You'd think after so many years of this event, the police would have the bugs worked out by now. The fact that they don't, that every year they try something different yet end up with the same result, points to a problem much larger than festival crowds or downtown traffic patterns. It points to a police force with a severe insecurity in its own authority.
What does that mean? It means that, rather than identify a problem in order to fix it, the overarching objective of the police becomes a paranoid compulsion to display authority and impose order, regardless of the situation at hand. Like some out-of-control Cartman from South Park, the police convulse into spastic fits of bravado, going well beyond the necessities of ensuring public safety or protecting private property. And like their cartoon counterpart, their actions only make the given situation worse.
Remember the maps printed in the papers last week or broadcast on the TV news? We were led to believe that the closed streets would be limited to the area from Fourth to Sixth streets and from Sycamore to Elm, right? Wrong. The police had evening roadblocks set up as far north as Findlay Market and Central Parkway. This wasn't perhaps to keep crowds from assembling at the popular black nightclub at that location, was it?
For those who were then herded onto McMicken or Central Avenue, the situation only got worse, the gridlock tightening as more cars had less and less room to maneuver. Meantime, the area within the expanded perimeter -- south of Central Parkway, east of Plum and west of Broadway -- was lifeless. Silent. No cars, no people.
Those clever and resourceful enough to run the police blockade -- who could that have been? -- could get wherever they wanted to downtown, but it was the display, the flashing lights, the sheer numbers of officers, that were intended to intimidate out of town visitors to stay away and compel the local public to go straight home.
Much was made last week of the downtown businesses and restaurants that decided to close for the weekend. The convenient supposition is that the closures were due to racial prejudice, a discomfort with large numbers of black folks on the part of proprietors.
I'm sure there's a racial element to the story, but I'm more certain that such closures are because those businesses and restaurants find themselves each year stranded in a downtown cut off from traffic and their customers by large numbers of police intent on a crowd dispersal strategy reeking of racial overtones.
Why all the extra roadblocks? Why the purging of traffic from downtown, diverting it into either Over-the-Rhine or the West End? Why must downtown be deserted at midnight? Why are the police so insecure in their authority?
Carloads of black youths cruising the streets aren't the problem. The problem is simply keeping the cruisers moving so the ordinary life of a metropolitan downtown can continue.
An extra 100,000 people on downtown streets isn't a problem -- it's an incredible business opportunity. But the presence of that number of people shouldn't be perverted into an excuse to choke the rest of us off from the businesses, bars and restaurants we patronize every other weekend of the year.
Why don't the police try limiting the roadblocks like they advertised and use those officers to direct traffic by hand, shut off the automatic signals, keep the traffic moving and let everyone enjoy the spectacle?
I confess that each year I dread the arrival of Jazz Festival weekend. I dread it because of the hassle associated with trying to get anywhere downtown. Yet, each year, I refuse to let it stop me.
I like the sight of carloads of people cruising the streets and blaring their music. I like the idea that, for one weekend, black kids get to enjoy the feeling of overwhelming a whitebread downtown. Anyone who's been a part of something like that understands the special feeling of power and community that comes from such an event, and I want them to enjoy it.
Apparently the Cincinnati Police do not. Those very feelings of power and community are seen as a direct threat to authority, which indeed they can easily become. But it's more likely to happen through the imposition of that authority than by a willingness of authority accommodate the needs of the crowd.
Other cities don't seem to have the problems with unruly crowds that Cincinnati does. Partiers in New Orleans for Mardi Gras are accommodated by the police, who mostly just try to make sure nobody gets hurt and who then make sure everyone knows when the party's over by clearing Bourbon Street with water cannon. The "Peace Officers" of San Francisco, surely well-versed in handling outrageous situations, will let crowds do their own thing while demonstrating remarkable restraint. They mix with and talk to the citizens they police, engendering goodwill in the process.
Real authority doesn't need to impress anyone. It reacts to specifics instead of asserting itself through generalities. It understands humility and acts when the time is right.
"Humility" is a word that I doubt is used much around the Cincinnati Police Division. When teen-agers have fun in a mosh pit on Main Street, local police come in thumping their truncheons in full riot gear. When a mentally unstable man menaces a group of officers with a single brick, they respond with a hail of bullets. When a crowd of demonstrators is intent on tearing down a KKK cross on Fountain Square, rather than let them do their thing and arrest the offenders afterward, Cincinnati's finest decide to stampede the crowd with horses and to hell with public safety. Order and authority, by whatever means necessary.
The last time I wrote anything critical of the Police Division was a Letter to the Editor about the above KKK debacle. For my trouble and suggestions, I was rewarded with a phone call from District 1, informing me that I had better watch what I write and inferring that the caller knew where I lived, as my neighborhood, Evanston, was given with my name in the letter's printing. I have no reason to doubt the caller's locale. I could hear the noise and business of the police station in the background. Apparently this officer had nothing better to do that morning than make harassing and vaguely threatening phone calls with his newspaper, coffee and Krispy Kreme.
Sure it's disturbing, but it speaks to the mentality and the supremacy accorded to authority over reason. It's just inconceivable to the folks in uniform that an ordinary citizen might have insights into crowd behaviors and psychology that could be beneficial to them. It's much more efficient to threaten such individuals to keep a low profile. After all, order has to be maintained.
I wonder what will be on my answering machine this week.
CONTACT MICHAEL BLANKENSHIP: firstname.lastname@example.org