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Is This What Diversity Looks Like?

By Gregory Flannery · March 21st, 2002 · Burning Questions
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Do you know why Cincinnati City Council passed a new law against panhandlers? To keep them from asking for change.

The worst puns are the ones that are true: In this city, change does not come easy.

But hard times could be exactly the opportunity progressives in Cincinnati need to build their organizational strength. By refusing to negotiate with organizers of the civil rights boycott of the city, Mayor Charlie Luken is inadvertently helping to motivate activists from groups with seemingly unrelated agendas: labor unions, African Americans, gays and lesbians, anti-globalization activists, environmentalists and religious leaders.

Defiance was the mood at the March 16 town meeting of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, one of several groups behind the boycott. Facing the threat of a lawsuit by the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) over lost revenue, the coalition showed no intention of backing down.

Amanda Mayes, chair of the coalition's action committee, recited a list of demands from the CAA, including payment of $77,350 in damages.

"I think we all know that we aren't doing any of that," Mayes said. "We are prepared to fight."

In fact, the coalition drew first blood, filing a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the CAA's threat infringed on the boycotters' freedom of speech.

Far from backing down, the coalition promised more artists will soon join the boycott.

"I'm sure that you will very soon see some white artists of conscience canceling as well," Mayes said.

Mayes should be listened to. It was she, after all, who almost single-handedly convinced Bill Cosby to cancel his performance.

Luken's refusal to negotiate, claiming change is already underway, is another way of saying people should wait, according to the Rev. Stephen Scott, spokesman for the coalition.

"They tell us to wait for change," he said. "When you have some hate-filled police officers fill the streets, when you are persecuted because of your sexual orientation, when you are fighting an economic war just to keep yourself above the raging waters, how can you wait?"

Like the Sanctions Summit last month, at which gay and lesbian leaders were welcomed as boycott allies, the town hall featured another sign of the movement's growing strength.

The Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and the Black United Front (BUF) have had sometimes rocky relations. But there was no sign of disagreement at the town hall. The Rev. Damon Lynch III, BUF president, received a thunderous welcome.

"It's good to be part of this broad coalition -- black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight and whoever we are," Lynch said.

Then he made an observation about the boycott's galvanizing effect on progressives in Cincinnati. He quoted Victoria Straughn, spokeswoman for the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Justice.

"As I've heard Sister Victoria say, I don't believe there's any state in the Union that has as much activism going on as Cincinnati has," Lynch said.

The city's refusal to negotiate seems to be having the unintended consequence of bringing more people into the cause.

"This is not a black thing," Scott said. "This is a people thing. This is a human-rights thing."

For Lucian Bernard, the attorney representing the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, the cause was irresistible.

"When they came calling, I had to respond," he said.

If Bernard's name sounds familiar, it's because he represented people arrested -- and acquitted -- during protests in November 2000 against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue. Those arrests were part of a litany of offenses Scott included in his explanation for the boycott.

"By the censoring of the arts and the arrest of peaceful leafleters and protesters and charging them with littering, Cincinnati is becoming known as a city of repression," he said.

The crowd included members of many groups. Susan Knight, environmental activist, helped collect contributions. Molly Lyons, advocate for the homeless, passed out programs. Staffing a leaflet table was Michele Taylor-Mitchell of the AMOS Project, a group of congregations committed to turning faith into action.

The longer the fight goes on, the more diverse -- and bigger -- the movement seems to grow. Do city leaders understand?

 
 
 
 

 

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