Circumstances surrounding a racial slur allegedly used last week by a Cincinnati city councilman against a black municipal sanitation worker are getting murkier and murkier.
Perhaps the only person who knows for certain whether Councilman Chris Bortz called garbage truck driver Shawn T. Allen a “nigger” and threatened to “shoot his ass” is the other sanitation worker who was on the scene of the alleged incident, Alice G. Folson. So far, she’s not saying much directly to the public.
Here’s how the odd situation has developed.
The alleged incident occurred Thursday morning, May 19, outside of Bortz’ townhouse in Mount Adams, when Allen blew the horn on his garbage truck a few times because its path was blocked by the councilman’s parked car. According to the police report, Allen said Bortz yelled at him, “Nigger, stop blowing that horn. I will shoot your ass.”
Bortz contacted The Enquirer Thursday night to notify the newspaper about the allegation and preemptively offer a denial. In an Enquirer article published Friday, May 20, Bortz said, “I would never use that term. And anybody who knows me knows I’m neither menacing nor a racist.”
Later the same day, the Cincinnati Police Department issued a public statement in which it claimed Allen had retracted the allegation of ethnic intimidation that he filed against Bortz. Ethnic intimidation is a fifth-degree felony, which is punishable by a penalty of between six and 12 months in prison and a $2,500 fine.
The police statement read, “At 3:30 this afternoon, the Public Information Office received a phone call from Lt. Col. James Whalen, Interim Police Chief, to advise that the criminal investigation related to this report of Ethnic Intimidation has been closed: ‘Unfounded.’ The victim has retracted his allegations and the investigation has been closed.”
Allen, however, went on a talk radio show on Saturday morning, May 21, on WDBZ (1230 AM) and said he stood by his version of events.
Meanwhile, local NAACP President Christopher Smitherman — a longtime political foe of Bortz — began posting fast and furious updates Friday and over the weekend on his Facebook page, urging his followers to press for an investigation into the incident.
On Friday, Smitherman posted, “I just interviewed both city workers involved in this incident. Shawn Allen fears for his JOB and his LIFE. He did NOT retract his allegations nor did the second witness. The media is misreporting the facts. Politics 101.”
Later, Smitherman posted, “Alice G. Folsom (sic) the second CITY WORKER on the truck has NOT changed her story. She says councilmember BORTZ said, ‘Nigger stop blowing that horn like that this it is a private drive.’ The driver ‘laid on the horn’ to request car be moved. Council member Bortz yelled this statement OFF his porch … Alice Folsom is standing RIGHT NEXT TO ME AS I WRITE THIS STATEMENT!”
(Actually, her last name is Folson; Smitherman repeatedly misspells it.)
Smitherman posted that Folson heard Bortz use the racial slur, but didn’t hear the alleged threat involving “shooting.” Then, the NAACP president writes that Folson asked Allen if he knew who had yelled at him.
When Allen replied that he didn’t, Smitherman posted that Folson said, “Bortz … the one who is trying to do managed competition.”
Bortz was part of a City Council faction earlier this year that unsuccessfully pushed to implement “managed competition” for garbage collection as a method for reducing costs, which potentially involved privatizing the service and laying off municipal workers.
Incidentally, Bortz is one of the main supporters of City Hall’s push to build a streetcar system downtown and in Over-the-Rhine.
Smitherman opposes that project and collected enough signatures in 2009 to put a charter amendment on the ballot that would’ve required a public vote before city money was spent on any rail-related project. It failed, 56-44 percent. Now, Smitherman is collecting signatures for an amendment aimed at blocking all funding -- including private investment -- for any rail-related projects for nearly a decade. He's doing it in conjunction with the anti-mass transit group, COAST.
On Saturday morning, Smitherman continued posting Facebook updates about the alleged incident.
The NAACP president posted, “Our team is at the old BOND HILL LIBRARY RIGHT NOW … Please come by … and sign all of our petitions. The way you can send a message to BORTZ is make sure we STOP the streetcar TODAY.”
About 15 minutes later, Smitherman posted, “Council Member Chris Bortz wants to terminate the entire Sanitation Department and turn the contract over to RUMPKE. 95% of the sanitation department is African American. Politics 101.”
So, even though we can’t be sure whether Bortz used the slur, we can be sure that it’s being used to advance a political cause and stir up resentment among sanitation workers.
On Sunday, Smitherman and the Baptist Ministers Conference issued a press release calling on Bortz to resign from City Council. It stated that the “use of the word ‘nigger’ is not a criminal offense,” but added “its use by an elected official is so apprehensible, offensive, disrespectful and unbecoming” of an elected official that Bortz should leave public office.
The press release stated that the African-American community should have “zero tolerance” for use of racial slurs, just like “the Jewish community.”
The Police Department dropped the criminal complaint because Folson didn’t hear the alleged threat of physical violence against Allen, city officials said. In an email to CityBeat, Lt. Col. James Whalen, interim police chief, stands by the press release issued by the department on Friday.
Whalen’s email differs sharply from Allen’s public comments.
Whalen wrote, “Please keep in mind that the closure of the Police Department’s portion of this case relates to the criminal allegation only. We certainly cannot control what anyone says and we respect everyone’s right to speak as they see fit. We can only deal with what is reported to and discovered by us.”
Whalen added, “Mr. Allen made a criminal allegation on Thursday of last week. On Friday, he was re-interviewed to clarify facts and prepare him for the prosecution process that follows any such allegation. At that time, Mr. Allen disclaimed his allegation from the day prior and told the detectives he did not hear any racial slur or threat. Without the threat, we have no crime, which closes the police report on the matter.”
CityBeat made several telephone calls to Allen’s home for comment. The phone was never answered, and the machine that picked up wouldn’t accept messages.
Moreover, CityBeat tried to contact Allen at work. A supervisor said Allen was on vacation.
City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has directed the Citizen Complaint Authority to investigate the incident. Interestingly, Allen hasn’t yet submitted a statement, hampering the probe.
On Monday, May 23, Bortz appeared on another WDBZ talk show to again deny the allegation. This time, Bortz offered to take a lie detector test on host Lincoln Ware’s show.
Bortz didn’t respond to several CityBeat emails seeking comment.
As the rumors roil a segment of Cincinnati’s black community, The Enquirer hasn’t written another word about the matter since the supposed retraction. That has sparked allegations of a “media cover-up” by Smitherman and some of his followers. Oy.
A few questions persist. Chief among them are why did Allen withdraw his police statement and why hasn’t he given a formal statement to city administrators?
Also, why is Smitherman so insistent on Bortz resigning before an investigation is conducted? And why is Smitherman injecting issues about streetcars and managed competition into the dispute?
By the way, filing a false police report is a first-degree misdemeanor under Ohio law, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. It becomes a felony offense if it causes monetary damages exceeding $500.
Two weeks ago Smitherman made a public spectacle of himself at a City Council meeting, when his followers had to restrain him as the NAACP leader yelled at a streetcar supporter, “Don’t ever take a picture of me, you punk!”
Now his irresponsible and incendiary exploitation of the latest incident further calls into question his judgment and motives.