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Portune & the Boycott

By Steve Ramos · June 27th, 2002 · Arts Beat
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Lots of people support the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and its "Artists of Conscience" boycott. I count myself as one of them.

On the other side of the justice fence are political leaders such as our mayor, who refuses to deal with the coalition and its demands for social progress. In Charlie Luken's opinion, coalition activists are economic terrorists who don't deserve a spot at the negotiation table.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune sees things differently. On June 25, Portune sent a letter to Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) President and Executive Director Steve Lofton and Chairman Dudley S. Taft asking the CAA to drop its lawsuit against the coalition.

Portune's surprising letter sums up things like this: "Sometimes the first step is the hardest. It is generally the most important. I write to you to respectfully ask that the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) dismiss the civil complaint styled Cincinnati Arts Association v. Rev. James W. Jones, et al. I am simultaneously asking that the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati dismiss its litigation pending in United States District Court, am proposing a joint meeting between the Mayor and City Council of Cincinnati and the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners and am calling for a suspension of the boycott." Lots of people support the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and its "Artists of Conscience" boycott. I count myself as one of them.

On the other side of the justice fence are political leaders such as our mayor, who refuses to deal with the coalition and its demands for social progress. In Charlie Luken's opinion, coalition activists are economic terrorists who don't deserve a spot at the negotiation table.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune sees things differently. On June 25, Portune sent a letter to Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) President and Executive Director Steve Lofton and Chairman Dudley S.

Taft asking the CAA to drop its lawsuit against the coalition.

Portune's surprising letter sums up things like this: "Sometimes the first step is the hardest. It is generally the most important. I write to you to respectfully ask that the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) dismiss the civil complaint styled Cincinnati Arts Association v. Rev. James W. Jones, et al. ... I am simultaneously asking that the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati dismiss its litigation pending in United States District Court, am proposing a joint meeting between the Mayor and City Council of Cincinnati and the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners and am calling for a suspension of the boycott."

Earlier this year, the coalition persuaded comedians Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg and musical performers Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson and The O'Jays to cancel Cincinnati appearances. On Feb. 28, the CAA, the non-profit organization that manages the venues where many of those performances were scheduled, delivered a letter to the coalition demanding $77,350 to pay for damages caused by the cancellations. The CAA later filed a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in punitive damages.

The coalition filed a countersuit in federal court accusing the CAA of trying to squelch its freedom of speech rights.

The lawsuits between the CAA and the coalition have been dead serious and deadlocked for some time. The coalition continues to ask performers to cancel their Cincinnati dates, charging that city leaders have made little progress on what the coalition calls "social and economic apartheid."

Recently, boycott results have been mixed. Pepsi Jammin' on Main attracted sizable crowds to its outdoor music stages in May, even with one act dropping out, while the long-running Jazz Festival was cancelled.

Playing the role of the uninvited mediator, Portune looks to end the CAA-coalition stalemate. If successful, he'll boost his political profile. Either way, he makes Luken look uncaring and incompetent.

I don't know how the CAA plans to respond to Portune's letter. It's also hard to predict how Amanda Mayes, co-chair of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, will react. Personally, I think the coalition would be crazy not to accept Portune's help.

Since Hamilton County owns Memorial Hall, one of the venues CAA manages, Portune feels his opinion as a county commissioner matters. In his words, the CAA's lawsuit against the coalition is wrong and legally questionable.

"First, for arts institutions to embrace such an onerous attack on political expression, in this community of all others where attacks on artistic expression are well-known and where the unabated relegation of an entire segment of our population to less than full citizenship through the enactment of Article 12 of the city charter, is lamentable," Portune's letter says. "Moreover, such an approach seems to cheapen the Arts in all of its forms from the outward and ultimate of human expression to simply an exercise in economics."

It's surprising that a high-ranking politician like Portune would take such a bold position in favor of the mission of the arts. But little about the "Artists of Conscience" boycott has been ordinary, so perhaps we shouldn't be so shocked.

Portune's letter respects the boycott while preparing a compromise that will bring about its conclusion.

"I can offer no assurances that your (CAA's) move in dismissing the litigation will result in an end to the boycott," he writes. "It should end, regardless, to establish an even better atmosphere within which to move this region ahead."

Portune's letter is the first reasonable attempt to end the boycott. I hope his words will persuade others to act reasonably as well.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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