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Remembering 'The Riots'

By Stephanie Dunlap · April 6th, 2005 · All The News That Fits
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Twenty-two-year-old April L. Martin was safely tucked into her Glendale bedroom when news clips of Cincinnati's April 2001 riots sparked an idea.

Four years later she premiered her documentary, The Color of Justice: A History of Cincinnati's Race Riots from 1792 to 2001, to a standing-room-only audience in Christ Church Cathedral's undercroft.

The showing took place April 2, five days before the fourth anniversary of Timothy Thomas' death. The police shooting of the 19-year-old African-American man has been widely credited with sparking three days of demonstrations and looting.

But Martin's documentary sought to trace the long history of Cincinnati's race riots as well as the long history of human rights abuses that fueled them.

The first riot, in 1792, wasn't even race-related. The city was nothing more than a military outpost on the Ohio River when store owners rose up against oppressive military rule.

Then, throughout the 1800s, race riots in Cincinnati meant whites striking out at blacks, as historian Dan Hurley said in the film.

"Their goal was to get rid of the blacks in the community," he said.

A series of riots successfully drove thousands of blacks from Cincinnati.

Not until 1841 did the black community really start to fight back, in a confrontation between Irish and black river workers on the public landings.

"The mob retreated in horror that the black community is protecting itself," Hurley said.

Then came the 1884 riots, during which the very symbol of authority, the Hamilton County Courthouse, burned to the ground. Hurley called it the most deadly riot in American history, leaving 56 people dead and 200 injured.

The civil rights movement roiled race relations in every American city. But it was Cincinnati's jumpy leaders who reacted to news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and a single gunshot, fired in a domestic dispute, by imposing a curfew.

Martin's film is more than a straightforward history lesson. Dropping all audio, she let silently scroll the names and stories of many of the 15 black men killed in recent years by Cincinnati Police. Over and over those stories ended with officers cleared in city administrative hearings and police internal investigations.

"These people were all armed," Police Officer Eric Vogelpohl said in the film.

But it's not exactly true. Mental patient Lorenzo Collins had a brick, 12-year-old Courtney Mathis had a car and Timothy Thomas had baggy pants.

The audience of nearly 200 sat eerily still through most of that segment. Toward the end, a woman started sobbing quietly.

The film then turned to the 2000 death in police custody of Roger Owensby Jr. The audience groaned as an attorney for the Owensby family described how police sprayed Owensby with Mace from 6 inches away, not the 5 or 6 feet called for in police procedure. That was after he'd been subject to a pressure point move on his neck and a knee in his back, among other things.

The segment on Thomas featured an emotional interview with his mother, Angela Leisure, and footage from her testimony before City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee meeting two days after her son was killed.

The only appearance made by Mayor Charlie Luken was an unfortunate one. Responding to criticism for leaving that meeting after just 10 minutes, Luken said, "I think people have got to get over (it)."

He had four meetings scheduled that day, he explained.

Martin finished with footage of the uprising, nicely overlaid with audio from Vogelpohl saying the riots weren't really all that bad.

Her second documentary, The AfterMath, picks up there. It comes out soon.

A second free showing of The Color of Justice is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Xavier University's Gallagher Student Center Theater.



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