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Can You Hear the Footsteps Coming?

By Gregory Flannery · May 3rd, 2001 · Burning Questions
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Oh, won't you come to Cincinnati in the springtime, when blossoms are bursting and breezes are blowing and the streets are crying out for justice? Won't you come with your plastic-bucket drums and your fists raised skyward and your chants of peace and liberty?

Is momentum not on our side? Is it not right to gather in common cause? Is our outrage not ready to sweep away the culture of apathy that has too long held us down?

"Massive militant nonviolence" is the call for June 1, 2 and 3. That's when progressive forces -- black, white, liberal, radical and religious -- hope a national march on Cincinnati will shake this city out of the stupor of complacency.

The people organizing the campaign are serious, and they stand poised to press a cause that will not be satisfied by summer job programs, new task forces on race or initiatives to eliminate graffiti and litter.

"I think we need to not let the heat up -- maybe not in terms of riots, but keep the pressure on the city," says Henderson Kirkland, long active in the West End Community Council. "Freedom is not free. The conditions are still there that could spark unrest. It's really demeaning to us to think they can buy us off for a few dollars. This is not over by a long shot. These kids are no longer willing to say, 'You can kill us and we'll talk about it next time.' "

Kirkland is no kid. He's 62 years old. And he's angry.

The churches and the unions, too, are ready to act.

A statement by the Coalition for a Humane Economy (CHE), the nonviolent movement led by Sister Alice Gerdeman, captures the level of anger about what city officials call "police-community relations."

"We are indeed in a state of emergency, but it is an emergency of repression, racism and poverty," says a statement issued by CHE. "A relentless progression of murders of black men by police during apprehension or once in custody has proven beyond doubt that a deliberate policy is being implemented with predictable consequences. The murder of Timothy Thomas was the last straw."

For months, CHE -- which organized demonstrations against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue last fall -- has nurtured closer relationships with the Black United Front. Now the two groups are joining forces for three days of protests and a massive march the first weekend of June.

"Economic practices in this city result in segregation and then lead to a police force that thinks about 'us and them,' " says CHE spokesman Heather Zoller. "It builds fear and encourages repression."

Susan Knight, a CHE organizer, was visible in supporting African-American demonstrations and rallies last month.

"There has been kind of a break in activists along racial lines," Knight says. "We need to come together and outline our common ground. Our issues are the same issues."

That coming together has begun, according to Jackie Shropshire, another longtime West End activist.

"The solidarity has already been accomplished," Shropshire says. "We're not going to accept a Band-Aid on this situation. I am not condoning violence or destruction of property. But now that we have the eye of the world, the thing to do is attack in a peaceful way."

A mass march, like civil disobedience, is a tool, with a limited purpose, and not to be used for every task. Justice is a system of relationships, requiring more than marches.

"We're building relationships so we can work together," Gerdeman says. "This is not an image-of-Cincinnati problem. This is a human problem."

But sometimes the marching must come first. People must be heard. If the city's response to last month's unrest is more of what already came before, perhaps a national march will force the city to make real change.

"City authorities clamped on a curfew and called emphatically for restoration of peace and lawfulness on the part of outraged citizens," CHE says, "but offered no hint of self-criticism or fundamental change on the part of the lawless police department and city management."

Oh, won't you come to Cincinnati in the springtime, when black and white take to the streets and demand change?



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