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April 5, 2002


In Cincinnati, The Blame And Solution Are Universal

By Tommy Ates

In terms of police brutality, an agreement alone is not going to change the way blacks view the police force, but it’s a start.

With the Cincinnati Black United Front, the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, the Cincinnati police, and the mayor’s office all making nice with the Citizens Complaint Authority agreement to ensure civilian complaints and proper police oversight, one wonders whether change will really occur for minorities, or if the real factors still lie in the changing demographics of the city (continuing white flight). For African-Americans, the question of how to build a city, from which opportunity and access exists for all (and not those people who happen to live at the suburban edge or beyond), still lingers.

As a young man from Cincinnati, hearing and seeing the riots in 2001, broke my heart; but they didn’t shock me. Rather, I was surprised that African-Americans were so riled up, because class divisions that affected whites and blacks in the inner city also affected middle and upper-income African-Americans against the black underclass. Increasingly, the Timothy Thomas shooting symbolically involved class as well as race. And in this area, the white establishment was not the only ones to blame. Not only did Cincinnati fail African-Americans in the inner city, but the black business establishment also lost sight of its collective goals.

Though I loathe admitting it: we turned against ourselves.

Lest there be any doubt, blacks in Cincinnati are not ‘united.’ (And as a young person, I can’t remember when.)

In response to the fanfare of the black civic and religious leaders entering the fray during the uprisings, only Rev. Damon Lynch III, President of the Cincinnati Black United Front, seem to have any real connection with poorer blacks (many of the protestors), as his church resides in the same area. When asked by the city and the media for a spokesman, they requested him, a civic activist, not a business leader.

Rev. Lynch identifies with the extreme poverty and suffering of the neighborhoods involved, while sadly, so many of our conservative leaders cannot.

Since the riots, the Cincinnati business boycott (called for by the Cincinnati Black United Front) has addressed many key issues about what was going on in Cincinnati, amidst a city administration that was seemingly impervious to receiving civilian input and charges of racism from its own force (black officers).

First of all, city council had little power over the police department (that power rested with the city manager). And second, (which should be very familiar) the police department internal affairs unit was inadequately structured for civilian input. Making a complaint was a joke. Civilian abuse complaints about were left largely at the door at which the claimant left the station.

All of this separation and disassociation between the police and it black citizens came to a head as a year ago this April, the 15th black male to be shot in 5 years, Timothy Thomas, (and the subsequent riots) exemplified the differences by which blacks and whites perceive race and class and why an open dialogue is necessary. Issues that this conservative city had not previously addressed.


While African-Americans have made progress with jobs and educational opportunities as a whole (moving into suburban Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky), the dismantlement of the social system in which blacks were discriminated against, in city services and white flight, remained a job undone. Poor African-Americans were left with little or no opportunities with living-wage positions moving to the far-flung suburbs and having an antiquated transportation system by the metropolitan transit authority. Not unexpectedly, the black underclass (among the poorest of the poor) became stuck.

And that’s not all, while about 10 percent of whites left Cincinnati in the nineties; blacks with equivalent taxable income were not far behind. Growing up in the "blurbs" (the black suburbs of Cincinnati [Forest Park, Woodlawn, Lincoln Heights, etc.]), I remembered thinking how great it was to live in a place where it was ‘safe’ and where the city ‘worked’ (in a suburb). It wasn’t until I moved to Austin, Texas that I learned to appreciate the ‘connectedness’ (and potential) of the inner city.

Living in a modern society via ‘the great communicator’ (television), we as blacks are not immune to proposed promises that the suburb can offer, but we cannot each fend for ourselves and still improve the condition of the black community as a whole.

Eventually, we have to make a choice.

With the Citizens Complaint Authority agreement, the mayor, civic activists and the police are perhaps enjoying a moment of peace and hope. But social and economic blight doesn’t change with words or policies, neighborhood planning and civic investment does.

But I’ll be the first to admit (as a suburban child); I don’t know what’s it like not to have options. Via my education, I have always been aware of how to improve my situation, to be resourceful, regardless of circumstance. Believing Jesse Jackson, I have "kept hope alive." Many of these people near Cincinnati’s ‘black bottom’ lost that ghost a long time ago. Yet, hope (for many) is more than just a feeling, or the power of any one person. It is the spirit of our soul, like the sunshine of an early morning. Hope sustains life.

At the same time, we shouldn’t have any illusions: fixing Cincinnati will take a monumental effort in shrewd public policy, urban planning, and business investment.

Still, the question remains, do we (as an entire community) have the patience to stay in failing neighborhoods, or ‘come back home’ to the city and revitalize them?

We can make that choice.




Tommy Ates loves the left because the left is always right! Tommy Ates is a featured columnist of Left Is Right ( appearing in several publications, such as The Houston Chronicle, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Wichita Eagle, The Macon Telegraph, and Global Black News, among others.