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Rumors of Roaches and Unintended Insults

By Gregory Flannery · September 21st, 2000 · Burning Questions
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Can you be a racist and not know it? Consider Jeff Ruby.

When Ruby thinks he's hit on a good line, he keeps repeating it. Accused of racism for closing his downtown restaurant during the recent Ujima Cincibration weekend, his stock answer is, "I'm a racist like Bill Clinton's a virgin."

Ruby believes the line is funny. He does not, however, see humor in having pickets call him a racist.

"Personally, I'm hurt, because everybody who knows me knows how much I do for the black people," he says.

Ruby seems unaware of the effect of his words. He pours forth proof he's not racist.

"I've got a personal assistant," he says. "She's white. You know what her husband does for a living? He's a cop. He's black."

You can't listen without wishing he'd stop.

"I've got a daughter who goes to Anderson High School," Ruby says. "She's very attractive. Almost every boy in that school asked her to the prom. She turned them all down. There's one black kid who asked her. She's going with that one. Does that sound like a racist?"

How it sounds is embarrassing. But so do some of the statements by picketers who are targeting downtown restaurants.

Black United Front is picketing restaurants that closed during Ujima, the celebration of African-American heritage. The group will not yield, according to Pastor Damon Lynch III.

"We will continue our direct action until our demands are met," he says.

But a week after picketing began, Lynch abandoned the first demand on the group's list, a written apology from restaurant owners.

He pulled the pickets from Ruby's restaurant without a written apology. Instead of saying he backed down, Lynch claimed victory.

"Jeff Ruby is the first to break ranks and apologize and say he will be open in the future," Lynch says. "Right now we will no longer demonstrate in front of Jeff Ruby's."

But if Ruby has apologized, neither he nor Lynch is sure how he did it. Lynch says he heard Ruby on a television news report but can't cite the words. Ruby says it must have been something he said during a closed meeting with picketers Sept. 12.

"I spoke for about 15 minutes from my heart," Ruby says. "Maybe that's what did it."

On Sept. 14, Lynch said the pickets will leave Ruby alone. But Ruby didn't find out until a reporter called the next afternoon.

"Nobody told me that," he says.

If talking too much makes Ruby stumble, sometimes Lynch doesn't say enough. He not only neglects to tell Ruby the pickets are off, but also forgets to tell his own allies. Monique James, the press contact for Black United Front, at first denies the group has quit targeting Ruby.

"No, we have not at all," she says.

James expresses surprise when told Lynch has yanked the pickets at Seventh and Walnut.

Black United Front has serious concerns, for example threatening a boycott of the city unless police stop handcuffing black kids for curfew violations. But the movement is short on discipline; at one point, picketers tell passers-by a restaurant has insects in its food.

Cultural sensitivity isn't only a black-and-white issue. While black demonstrators interrupt Mayor Charlie Luken at ceremonies for Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati, the man who started the festival is in Luken's office, feeling insulted.

Luken issues a proclamation making Sept. 16 "Eugene Von Riestenberg Day," but isn't present when the Oktoberfest founder visits. Expecting a ceremony, Von Riestenberg instead finds himself met by the mayor's aide.

"I felt a little bit chagrined," he says. "I'm not some guy off the street. I created millions of dollars for this city."

It gets worse. The proclamation misspells his name. Then it gets worse still. Intending to right the wrong, the aide rewrites the proclamation -- and signs the mayor's name to it.

"They didn't spell my name right, and then she had the temerity to sign Luken's name right in front of me," Von Riestenberg says. "Of all the days to insult me, they picked a dandy. Today's the day to run around eating bratwurst and telling people how German you are. I'm the Germanest of all of them."

Can this city ever talk about ethnic and racial issues without people offending each other?

"I was treated like a pork chop at a Jewish wedding," Von Riestenberg says.

Maybe not.

 
 
 
 

 

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