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If you’ve never been in Cincinnati, you would not think it a tinderbox for a race riot. Admittedly, 40 percent of the population is black. A large portion of this black population is unemployed and another large portion has suffered from family breakdown. When many of these same families left the cotton fields of the South, it was widely thought that family cohesion and unity would save them from the ills the North had in store for them. It was not to be.
When police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old black teenager named Timothy Thomas, the roof blew off. Thomas had a whole string of minor violations on his rap sheet, but being shot dead changed the dimension of the contest. Wild rioting ensued. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. And Mayor Charles Luken, who had never faced anything like this before, declared a state of emergency after three nights of mayhem, saying the city is “dangerous, and getting more dangerous.”
The damage was horrendous. At least 50 people were treated at hospitals, and police charged over 200 with an extensive variety of crimes. A police officer was saved from a serious gunshot wound when his belt buckle deflected a bullet aimed at him.
But not everyone believed that what Cincinnati witnessed was genuine race riot fever. The media have mentioned over and over that 15 black men were killed by police in recent years. I doubt that anyone but a lunatic wants innocent black people shot in Cincinnati.
But is this what happened?
It appears not. I found a story in the Cincinnati Inquirer by Dan Klepal and Cindi Andrews of that newspaper which leaves a completely different impression. A man named Daniel Williams flagged down a police cruiser with a woman, Kathleen Conway, at the wheel. When she stopped, he hit her in the face and fired four shots from a .357 Magnum into her legs and abdomen before seizing the steering wheel and shoving her into the passenger seat. Officer Conway survived the attack by shooting Mr. Williams in the head twice with her service revolver.
Now this puts a somewhat different perspective on the shooting. Most readers would agree that if you jump into a cop car and shoot the female driver four times, you’re not exactly on the high moral ground if she returns fire. And, if a white man jumped into a cop car and shot a black female driver four times it would hardly be blazoned nationwide as an incident of black oppression
In 1995, a man named Harvey Price murdered an adolescent girl of 15 with a series of blows with an axe and dragged her body to the basement. Someone called the police and the man was eventually found with a knife in a bathroom. The police tried to subdue him with stun guns and pepper spray — neither of which is lethal.
Now the point is that not one black resident of Cincinnati knows the key details of these stories. They do not constitute a list of unjustified racial killings, but somehow these stories rarely get major coverage in the media.
Racial intolerance — and the intolerance it breeds — starts in homes, neighborhoods, schools and the workplace. A solution to Cincinnati’s problems can only come about by breaking down racial barriers too long tolerated.
To the credit of Mayor Luken and Chamber of Commerce President Tom Cody, they did call for action on this very issue months ago before disaster struck. Can this situation be turned about? Citizens managed to keep the drastic curfew imposed by the mayor the other week successfully. And Cincinnati has stayed off the front pages of the nation’s newspapers for now. A cautious reason for hope.