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What Agitates an Agitator?

By Tony Cook · June 9th, 2004 · Burning Questions
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How would Kabaka Oba handle someone like Kabaka Oba?

Known for his radical -- some would say ridiculous or offensive -- political activism, Oba once donned a Ku Klux Klan costume for a Cincinnati City Council meeting. But he has been mastering another trade for the past eight years. When he's not on Fountain Square protesting police brutality or in City Hall hurling racial slurs at the mayor, he drives a bus for Metro.

In 2000 Oba started the Black Fist, whose stated goal is to fight police brutality.

"I got no problem chastising city council, shaking them up, giving them a bad day," he says. "This city is having a bad day, especially black people."

What would Oba do if the tables were turned? What if, just as he shows up at Mayor Charlie Luken's workplace and calls him such charming names as "white devil," somebody showed up at Oba's workplace and started using offensive language?

A bus driver would ask the offender to calm down, according to Rita Potts, Metro spokeswoman. If the person continued to use slurs, the driver should stop the bus and call a supervisor.

Oba says that, if he had regular problems with a rider, he could ask permission from a supervisor to ban that person from the bus.

But wait.

Doesn't that sound a lot like the rule city council established two months ago? According to that policy, someone who participates in disruptive behavior can be banned from speaking at a council meeting for 60 days. Oba and several others were banned the first week the new rule went into effect.

"We walked right in and blasted them," he says.

Oba has angrily criticized the rule as a breech of his First Amendment rights.

Despite his outspokenness, Oba says he tries to keep his job and his activism separate.

"People didn't even know I drove a bus until someone snitched on me on the radio," he says.

Though Oba is usually more than happy to address reporters and TV cameras -- just last week he got his own radio show from noon-1 p.m. Tuesdays on WAIF (88.3 FM) -- things are quite different when he's manning a Metro bus.

The bus for route 33 pulled up to Government Square at 8:15 a.m. June 4 -- right on time. Oba, wearing a blue button-up shirt with its standard "M" for Metro on the sleeve, swung open the door. A CityBeat photographer attempted to mount the bus and photograph him, but to no avail.

"I'm not authorized to do that," Oba said.

This bears some amount of irony, as Oba typically disregards authorization of all sorts at City Hall. But on the job, he seems to abide by a different standard.

"I'm not a spokesperson for the Metro," he tells a reporter, explaining that he can't talk while on the job.

Suddenly, Oba's devotion to justice and freedom of speech seems to yield to a government policy, namely Metro rules. What Luken has never accomplished -- effectively censoring Oba -- the activist seems to voluntarily accept on his job.

From Government Square, Oba's bus progresses to Western Hills Plaza, winding through several Cincinnati neighborhoods. Youth and elderly, black and white, poor and middle class get on and off the bus. He greets them indiscriminately, occasionally making small talk about cicadas or a woman walking a dog.

Oba says the mix of people with whom he interacts at work keeps him in touch with the population he claims to represent through his activism, though he won't disclose the number of members in the Black Fist.

Oba will be allowed to address city council again June 20, he says.

"We'll be right back in there," he promises. "We're there exposing the double standard."



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