WHAT SHOULD I BE DOING INSTEAD OF THIS?
 
Home · Articles · News · Burning Questions · Should Any Words Be Off-Limits?

Should Any Words Be Off-Limits?

By Doug Trapp · June 8th, 2000 · Burning Questions
0 Comments
     
Tags:
An ill-advised comment by Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher a few weeks ago led to a wild and wooly city council meeting June 1 -- the most contentious meeting since the November elections -- and started another prickly debate about race and the police.

When it was over, the word "nigger" had been said repeatedly by people arguing against its use, one man had been arrested for threatening behavior, and Vice Mayor Minette Cooper -- handling the gavel for Mayor Charlie Luken -- briefly lost control of the meeting a couple of times to a small band of police critics.

Luken left 30 minutes after the meeting started -- but before the issue of Streicher was broached by the public -- to go to court with his daughter for a traffic ticket she received, he said. Councilmen Todd Portune and Phil Heimlich also were absent.

It was the third council meeting the mayor has left early in the last several weeks, with the two other early departures caused by "family business" and "business," according to a Luken aide. Before leaving on June 1, however, Luken did say Streicher's use of the word was a "mistake."

Ironically, the storm began brewing during a May 10 police training session about the citizen's complaint review process, in which Cincinnatians can report questionable conduct by officers. It would produce a very effective, if unintentional, lesson about the sensitivity of racial issues.

To make a point about the citizen complaint process, Streicher pointed at Sgt. Andre Smith and said words to the effect of, "What if I were to call him a nigger ...

Smith, who is black, felt Streicher's comments were directed at him personally. An ill-advised comment by Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher a few weeks ago led to a wild and wooly city council meeting June 1 -- the most contentious meeting since the November elections -- and started another prickly debate about race and the police.

When it was over, the word "nigger" had been said repeatedly by people arguing against its use, one man had been arrested for threatening behavior, and Vice Mayor Minette Cooper -- handling the gavel for Mayor Charlie Luken -- briefly lost control of the meeting a couple of times to a small band of police critics.

Luken left 30 minutes after the meeting started -- but before the issue of Streicher was broached by the public -- to go to court with his daughter for a traffic ticket she received, he said.

Councilmen Todd Portune and Phil Heimlich also were absent.

It was the third council meeting the mayor has left early in the last several weeks, with the two other early departures caused by "family business" and "business," according to a Luken aide. Before leaving on June 1, however, Luken did say Streicher's use of the word was a "mistake."

Ironically, the storm began brewing during a May 10 police training session about the citizen's complaint review process, in which Cincinnatians can report questionable conduct by officers. It would produce a very effective, if unintentional, lesson about the sensitivity of racial issues.

To make a point about the citizen complaint process, Streicher pointed at Sgt. Andre Smith and said words to the effect of, "What if I were to call him a nigger ... ?"

Smith, who is black, felt Streicher's comments were directed at him personally. On May 17, he filed a complaint. On May 20, after returning from a vacation, Streicher met with and apologized to Smith and planned to apologize to the training class, according to a two-page statement by City Manager John Shirey released on June 1. Shirey ordered Streicher to receive counseling for his choice of words, which was completed before the council meeting, Shirey said.

So, if and when can someone say "nigger" in modern America? Is the word ever appropriate in any situation?

No, never, according to several citizens who spoke at the council meeting. Most were regular critics of the police and Shirey; some previously took the city manager to task for deciding how to discipline one of the officers involved in the March 1999 fatal shooting of Michael Carpenter before the Citizens Police Review Panel had studied the matter, among other issues. Some cited Streicher's remark as justification for his firing and as evidence that the Cincinnati Police Division is racist.

One of the day's final speakers was Ken Anderson, a self-described community activist who finished 16th in last fall's city council race. Anderson didn't call for Streicher's job but did press Shirey on his statements to the media on the topic, which seemed to qualify Streicher's use of the word, according to Anderson.

"The bottom line is that there is no place for that word ... in any society," Anderson said later. "It's just that simple."

Cooper gave speakers a wide berth, suspending the usual rules limiting each side of an issue to three speakers of two minutes each. Councilman Jim Tarbell questioned the wisdom of that move, saying it had never happened in his two years on council. Cooper disputed his claim, and said it was better to let citizens air their complaints than to suppress them.

Judging by comments at the council meeting, there seemed to be two ways to look at the underlying issue -- that the word is inherently connected to the bigotry and racism in America's history, or that the word is just a word that can be said without immediately insulting anyone.

Council members acknowledged Streicher's use of the word was mistaken but were split on how mistaken.

"I think it's important to understand the context of the situation," said Tarbell, who is white, adding that the speaker has to intend harm in order for the word to be a slur.

But black council members considered the word alone offensive when spoken, no matter the situation.

"Even for demonstration, I would not tolerate being referred to as a nigger," Councilwoman Alicia Reece said.

"Regardless of the context, there's really no place for the use of the N-word," Councilman Paul Booth said.

No matter what, the word still has "power," Cooper said.

Anderson also took issue with a June 4 Cincinnati Enquirer editorial that supported Streicher but used the term "N-word" when referring to what the chief said.

"If they feel that way, write out the full word," he said.

Although Anderson advocated a zero tolerance policy on such language, he used the word "nigger" three times during his two-minute speech to council, which Shirey pointed out. So, is that a double standard?

No, Anderson said, because he was referring to comments already made by Streicher.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat it," he said. "I'm not going to let people tiptoe around the issue."

In general, however, Anderson said he believes the city's police division is a good one.

"I've got no personal gripe with the chief," he said.

Streicher, responding to a question about racial profiling at a January community forum, said he had to assume Cincinnati Police officers had racially profiled black motorists before. He then apologized for those past transgressions.

In March, Streicher also apologized for an officer referring to Madisonville as a "shithole" during an internal affairs inquiry into the officer's arrest and physical handling of a 68-year-old man.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
Close
Close
Close