Fifteen Dead in Ohio: The Black and the Blue in Cincinnati

Published as a ZNet Commentary, April 17, 2001

Some folks don’t even bother hiding their racism. Take Keith Fangman, President of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. In the wake of this past week’s uprising to protest the killing of Tim Thomas and fourteen other black men by his colleagues since 1995, Fangman said:

“If we give one inch to these terrorists in the form of negotiations, then we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves when we turn into another Detroit or Washington D.C.”

If Fangman’s purpose had been to imply that Cincinnati risks becoming like other places that have been wracked by rioting, he could have said that negotiating with rioters would turn Cincinnati into another Boulder, Colorado; Carbondale, Illinois; East Lansing, Michigan; Eugene, Oregon; State College, Pennsylvania; Storrs, Connecticut; Pullman, Washington; or Tucson, Arizona, since all have been sites of major riots by drunken white college students in recent years. But he didn’t. He picked Detroit and D.C., neither of which have had any riots lately, but which both have lots of black people. And that, after all, was his point.

Frankly, for any representative of the official Police Brutality Protection Union (commonly known as the FOP) to refer to those who rebel against cop violence as terrorists, is precious to say the least. I think the old saying, “takes one to know one,” probably applies here. Oddly enough the only “terrorists” in evidence in Fangman’s town are the Klansmen he and his pals have protected in the past during Christmas, when they’ve erected a lit cross downtown in Fountain Square. In Cincinnati, the rights of a 135-year old paramilitary hate group apparently count for more than the lives of young black men.

To hear police representatives tell it, blacks in Cincinnati still have no rights that a member of the FOP is bound to respect. In seeking to justify the deaths of the fifteen black males, Cincinnati Police Sergeant Harry Roberts noted that those killed were all “criminals who resisted arrest,” leading one to wonder just what is the allowable punishment for “resisting arrest” in Ohio nowadays? I mean, I knew the death penalty was still popular with most folks, but execution for running away from a cop?

As for the “criminals” whose lives have been snuffed by the Cincinnati police, they include not only Tim Thomas, whose rap sheet was filled with minor traffic offenses, but also Roger Owensby, who had no criminal record, but whose “attitude” convinced police to arrest him for “disorderly conduct” and apply a deadly chokehold in the process.

And then there was Lorenzo Collins, a mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed young man whose shooting was explained as necessary since he was wielding a solitary brick and threatening to throw it at police: fifteen of them who surrounded him before dropping him in a hail of bullets. Sounds like a fair fight. Or Michael Carpenter, who was shot in the back of the head during a traffic stop, apparently for attempting to adjust a loaded seatbelt.

The Cincinnati police also have a hard time distinguishing between children and hardened criminals. Following the funeral for Thomas on Saturday, cops opened fire with rubber bullets and beanbag ammunition, shooting a seven-year-old black female during a demonstration and march.

Of course, as the FOP’s official slogan boasts, they’re just “building on a proud tradition.” A tradition that reaches all the way back to 1915, to a time when many a proud member of this proud organization proudly and rather openly engaged in the murder of African Americans by joining in anti-black riots and lynchings. In the first forty years of the twentieth century, about half of all blacks who were killed, were killed by law enforcement, including, one can be sure, many a dues-paying member of the FOP’s Aryan brotherhood in blue.

In recent years, the Cincinnati police in particular have been building on a proud tradition of racism that has finally resulted in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, and a local coalition of African American leaders. Among the dozens of racist actions prompting the suit, perhaps the most egregious involves a pregnant mother of two and her husband who were detained and handcuffed at gunpoint in front of their children, even as the officers involved explained to them that they were looking for two adult males driving a similar kind of car.

But rather than focus on weeding out those officers who engage in racist and brutal practices, the FOP concentrates on boycotting movies whose stars support alleged cop-killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal. And even though the FOP rejected racial profiling at their national meeting, they insisted on the legitimacy of “criminal profiling,” the definition of which apparently still includes race as a factor of suspicion. And plenty of folks think this is fine. On chatroom bulletin boards one can find any number of whites defending police and chastising the black community in Cincinnati in only the most thinly concealed racist terms.

“Most cop killers are black,” comes the cry from some: an argument that is both false and irrelevant. Even if true, who but the most racist soul could use such a “fact” to justify killing someone whose skin color happened to match that of the offending group? In fact, by this logic of “rational” murder, blacks would have far greater reason to kill white police than the officers would have to kill black people. After all, most cops who have killed blacks have been white. But somehow I doubt that those who think statistical models should be used to justify unequal treatment would appreciate the use of the one to which I’m alluding here.

“Police put their lives on the line every day,” say others, “and we shouldn’t second-guess them when they have to use deadly force.” But police are half as likely to die on the job as farmers, fishermen, truckers, construction workers or miners; and less likely to die from being police officers than black folks are, just from being black. Whether from police violence, or inadequate health care, the excess mortality rate for African Americans is far higher than that of police, yet rarely is there much sympathy for how often black people “put their lives on the line every day” just trying to survive in this country.

“Whites don’t riot every time something bad happens to us,” comes the mantra from others, followed by the predictable, “And look what animals those blacks are. They burn down their own neighborhoods!” True enough, whites don’t riot over things like police brutality, mostly because we aren’t often the victims of it; but also because we are too busy rioting over other things: like the outcomes of sporting events or crackdowns on underage drinking. At over twenty colleges since 1995, white co-eds have taken to the streets in their own neighborhoods and gone ape-shit: burning furniture and cars in giant bonfires, hurling bottles and rocks at police, and smashing glass in businesses. 1500 rioters at Colorado University, 1500 at Penn State, 500 at the University of New Hampshire, 300 at the University of Oregon, and over 10,000 at Michigan State in 1999.

Yet, when whites riot, not only do we not call them “terrorists,” cops rarely shoot them with rubber bullets or spray them with mace. Although many arrests were made and harsh sentences handed out in the wake of the Michigan State riot two years ago, coverage was largely sympathetic, with media asking “what made good kids do bad things?” and focusing on the “straight arrows” who got caught up in the moment. In that particular riot, white students were caught trying to pry a loaded shotgun from a police car: an act that surely would result in death number sixteen were a black Cincinnatian to try it, but which, in East Lansing only prompted a brief volley of tear gas in order to disperse the crowd.

Most telling, in the wake of the two most serious white college riots — Colorado and Michigan State — police and residents in the riot zone actually reached out to students in an attempt to “understand their frustrations.” According to Boulder officials, the riots led to a greater attempt by police to improve relations with students; and in East Lansing, locals launched a campaign to “adopt” dorm floors, invite students to backyard barbecues and let the kids know “we appreciate them in the community,” according to one neighbor. I’ll swallow my keyboard if anything like that happens in Cincinnati.

After all, in Cincinnati there’s plenty of room for Klan crosses in public parks, racist baseball team owners like Marge Schott, and blowhards like Keith Fangman and the FOP, but no room apparently for civilian review of the police, accountability for cop violence, or a real challenge to institutional racism at the highest levels. It will be up to the folks in the streets to change that.

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