Part One: Perfect Storms/Nothing New
On April 7, 2001, Timothy Thomas was shot dead in a building alcove on Republic Street by Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach after Thomas, 19, ran Roach’s legs off through Over-the-Rhine after a dispatcher broadcast to officers that Thomas had multiple “open warrants.”
Those warrants were for seatbelt infractions.
Another black American boy dead at the hands of the law for a minor mistake.
Another American city — our city — imploded on itself in riots, looting, curfews, boycotts, cultural and social division and confusion.
You wouldn’t know it now to look at the so-fresh-and-so-clean-clean landscape where Thomas died and potentially thousands rioted, faced down cops in riot gear and incurred bean bag spray, rubber bullets, mace and mayhem, but we were once a bigger, more metropolitan version of Ferguson, Missouri, and our nighttime streets ran thick with anger, too.
We’re riotous twins, actually.
Born 13 years earlier, Cincinnati has so much to teach Ferguson and if anyone there is listening, please listen to our likenesses.
The deadly August 9 police shooting of unarmed — witnesses say hands-up and surrendered — 18-year-old Michael Brown by Missouri Officer Darren Wilson is eerily like Roach’s shooting of the unarmed Thomas.
It’s chilling, sad, depressing and regressive the way American police officers can still shoot and kill the nation’s black boys so quickly and with seemingly unjustifiably deadly force because of what officers think they see when they’re looking at black males in our streets. (We’re all also related to Oakland, California, because Bay Area Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, III on January 1, 2009; and to Sanford, Florida because neighborhood zealot George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin February 26, 2012, lest we forget.)
But here are some specific ways and nuanced differences we’re strangely twinned to Ferguson.
Either way, it’s the same song.
• Angela Leisure, Thomas’ mother. Originally from Chicago, Leisure moved here ironically to give her children safety. She immediately, in her devastation, called for calm and called off the Chicago hoodlums who wanted to come to town to show us how to really riot. However, we’ve not heard much from Brown’s parents; I barely know what they look like. I get it. But someone — and it would be most effective if it was them — needs to speak peace to the people of Ferguson.
• Sacrificial lambs. I wrote this 13 years ago and it bears repeating: Timothy Thomas was our sacrificial lamb who was slain so that we would be a more sensitive, racially astute citizenry frothing with our own power to make demands of our politicians — local and national — and of our police department to change the way all good people are policed and black men are detained when they need to be. Likewise, Ferguson, Brown is your lamb and this is your time. Do not let his death and all that property damage and media attention be in vain. Emerge with substantive change.
• Violence, looting, property damage, curfews, national attention. We did all the same things. Innocent people and store owners were hurt and some businesses never recovered. And for it all the New York Times and National Public Radio came to town. Curfews are offensive and made me feel like a poor sharecropper sitting on my rental porch at sundown as cops slowly cruised past eyeballing my black neighbors and me as whites reveled in Mount Adams like it was Mardi Gras.
• Fifteen vs. one. In Cincinnati, it took the deaths of 15 black men — either engaged by police or in police custody — from 1995 to 2001 before we rioted. They are: Harvey Price (Feb. 1, 1995), Darryll C. Price (April 4, 1996), Lorenzo Collins (Feb. 23, 1997), Daniel Williams (Feb. 2, 1998), Jermaine Lowe (June 3, 1998), Randy Black (July 17, 1998), Michael Carpenter (March 19, 1999), James King (Aug. 20, 1999), Carey Tompkins (Oct. 16, 1999), Alfred Pope (March 14, 2000), Courtney Mathis (Sept. 1. 2000), Roger Owensby, Jr. (Nov. 7, 2000), Jeffrey Irons (Nov. 8, 2000). Adam Wheeler (Jan. 31, 2001) and Thomas (April 7, 2001).
• Police departments. By the time Thomas was shot and killed, we realized we had rogue cops run by Chief Thomas Streicher, a lackadaisical leader aided in victim blaming by Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman, who carried gasoline to put out every fire. But it wasn’t just white cops. We were plagued by a cult of personality among our cops who viewed citizens largely as enemies. We also had a frightened, inept mayor in Charlie Luken who was in over his head.
Ferguson, your problem is there are only three black cops on a force of 53 policing a predominantly black citizenry of 20,000 with 50 percent unemployment rates among young black men like Brown. This can all be fixed. You’re also dogged by an inept police chief in Chief Thomas Jackson who was slow footed to release pertinent shooting details but quick to release video of Brown’s strong-arm bodega robbery, the same day he was forced to finally release Officer Darren Wilson’s name, all in efforts to demonize Brown.
Ferguson, you have such a long road ahead but it can be walked peacefully and it can end in systematic change that ensures no one else’s unarmed black American son gets gunned down in the street.
Protests are fine and they do work; however, rioting, looting and burning are temporary and (temporarily) satisfy the visceral responses to destroy your perceived cages.
Get that out of your system quickly and then get down to The Work because if you don’t, you’ll be the ones left hurting and rotting, left to live in a smoldering mess so depressing you won’t have the strength to do anything about it except wander around dazed and complaining.
And the people who’d want you kept asunder are already accustomed to that from you/us. Make them change their ways and then you change yours, too, so y’all can all grow up together.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES PART TWO: BESPOKE SOLUTIONS will appear in this space next week. Contact KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org.