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Cincinnati Burning

Cincinnati responded to a spate of police shootings with riots, and that disquiet makes Pittsburgh's reaction to similar circumstances seem all the quieter

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You'd think the riots hit last week.

Take a walk up Vine Street in the Over the Rhine section of Cincinnati, where utter bedlam occurred two years ago, and you still have to watch for broken glass. Storefronts still have gaping cavities where windows used to be. Soot borders doorways like eyeliner.

In riots after 19-year-old unarmed Timothy Thomas, a black man, was fatally shot by police, Over the Rhine -- Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood -- was beaten and torched.

"You want that shit?" asks a young black male from his lawn chair in front of an abandoned apartment building. He's one of three to ask the same question in an hour. All along Vine Street are clones of the same street sales rep: white T-shirt, gold teeth, baggy blue jeans parachuting from the thighs, all-white or black unlaced and unstrapped Nike Air Force Ones. If you don't wear the uniform it's assumed you're not from the area, and you want that shit.

Nine out of 10 buildings are boarded up, albeit poorly. Someone took the time to muralize the wooden planks, painting kids of different races playing blissfully in trees. Someone else took the time to white-out the kids' faces.

There is a free and open market system today on Vine Street: Drug dealers are free to sell to fiends and the fiends are free to smoke and shoot up out in the open. In a four-hour period a single police car is seen patrolling. There are no cops on bikes or on foot.

"They don't come in here; they know," says one white T-shirter wishing to be identified as "Cash."

Open businesses can be counted on one hand. There's a grocery store about the size of an automotive garage and a retail store that takes up a half a block yet only offers one short, crowded aisle of clothing -- the other 90 percent of the store is closed off.

An art-supply store owned by an Italian family in the predominantly black neighborhood has been open since 1924. Up the street is a Franciscan church and bookstore. The bookstore has been open since 1950, the church for centuries. Another couple of blocks up is Tucker's diner, also white-owned, open since 1946.

None of these establishments was touched by the riots.

Despite gentrification a block over on Main Street that has brought new bars, cafes and affluent tourists, Over the Rhine has not recovered from the riots of 2001.

Timothy Thomas was the 15th black person to die in a confrontation with Cincinnati police since 1995. In protest, blacks set the neighborhood aflame but followed with a tourism boycott so serious some won't allow out-of-town family members to visit. It's caused entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg to cancel shows and forced major conventions -- such as the national Urban League's 2003 meeting, which landed in Pittsburgh -- to pull out.

 

Less than 300 miles away, however, Pittsburghers experienced police shootings but, for better or worse, responded differently. According to reports from Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht's office, from 1995 through 2001, 16 people died either from a police shooting or other physical confrontation with police, and 13 of those were black. Police in Cincinnati have killed two blacks since 2001; there have been three in Pittsburgh in the same time period.

There have been no riots or boycotts here. People have expressed their discontent, rather, through marches and rallies. Organizations such as the NAACP and the East End's Community Empowerment Association have made cop killings their business. Last year Hill District resident Renee Wilson got financial help from the nonprofit Rosenberg Institute for Peace and Justice to form People Against Police Violence.

In 1995, Jonny Gammage was asphyxiated during a brief tussle with Brentwood and other borough cops, which outraged locals, both black and white. That was also the year the U. S. Justice Department implemented a consent decree that granted them oversight of Pittsburgh Police, based in part on lawsuits and complaints of excessive force. City voters also passed a referendum to institute a citizen's police review board, although its recommended punishments against police have gone largely ignored by city officials.

Many would agree that setting fire to your own neighborhood is uselessly destructive. But neither are some black Pittsburghers satisfied that they've gone far enough in responding to neighborhood deaths.

When Jonny Gammage died, it made national headlines. Gammage was the cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ray Seals, and the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles cops, caught on much-aired videotape, had taken place just a few years earlier.

Most of the 17 area blacks to die from police entanglement after Gammage -- except perhaps for 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe of Uniontown, who was shot in the back while fleeing police -- weren't so well publicized.

While none of these killings went unchallenged by black activist organizations, most were ruled justifiable after Wecht's inquests. Two were ruled suicides. Seventeen-year-old high-schooler Dion Hall was found dead in the back of a van after fleeing Pittsburgh Police. Police had shot Hall, Wecht found, but ruled that the life-ending bullet (never recovered) came from Hall's own gun.

Wecht also ruled the death of 24-year-old Damian Jordan a suicide; he was found hanging in a holding cell after an altercation with Mount Oliver Police.

Renee Wilson, whose son Lee is dating the mother of Jordan's child, formed People Against Police Violence last December after three blacks were killed by police within a five-week period: 26-year-old Bernard Rogers, shot by Pittsburgh police while running down stairs, according to witnesses; 43-year-old Charles Dixon, who asphyxiated under a pile of Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver police trying to subdue him after a party; and Ellerbe.

Wilson says she's not buying the coroner's ruling in Hall's case. She believes there are many more blacks who died in police encounters that never got media attention -- even going so far as to say she believes the police were responsible for some of the record-high 18 murders that occurred in Allegheny County in August.

These are weighty accusations, given that Wilson just left county jail after police arrested her, her son, her daughter, her son's girlfriend and her ex-husband on charges of bank fraud (see News Briefs: "Charges: Not Enough, Too Many," Sept. 10). She says she and her family have suffered for trying to make certain that cops implicated in killings are brought up on charges.

 

"For that, sometimes you have to put personal safety aside and do what's best," she says. "We are at war and nobody seems to realize that."

"I categorize myself as one who is marched out and protested out," says Billy Jackson.

Jackson most recently directed a film for the local American Civil Liberties Union and Pittsburgh Police aimed at teaching people what to do -- and what not to do -- when stopped by a law enforcement officer (See News: "Blue Lights Special," Aug. 28). But he is also producing and directing his own documentary on the Jonny Gammage trial.

It's his way of confronting the system -- "raising levels of consciousness" he says -- for he hung up his marching shoes long ago. Freedom Corner, once the starting point for marches, is today more of an artifact, enshrining a protest practice that was effective in the '60s but is running out of steam in the 21st century.

"An uprising would be justified if it met a viable end," says Jackson. "If it just meant we destroy our own property then our credibility and validity of our just cause would be destroyed also. But if it were strategically planned and it achieved certain objectives, I mean yeah, sometimes you gotta raise hell."

"I hope we don't have a riot," says Wilson. "But the frustration will bring that type of sentiment whether it's an individual acting out or a community that's had enough."

Rashaad Byrdsong, president of the Community Empowerment Association social services agency in Point Breeze, has dealt with a few riots, whether it was those of 1968 after Martin Luther King's assassination or the battles that erupted in the 1990s during Pittsburgh's inner-city gang wars. He was influential in bringing about the Blood and Crip gangs' truce.

"We don't want to spontaneously or reactionarily respond to these conditions in our community like that because it would just justify the lack of investment in our community that already exists," says Byrdsong. "We learned from the '60s after the riots and we still see the lack of investment in black communities, and our communities being red-lined, and the lack of economic development. We just need to organize amongst ourselves."

The Over the Rhine riots did nothing for Cincinnati except leave an already deteriorating neighborhood in crumbs. Maybe the riots made the city take the boycott seriously. But cops barely enter the neighborhood now, which has led to a 40 percent upswing in crime, according to a report on Cincinnati aired on PBS's Newshour.

The riots did, however, force city police to fill out "contact cards," recording the race, gender and age of drivers and pedestrians stopped in the streets. That information, meant to chart racial profiling, has been "gathering dust instead of clearing the air" reports the Cincinnati Enquirer.

 

The boycotts, meanwhile, have been effective.

James Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, estimates that the boycott has cost the city over $50 million. It's been enough to get Mayor Charles Luken to pledge millions of dollars to restore black neighborhoods such as Over the Rhine and to implement programs that may repair relationships between cops and blacks. The city also began workforce development and low-income neighborhood educational programs.

"There have been no black businesses hurt at all because there has been an ongoing effort to support them even more," says Clingman. "There were specific instructions when the boycott was called for people who live in Cincinnati to only do business with black-owned stores, and to not go downtown unless you were going to a black-owned business."

While three organizations behind the boycott have been feuding to the point of needing restraining orders, two of the largest black activist groups were until recently mum on the entire ordeal. The Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP just last month announced their endorsement of the boycott after 25 months of silence. The Cincinnati Urban League was poised to break the boycott to allow their national convention to be held there this year. But one day after announcing they were holding their convention in spite of the boycott they pulled out, blaming it on the suspension of Cincinnati's assistant police chief Ron Twitty -- the second highest-ranking police officer in the city.

"The Urban League were made to look real silly," says Clingman. "Instead of them saying we are not coming because of thousands of people treated unfairly, they say they're not coming because of this one brother being treated unfairly."

Could a boycott work in Pittsburgh?

"We've been trying that since Gammage," says Wilson. "We need one because sometimes money is the only thing [city officials] understand. But Pittsburgh has to revamp its black leadership first. You don't see any black leaders taking a stand on this and that's why we're stagnant right now."

Unhappy that the Urban League's July convention did not acknowledge Pittsburgh's police issues, Wilson led her own boycott -- against the convention. Urban League national president Marc Morial eventually made a statement about the killings.

According to Byrdsong, black Pittsburgh is already in boycott. Black Americans "spend over $600 billion in this country, in some ways outweighing the gross national product of a lot of third-world countries," he says, "but we don't spend a dime in our own communities. We'll go to the mall before going around the corner. We don't need to be double-boycotted, with the broader community already not coming in to spend money with us."

Pittsburgh recently had to lay off more than 100 officers from its 1,000-plus force after Mayor Tom Murphy pled budget problems. While there were many blacks protesting this move in front of the City-County Building in past weeks, there are some blacks who don't regret the move at all. With violent crimes and homicides escalating in recent months, many are asking where police were in the first place.

While police say fewer cops means slower response times, Byrdsong says this is a nonfactor. "When we see police it's after the fact, meaning the crime has already been committed," as opposed to firefighters or paramedics who are called while an emergency is still happening.

But for Byrdsong public safety really means economic development, educational parity, accessible and adequate health treatment, and greater responsibility for citizens to take care of their own neighborhoods. "Police layoffs are secondary," says Byrdsong.

Years ago Byrdsong participated in United Brothers for Peace in the Hood, a group of black men who daily patrolled the bars, playgrounds and street corners to make sure their community wasn't getting out of hand. But those types of groups don't exist anymore.

Adopting a less-is-more position on cops to City Councilor Sala Udin (D-Hill District), though, is a "huge mistake."

"Clearly there are cops, black and white, that abuse black citizens but we can't ignore the fact that most of the brutality comes not from the cops but people in our own community," says Udin. "Police brutality is an important fight to fight, but that fight shouldn't cloud the bigger fight and that's the family feud going on in our own backyard."

With so much built up over the years between police and the black community the question is can their relationship ever get better.

"If the people get up and demand some changes in the system then we can work together to get some trust back from the black community," says Wilson. "But you can't expect that to happen if you can't even get the police to admit when they're wrong. We're just asking them to do what's right -- charge the police officers. I will fight whether it's the police who murder or somebody in the community -- a murder is a murder regardless of what kind of job you have.

"If all the police accused of murders were laid off I'd feel very, very happy about that," says Wilson.

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