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Cincinnati: A Decade since the Rebellion of 2001

Article by Dan La Botz. Hat tip to Miles Joyner.
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Ten years ago, after the police killing of a teenager named Timothy Thomas, Cincinnati erupted in what some called vicious riots and others a righteous rebellion. The uprising over a string of police killings of black men made Cincinnati the subject of a national discussion that took place from the pages of the NAACP’s The Crisis and The New York Times to NPR and Nightline. Cincinnati became synonymous in the public mind with racism and bigotry and the reputation lived on for years. Living down that reputation became the goal of City Hall and local business interests who worked to put the matter behind them, burying both the racism and the violence under the magnificent façade of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and drowning out the lingering shouts of pain and protest with jazz, blues and country musical festivals on the riverfront. For the African American community and for many other Cincinnati residents, the real issue has been to confront racism, to challenge the ruling elite’s power, to raise consciousness, transform structures, and shift power. We are still working at it.

The immediate cause of the rebellion was a police shooting of an African American man; for the black community it was the last straw after a series of such killings and after years and even decades of police racism and violence. The injustice of the criminal justice system, however, represented only one aspect of the African American community’s experience of racism which also extended to social segregation, economic exclusion, and widespread alienation from the political system. Out of anger and indignation young African Americans rose up in an angry ghetto uprising, while other black and white activists joined together in political protests and a boycott of the city. Altogether the movements and protests of that year would change the city, result in a new political culture of criticism, dissent, and protest. And Cincinnati would be better for it.

Other recent accounts of the last decade on television and in the local newspaper have discussed the “riots” but have largely ignored or downplayed the role of the Black United Front, the March for Justice and the boycott of the city. Most of the major media have tended to self-congratulation on progress made rather than on a serious examination of the state of the city. This account is meant to challenge and correct those accounts.

Returning to these issues today raises many questions. Where are we today, a decade later? What did we learn from the events that led to the rebellion of 2001? What did we learn from the rebellion, the protests, and the boycott that followed? What was the political upshot of all of those events? And how has Cincinnati changed? Have police-community relations improved? Are Cincinnatians better off—or worse off—today than they were then? Have relations between whites, African Americans and other ethnicities improved? Is our city making progress? What can we do to make it a better place?

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