don't trust the police. Police, often confronted with armed young men, fear for their lives. Throw into that mix the city's racial kindling - a police force that is 70 percent white and a city rapidly becoming majority black - and the situation becomes volatile.

But the pleas from African-Americans here extend beyond mere legal justice. Despite more than a decade of unprecedented growth and prosperity in America, poor blacks have been left behind economically, they say.

So far, the city has not seen a repeat of the rioting that occurred in the wake of the latest shooting. Nevertheless, unless something is done to tackle underlying economic problems, black leaders say, the situation will remain volatile.

"People are talking about racism as a question of attitude," says Reggie Boyd, a community developer and senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Democracy, a local think tank. "It's not. It's economics."

A single shot

It was almost exactly a month ago when police officer Steve Roach chased Timothy Thomas into a darkened alley at 2:14 a.m. and fired a single fatal shot.

According to county prosecutor Mike Allen, the 19-year-old Mr. Thomas had ignored several police orders to stop. He had his hands near his waist - the officer said he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun.

Thomas was wanted on 12 traffic misdemeanors (mainly for driving without a license) and two warrants for running away from officers.

The urge to run is instinctive for many, note experts on race relations. When University of Cincinnati professor Art Knighton interviewed a group of black children in 1993, 90 percent said they wanted to flee the first time they saw a police officer.

On Monday, a local grand jury indicted Officer Roach on negligent homicide - a misdemeanor with a maximum six months of prison - and obstruction of official business, because he gave conflicting testimony - a maximum three-month offense.

The incident represents the 15th time since 1995 that a black man has died at the hands of Cincinnati police. And the frequency of such episodes is intensifying. Six have occurred since March of last year. Only one other incident has generated official charges against Cincinnati officers.

"We respect the grand jury process," says Keith Fangman, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police. But the black community's calls for a felony indictment represent "nothing short of extortion and domestic terrorism," he says.

"We are tight as a unit," says another police officer, without giving his name. "But you don't feel you have the support of the city."

On Monday, the US Justice Department announced it was launching its own investigation into the incidents.

Despite widespread fears, Cincinnati residents remained calm after the grand jury's verdict was made public.

"The decibel level has gone down quite a bit," says Mr. Allen, the prosecutor.

Here on Race Street, some 200 demonstrators led by a prominent local minister made their way to the police station. They chanted: "No racist police. No justice, no peace." One man in a white T-shirt carried a cardboard sign: "Been patient long enough."

The march proved to be peaceful. After circling the police station six times quietly, the crowd roared after its seventh time around, just as in the biblical story of the taking of Jericho. The walls didn't fall. But protesters hope their message will be heard.

"Look around," urged one protester carrying a large golf umbrella during the march. "Look at the housing conditions. Look at unemployment.... We have some responsibility. But the system is inherently racist."

The face of poverty

Race Street reflects the economic plight of the city's poor blacks. Many buildings lie vacant. Few stores, except for Jenkin's Pool Room, remain open. A grocery store a few doors down was burned out.

In Cincinnati, a majority of blacks live in poverty. Infant-mortality rates are at four times the national average. The city is losing its tax base because whites are moving out (the city lost one-fifth of its white population during the '90s).

When a task force applied to make eight minority neighborhoods a federal empowerment zone, community leaders figured they needed $6 billion of investment to restore the area.

Cincinnati's African-Americans have already grabbed world attention. Last month, China rebuffed a US attempt to have the United Nations Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution on China's human-rights record. China pointed to last month's riots in Cincinnati as proof of "rampant racial discrimination" in the US. Last week, the US was voted off the commission for the first time since its founding.

"We've got to get our point across," says Creighton Cherry, a college student who braved the rain to join the protest. "We've got to make a change."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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